How to Choose the Right Therapist for You

In This Article

It’s important to find a good therapist with whom you feel comfortable. After all, you might talk about uncomfortable subjects—or even share things you’ve never told anyone before.

So you want to work with someone who you will open up to—not to mention listen to. But there are so many options and choices out there that choosing a therapist can feel overwhelming.

Looking through an online directory may yield hundreds (if not thousands) of results. How do you pick someone to work with based on a short bio and picture? And if you are seeking help through an online therapy platform, how do you find a good fit when you may be speaking to a therapist primarily through a text-based chat or video chat?

The following strategies can help you narrow down your options and pick someone who is likely to be a good match for you.

2:23

How to Choose the Right Therapist

The Importance of a Good Match

You may have received a suggestion to work with a particular therapist. Maybe a friend said, “This therapist helped me so much. You should call them and make an appointment too.” But will that particular therapist be able to help you as well?

It depends. While the therapist may have great skills, their work with you will only be effective if you feel connected to them. So the same therapist that made a great impact on your friend may not work out well for you if you don’t feel that personal connection.

Here’s why. If you don’t like your therapist, or you’re concerned they may judge you, you aren’t likely to share your innermost thoughts and feelings or acknowledge unflattering behaviors. If you don’t talk about these things, you might not get to the heart of your issues, and you might not gain the information you need to create change.

In fact, your relationship with your therapist, often referred to as the “therapeutic alliance,” will most likely be a determining factor in how helpful therapy is for you.

The Therapeutic Alliance

Edward Bordin, one of the first researchers to examine the effect of therapeutic alliance, found that the alliance isn’t just composed of a bond between the therapist and the patient. It also has to do with agreement on the goals of therapy and the methods used to reach those goals.

The therapist and the patient need to like one another. They also need to feel there is good communication and a mutual willingness to work together.

The idea that the relationship between the therapist and patient is essential to good treatment has been reinforced by multiple research studies over the years.

In fact, when the American Psychological Association (APA) created a task force to determine the most effective type of therapy, they discovered that the type of therapy mattered less than this therapeutic relationship. Regardless of whether the therapist used “cognitive behavioral therapy” or “psychodynamic therapy,” patient improvement depended on how well the therapist and the patient got along.

The APA published this report in 2014. It states, “The therapy relationship makes substantial and consistent contributions to psychotherapy outcome independent of the specific type of treatment. The therapy relationship accounts for why clients improve (or fail to improve) at least as much as the particular treatment method.”

Their report was based on multiple research studies showing that a therapeutic alliance plays an extremely important role in the process. They concluded that patients are more likely to change their lives when they feel supported by their therapist.

So they recommend that therapists continuously monitor interactions with their patients and check on them in terms of how they feel the process is going. Therapists are encouraged to work on improving the relationship if there appear to be communication issues or problems with trust.

Consider Who You Might Work Best With

Therefore, it’s important to find someone that you think you’ll work well with. Some factors you might consider are:

  • Gender — Do you think you’d feel more comfortable with a man or a woman?
  • Age — Do you want to work with someone older, younger, or around your age?
  • Religion — Does it matter to you if the therapist has a particular religious affiliation?

You might feel like you’d connect better with an older woman. Or maybe you think you’d feel most comfortable speaking to a man your age. It’s up to you to think about the type of person you imagine yourself opening up to.

Of course, you might have no idea who you want to speak to. That’s OK too. You can usually just say you don’t have a preference if you’re asked.

You may be able to learn a bit more about the therapists you have to choose from. Keep in mind most therapists don’t make much of their personal lives public. But they will often share a few basic facts in their biographies, so you can try and find someone you might relate to before scheduling the first appointment.

When you contact a therapy office or complete an initial questionnaire for online therapy, you’ll usually be asked a few questions about your basic preferences. Certain sites, such as a Christian counseling site, may ask how important it is to you for Biblical principles to be introduced into your work together.

Many online sites also ask you to provide some basic information on what you’d like to address in therapy, such as anxiety, parenting issues, or substance abuse. Then, they will give you several therapists to choose from.

You might be able to read their biographies, see their pictures, and learn more about their areas of expertise.

Credentials

Therapists often have a lot of initials after their names, and it can be confusing to figure out what all those letters stand for. While you certainly don’t need to become an expert on mental health accreditations, it can be helpful to understand a bit about what the letters mean. Here are some of the more common ones:

  • LCSWLicensed Clinical Social Worker
  • LMFT — Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • NCC — National Certified Counselor
  • LCDC — Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor
  • LPC — Licensed Professional Counselor
  • LMHC — Licensed Mental Health Counselor
  • PsyD — Doctor of Psychology
  • PhD — Doctor of Philosophy
  • MD — Doctor of Medicine (physician psychiatrist)

You may see some other variations as each state has its own licensing board and credentialing system.

