Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist Part II - Likeability, Intelligence, Lifestyle
by Mark Sichel, LCSW
Once you've established that a therapist is appropriately licensed, there are, in my opinion, three major factors you ought to take into consideration before working with that person:
The first is likeability. What do I mean by this? Simply that you are going to be spending a significant amount of time with your therapist, ranging from a period of weeks or months to years in some cases. There's never ANY reason to work with a therapist for whom you don't feel a basic liking. For that matter, you all should know you're entitled to feel this way about anyone whom you're "hiring" as a healthcare provider.
How do you know if you like a therapist? The same way you gauge whether you like or dislike any individual: basic chemistry. We usually have the ability to know within a short time whether or not we like a given individual. It is a grave error to tell yourself that it's okay to work with a therapist whom you don't like. It just doesn't work, and also, you've got to wonder if that therapist likes you. Usually when we dislike a given individual, they are not too wild about us either. The whole situation will not be conducive to constructive therapy unless you feel comfortable with the therapist you choose.
Likeability is a very subjective experience; many people, especially when they are in the throes of despondency or anxiety, have a hard time trusting their own gut reactions. I've often had clients come to me after one or more unsuccessful therapy experiences and as I've listened to them, it became clear that they didn't like their therapist. Whenever I have asked about this, I get a response reflective of the kind of self-doubt that people experience when they are in trouble. They second-guess themselves, and convince themselves that their not liking the therapist is their problem because they're "crazy". If you don't like your therapist, it is NOT because you're "crazy". Please, never ever continue to see a therapist whom you don't like.
The second major area of importance when assessing a therapist is whether or not you think they are as intelligent or more intelligent than you are. Never continue to see a therapist whom you feel is not sufficiently intelligent. If you have any sense that the therapist is perhaps competent, but not that "with it," you should look further. Again, I've had clients say to me, "I didn't think that therapist was all that smart, but I figured he was licensed and knew what he was doing anyway." There is never any point in second-guessing yourself about a therapist's basic intelligence. You also need to remember: Our unconscious minds are very tricky and crafty; part of therapy is learning to not let us outwit ourselves by a lack of consciousness. Although no one has a way to assess this, you need to feel that you can't outsmart this therapist. If you feel that you can, your treatment is doomed to failure.
The third criterion that is crucial for you to explore is your therapist's basic lifestyle. A therapist learns a great deal from living through life's ups and downs. If you are someone who embraces a variety of experiences in life, you may very well be uncomfortable with a therapist who is a staunch academic and who spends most of their free time in intellectual pursuits. If you're looking for a therapist to help you to manage a marriage, you might not get the kind of help you need from an unmarried person. If you need help managing your children, a therapist who is also a parent may best understand your feelings.
There are no clear cut guidelines about how to pick a therapist whose lifestyle is consistent with your own, or who can at least value and appreciate your lifestyle. There is no hard and fast rule on issues such as ethnicity, race, lifestyle, or sexual orientation. There are "straight" therapists who work well with "gay" clients, African American therapists who would be compatible with White clients, or Jewish therapists who work well with Catholic clients, for example. Again, finding a comfort level with a therapist's lifestyle is a subjective experience, but the bottom line is that you must experience the therapist as being able to be supportive of YOUR lifestyle, and knowledgeable enough, in an experiential way, to help you find the kind of solutions you seek.
Read Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist Part I
Read Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Selecting a Therapist Part III: The Top Ten Reasons to Run From a Therapist
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