why you need a therapist… and how to find one
I often find myself saying that if you have a pulse, you need a therapist. If you’re a parent, get one immediately. Not because the kids are driving you crazy (although this year, I’m sure they are). Get a therapist because you need to deal with your shit. If you don’t, you’re going to pass it on to your kid(s). You’re going to create issues where there are none, because you have triggers you’ve never seen before and may not even recognize.
If you don’t have a therapist, there’s a good chance that it’s because finding one is intimidating. It’s not like there’s some clear process. It feels risky.
The lack of practical steps around this subject, and many personal conversations with friends, are what prompted me to write this. In this post, I hope to give you a clear path to follow that will empower you to take the first step towards investing in yourself. Because that’s what therapy is; an investment in your own mental (and physical) health, an acknowledgment of your own self-worth. It’s a visible confirmation of your desire to give your kids the best possible life by breaking whatever cycles you’ve been cursed with. I say “kids” because I have one, and my self-improvement is for his sake, but every relationship in your life will benefit.
But first, I want to clear up a few misconceptions about therapy.
Myth: therapy is just for traumatized people.
I want to be really clear here: therapy is not just for abused children, murder witnesses, or veterans with PTSD. Every one of us grows up in a different kind of imperfect environment where we intuitively create coping mechanisms, because as children, we’re simply trying to get our needs met. The problem is that we carry these invisible coping mechanisms throughout our lives, sabotaging our own relationships and opportunities. Some of us learn to be aware of them. Some of us don’t. Trust me, your life is better when you’re aware of them.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung
It’s not your fault if the adults in your life lacked the capacity to meet your needs. Therapy can help you see patterns and the resulting behaviors so you have the power to make conscious choices about how you show up in the world. I could end this post now, and this would be enough. It’s that important.
Myth: only monstrous, terrifying incidents can be referred to as ‘trauma.’
Trauma is as unique as we are. Some of us are Highly Sensitive People, and situations or relationships that our friends wouldn’t think twice about are incredibly traumatizing to us. Some of us have underlying issues that predispose us to trauma in a certain area of life, whether we’re aware of it or not. Some trauma consists of compound issues. Every human has traumatic experiences. Period.
In I Thought It Was Just Me, Brené Brown talks about how shame experiences are hard-wired into our fight, flight or freeze responses:
“…Dr. Uram explains that most of us think of traumatic events as big events (like car wrecks and disasters). But Dr. Uram points out that we tend not to recognize the small, quiet traumas that often trigger the same brain-survival reaction. After studying Dr. Uram’s work, I believe it’s possible that many of our early shame experiences, especially with parents and caregivers, were stored in our brains as traumas. This is why we often have such painful bodily reactions when we feel criticized, ridiculed, rejected, and shamed. Dr. Uram explains that the brain does not differentiate between overt or big trauma and covert or small, quiet trauma – it just registers the event as ‘a threat that we can’t control.’”
Myth: I’m self-aware and know my issues so I don’t need a therapist.
I’ve run a business for nearly 15 years. Trying to develop a vision when it’s time for a pivot, or brainstorming the next direction in a crowded market is an emotional roller coaster. You live and breathe this thing and it’s hard to get out of your own head. I do this for clients – point out conflicting language, simplifying thought processes, helping clarify how the business is viewed by people outside of it. Despite doing that for others, I can’t do it for my own business.
Therapy is like that. You might have a really good idea of what areas to work on. You might even be catching triggers and trying to piece together why you are the way you are. But you’re still a character living inside your own storyline. Sometimes it takes someone outside of that storyline to see clearly. A well-timed question can help you see it as well.
Myth: I don’t need a therapist because I have intelligent, supportive friends.
Because I think too much, I have mused about therapy as purchased friendship for the 21st century. In a world that increasingly lacks close, meaningful relationships, maybe a therapist is some sort of modern substitute? Sorry, no. Your therapist is not a friend. They don’t have a subconscious investment in maintaining friendship. They won’t have history or biases around your friends or family, so they’ll be able to hear things more clearly, or ask questions that let more light in. They’re also trained on different types of therapeutic modalities that your friends aren’t, so there’s that.
You pay a therapist to help you become a better person; this isn’t hanging out to eat pizza with a few deep questions thrown in (that’s important too, but again, not the same). It’s just different. Until you experience therapy for yourself, it’s hard to explain how it’s different. If I run into you in the coffeeshop and you want to get my feedback on a few business questions, that’s completely different than scheduling a paid business consulting session with me. It’s not that the former isn’t valuable or helpful, but it’s just not the same.
Myth: I go to church so I can just talk to a counselor there.