While it may seem a bit overwhelming at first when it comes to looking at all the different letters, their exact license might not matter very much to you in the end.

What is important is to make sure that the therapist you choose is a licensed mental health professional and that they follow guidelines and a code of ethics. This is important if you are looking for therapy as opposed to life coaching. Life coaches are not required to have a specific degree, and they don’t have oversight by a governing board.

Licensed therapists must meet state qualifications, which may include the following:

  • Passing a licensing test
  • Passing a background check
  • Performing a certain number of supervised hour
  • Maintaining continuing education credits

So while you may want to know what type of degree your therapist has, just know their credentials are proof that your state has given a stamp of approval that the individual is competent to provide services.

What may be even more important than someone’s credentials, however, is their area of expertise. Reading the bio can help you understand how much experience any certain therapist has in treating someone with issues similar to yours. And it can give you some insight into how that person works and what sorts of treatments they provide.

Questions to Ask a Therapist Before You Meet

Some therapists will offer a free brief consultation over the phone prior to scheduling your first appointment. This can allow you to get to know the person a little and ask any questions you may have.

If you’re given this opportunity, take it. While a phone call won’t guarantee you’ll be able to tell whether the therapist is a good match, it may help you narrow down your options when you’re trying to choose between several individuals.

Studies show a therapist’s ability to show warmth, genuineness, and empathy is key to their ability to form a therapeutic alliance. So consider this your chance to conduct a brief interview with the therapist and see how you feel about their responses.

During a consultation, you might ask some questions about how they conduct treatment and how they help people who are looking to reach goals similar to yours. You can even ask how they help their patients get comfortable with therapy.

What to Expect During Your First Appointment

During an initial session, your therapist will likely explain how therapy works, provide you with information on confidentiality, and ask you to sign some forms.

From there you may be interviewed about the problems or symptoms you are experiencing and your goals for treatment. The therapist may ask questions about your childhood, your medical history, your family, and any history of past mental health treatment.

This can help them gain an overall view of you. And it will help them work with you on establishing goals at a future appointment.

Your experience during the initial therapy appointment may vary a bit, depending on whether you’re meeting online or in person. Another factor is whether you’re paying cash or billing your insurance company. For example, if you’re meeting in person and the therapist is going to bill the insurance company, they may need to conduct a thorough assessment that helps them identify whether you meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, like depression. This is because most insurance companies only cover mental health treatment for people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

On the other hand, if you’re meeting with an online therapist and want to address a specific issue (like conflict you’re having with a spouse), the therapist may focus mostly on that topic as opposed to trying to gain a broad view of your life.

Remember, the first appointment is a great time to ask any questions you can think of about the therapy process.

What to Do If Your Therapist Isn’t a Good Match

Whether you realize your therapist isn’t a good match for you during the first appointment, or you begin feeling like you aren’t being supported well into your therapy process, you can always change therapists.

If you’ve been working with your therapist a while, you may want to talk about the fact that you aren’t feeling a connection. This can feel a bit awkward or uncomfortable, but therapists have these conversations often. If there’s an issue that can be addressed, they may want to address it with you.

They might also help you find someone who is better suited to your needs and refer you to that person.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your therapist directly about wanting to see someone else, you can still change therapists. If you’re seeing someone at an agency, you can ask the receptionist or someone else in the office to transfer you to a new therapist.

If you’re seeing a therapist online, you can request to change therapists there too. Sometimes, a few clicks of a button is all it takes to transfer you to someone new. You may be asked to give some feedback on why you and the other therapist weren’t a good match. And you might also be able to provide additional input about what type of therapist you want to work with in the future.

Don’t feel bad if you change therapists. Sometimes, for one reason or another, the therapist and the patient just don’t click. And that’s OK. It’s important to make sure you work with someone that you feel comfortable with, so you can get the most out of treatment.

A Word From Verywell

It’s important to find the best therapist for you and your needs. And while the process of finding someone you think you can connect with may seem a little daunting, it’s well worth the effort.

When you find someone you feel comfortable talking to, and you feel as though that person is invested in helping you grow and change, you’re much more likely to benefit from therapy.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Bordin ES. The generalizability of the psychoanalytic concept of the working alliance. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 1979;16(3):252-260. doi:10.1037/h0085885

  2. Conclusions and Recommendations of the Interdivisional (APA Divisions 12 & 29) Task Force on Evidence-Based Therapy Relationships. Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy. https://societyforpsychotherapy.org/evidence-based-therapy-relationships/.

  3. Goldfried MR. What should we expect from psychotherapy? Clinical Psychology Review. 2013;33(7):862-869. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.003

  4. Lambert MJ, Barley DE. Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 2001;38(4):357-361. doi:10.1037/0033-3204.38.4.357