I’m going to put my (strong) personal opinions out here and say there’s a reason I’m using the term “therapist” and not counselor. While I don’t have personal experience with church counselors, I have experience in that environment. My observation is that church people who are involved in counseling generally consist of pastors, leadership, interested volunteers, and if you’re lucky, actual counselors. Generally speaking, none of these people are trained therapists. They might be able to provide spiritual advice or answer religious questions, but that is not the same as unlearning deep-seated coping mechanisms.
Therapy is learning about yourself, and some of that learning might involve the realization that your religious upbringing has contributed to some of your problems. If you grew up in church, how you view yourself is deeply intertwined with your religious experience. That might make spiritual leadership better suited to answer questions, but it’s just as likely to make them defensive, dismissive and blind to what’s right in front of them. Unfortunately, there’s a long history of this.
Ideally, you’ll find a therapist who’s familiar with your religious background, professionally trained, and outside of it enough to be open-minded.
(Non) Myth: Therapy is expensive.
Yes. Yes it is. I would make a joke about how maybe someday people will realize therapy matters enough to be part of our terrible healthcare system, but I’m not that hopeful. For now, let’s reframe it. How much will you lose if you don’t invest in therapy? I’m glad you’re putting money in your Roth IRA, but it won’t be much fun if you’re a bitter old codger by the time you get to use it.
Some therapists use a sliding scale based on income, and therapists in training will have lower rates. While weekly appointments are standard, if cost is an issue consider biweekly appointments instead. Personally, that’s what I do, but I wouldn’t recommend any longer in between appointments. Even two weeks is a long gap to keep up a continuous conversation. If you have specific issues you want to address immediately, consider weekly when you first start, then taper off to biweekly when you’re ‘established’. Therapists will probably disagree with me here, but in a reality where we’re paying out of pocket, this is what works for me.
Now on to the goods – how to actually find a therapist. Please keep in mind it’s just a process I developed that worked for me, so consider it a guide and feel free to adapt it, mix it up, and make it work for you.
The important thing is to get past the stigma of therapy being for everyone but you. We all know the people who need therapy most aren’t the ones getting it, so take a moment to bask in the knowledge that you have chosen to sayI care enough to do this for myself and the people around me. If there are generational issues in your family, imagine being the one who breaks that cycle and leaves something better for your kids. It is worth it.
Let’s do this.
How to Find a Therapist in 7 Steps:
Step 1: Introspection
If you’ve read this far, I imagine you already have an idea of what you want to explore or areas you need to work on. In order to find the right person, you need to know they’re equipped to work with what you bring to the table. If you know severe trauma is an issue you’ll need to work through, you need to choose a therapist who’s trained in dealing with trauma. Not all therapists are trained in all things, so it’s to your benefit to do some basic research. If gender issues are something you need to work through, you most definitely need to find a therapist who’s affirming; not just in name but in practice.
Ask yourself this question: what do I want to get out therapy? In a year’s time, what will look different in my life?
2) Research the different types of therapy.
Using the information you gathered above, familiarize yourself with different types and styles of therapy. Don’t be intimidated by my use of the word ‘research.’ We’re not going for comprehensive; more of a Cliff’s Notes approach. This can be as simple as googling definitions, or you can refer to this excellent encyclopedia of definitions at PsychologyToday.com.
Think about the type of learning approaches that you know work best for you. Does talking things through really help you? Dialectic therapy might be a good fit. Do you know body work is going to be important? Make a note of that. Consider existing diagnoses you might have and write those down as well.
3) Create a profile of your ideal therapist.
In branding and marketing we develop what’s known as a customer avatar. This is a profile of the ideal customer for a brand (Susan is a 46 year old empty-nester who lives in the suburbs, has disposable income and enjoys spending it on monogrammed accessories for her 4 Schnauzers.)
This is essentially what you’re doing for a therapist. Again, super simple. Make a quick list of the issues you know you want to address. Add the types of therapy that you feel would be most beneficial. Do you want your therapist to be a man or a woman? Are you religious? Is it important that the therapist share your belief system?
What about time/monetary commitment? How far are you willing to drive, and how often? How much are you willing to pay? Can you use insurance?
Do you want a strong personality? Someone incredibly calm and soothing?
Beyond all the different types of therapy and letters after their name, one of the most important things (if not the most important) is that you connect with the therapist on a personal level. You have to actually like this person you’ll be meeting with weekly or biweekly. These feelings are valid, so list them as well.
- Special Notes
Now the real work begins.
- Go to PsychologyToday.com.
- Type in your City or Zip code.
- Look for the list of filters across the top, click the dropdown for each, and start checking boxes based on your list above.
- Once you’ve added your filters scroll through the list of therapists who are left. Right-click ‘Open in a New Tab’ for anyone who catches your eye.
- When you’ve made it through the list, go back to each tab and skim through the individual therapist’s information.
- Close any tabs that are an immediate no.
- For those you’re most interested in, open the link to their website, and read their full bio there. Is it an individual or a practice with multiple therapists? Familiarize yourself with the organization, their location, and who they serve.
- Compare everything against the profile you created in step 3, and make a list of the top 3-5 therapists that appeal to you.
Now sleep on it.
5) Review your list and schedule phone consultations with your top 2-3 choices.
The next day, or whenever you’re ready, come back to your list and look through those 3-5 people again. Does anyone jump out at you? Anyone you realize shouldn’t be on that list? Make sure you have the information to confirm they will work for you (convenient location, available when you are, within budget/takes your insurance if you go that route). Make notes to ask them these questions if you can’t find the information online.
Now pick your top 2-3 therapists and schedule a phone consultation.
6) Prepare for, then actually have, said phone consultation.
Before the call, think through what you’re comfortable telling them on the phone about yourself and why you’re seeking a therapist now. Beyond our list of questions above, how will you know they’re a good fit for you? Make notes you can refer to during the conversation.
Note: if you’re unsure of a particular therapist, don’t be afraid to ask them for a referral. This is also a benefit of working with a therapist who’s part of a practice.
7) Schedule an in-person consultation/first appointment.
Was there someone in particular who stood out to you? Anyone you seemed to click with on the phone? If so, move to the next step of an in-person appointment. The first appointment with a therapist isn’t really a therapy session; it’s more of a deeper discussion about practice styles, privacy policies, and a confirmation that the relationship feels like it’s a good fit.
Ask any questions that have come up since the phone consultation. Address your expectations and tell them what you want to get out of therapy. Confirm that the therapy styles you’re drawn to will be a good fit. You’ve only done cursory searches on the Interwebs; this is where you get to ask a professional to share one-on-one recommendations based on what you’ve discussed so far.
If they offer pricing on a sliding scale you might need to provide income information to confirm cost per appointment, and there will be paperwork to sign. If this feels like it might be the right relationship, get the logistics figured out now, so the next appointment is a real one. Don’t feel pressured if you need more time to think it over, but also be careful not to procrastinate too long. If this feels scary, it’s way too easy to give up before you get anywhere.
At this point, the rest is up to you. You’re starting a journey that’s going to be difficult, but rewarding, and probably will take you unexpected places. That’s kind of the point. It takes a lifetime to develop coping mechanisms, and you aren’t going to magically discover and solve all of them overnight. Believe me when I say that you are worth the investment.
It takes time to build a relationship with someone. Don’t force yourself to jump straight into spilling all your deepest, darkest secrets if you don’t feel ready for it.
Make notes for your appointments. Try to be more aware of your reactions and emotions. Employ curiosity, and jot down notes about what you notice. Your appointments will be more productive when you can bring questions and observations to the table each week (or every other week). I highly recommend establishing a meditation practice for this reason. It yields exponential rewards.
Start journaling, even it it’s only after (or for) your appointment. This is a great time to write down your thoughts about what you discussed, how you felt, and anything else that comes up for you now. You might find it helpful to come back to these entries 6 months later, a year later, and see how your thinking is different.
Don’t be afraid to break up with your therapist if the relationship isn’t working. It’s worth talking about why you feel that way with the therapist to see if there’s something underneath, but don’t feel like you have to stick with this person because it’s who you picked first. You might learn something that gives you more information about who might be a better fit.
Ditch the stigma. Therapy is healthy, normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. I don’t go around talking about having a therapist, but sometimes in normal conversation I might mention ‘my therapist’ casually. It’s a calculated attempt to normalize something that is healthy and necessary and should not be weird.
You don’t have to talk about it, but don’t internalize the errant belief that there’s something wrong with you because you’ve chosen to invest in yourself.
I’m a big fan of referrals, so I feel like I should mention that you could ask your friends for referrals (not necessarily to their therapist; their therapist could make a referral for you). However, due to the aforementioned societal issue with therapy being all hush-hush, you might not know which friends are seeing therapists, or you might not feel comfortable asking. That’s fine, and that’s why this post exists.
So that’s it. I hope this is helpful to whoever needed me to write this. If you’re unsure about what actual therapy looks like and you enjoy memoirs, read “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone” by Lori Gottleib. Lori tells the story of her winding career path, becoming a therapist, eventually realizing she needs a therapist, her difficulty in finding one, and the stories of several of her clients. It’s a good read regardless of your interest in therapy.
Lastly, remember that the most important part of a problem is admitting you have one. That ‘problem’ is that you, like every other human being, are the product of a broken world, part of familial, racial, cultural, social and economical structures that are entirely outside of your control. As a result, you have developed a customized set of coping mechanisms that might once have served you, but no longer do. Once you see them, you get to make a choice.
None of us have escaped unscathed, and our learning never ends. The difference is that you’ve decided to do something about it. That’s brave, commendable, and you don’t need approval from anyone else to prioritize your self-care and your personal growth. In the world we’re living in right now, we need people willing to do the work more than ever, so props to you, and good luck on your journey.