I've wanted to be a therapist since I was 18 years old and was working in my university's counseling center. I was around therapists all the time, so when I decided to begin therapy myself, I had a good idea of the different types of therapists out there. I imagine I had a better picture than most people do of what's out there, yet I still had no idea what I wanted in my own therapist.
There were the obvious things to consider: age, race, and gender identity. I thought I might enjoy the grandmotherly-type of energy an older, female therapist might provide. Or, maybe I'd prefer a younger, male therapist who would give me the tough love I needed. Or perhaps a person of color who could relate to me and some of my struggles with my cultural identity.
What I quickly realized is that first of all, these were all stereotypes unconsciously swimming in my head. You can't tell what type of therapist someone will be based on superficial traits like age, race, & gender identity. You never know what a therapist is going to be like until you meet them.
Second, even if you know more detailed information about a therapist (eg. what types of clients they see most often, articles they've written, or talks they've given), you never know how they're going to make you feel until you actually speak with them.
When deciding to begin therapy, I always recommend that people "therapist shop" -- have an introductory session or at least a phone call with several therapists before deciding which one they want to try long-term.
Many therapists offer free consultations, and even if not, you can always ask at least a few questions over the phone before scheduling the first session. It's hard enough to make the courageous choice to see a therapist, and even harder to find one you like. To help with the process, here are some things to keep in mind when "shopping."
1) Can I laugh, cry, and get angry with them?
Therapy is the place for all emotions, and you want to feel comfortable expressing everything with your therapist. The first two are often anticipated; anger, and specifically anger directed towards your therapist however, is often not expected. Anger in the therapy room is common and usually conducive to the process. When a client is able to express frustration at a therapist, it shows comfort and empowerment, and provides an opportunity to practice healthy ways of expressing anger when actually angry. It's an important part of the selection process to find a therapist with whom you feel comfortable expressing this emotion.
2) Do they ask enough questions? Too many questions?
Some therapists sit quietly, allowing you to fully lead the way. Others guide the process more heavy-handedly. If it's hard to open up or to think of what you want to talk about, you might want a therapist who will prompt you with questions; alternatively, if you generally know what you want to discuss, you might want someone who will collaborate on the direction you go while letting you take the wheel.
3) Could I tell them my most embarrassing secret or would I feel like they'd judge me?
Of course it will likely take some time getting to this level of comfort with a therapist; but, you can often tell within moments if you'll ever be able to get there or not. Therapy is a place to trust our intuition -- that voice inside that seems to know things without being able to logically explain how. So, ask yourself, "What is that little voice saying? Can I trust this person?"
4) If I wanted to, could I ask them a question about themselves or the therapy?
Some therapists never share any personal information about themselves; some share too much. You must decide what feels right for you, but you might want to consider if you would feel comfortable asking them something like "Are you married?" or "Have you ever been through what I'm going through?"
You might also wonder throughout the course of treatment why they suggest certain things or ask certain questions. Would you feel comfortable asking, "What makes you ask me that?" or "What do you think about what I just shared?" Talking about the therapeutic process itself can be some of the richest insights and healing moments we take away from therapy.
5) Do I feel pressure to act a certain way with them (eg. to agree with their interpretations, explain my problems in an upbeat way, or focus only on certain topics)?
If you notice that you carefully filter yourself while talking, or are preoccupied with what they're going to think when they hear it, this is likely a sign that you can't be your whole self. In therapy, you ought to feel as uninhibited as possible, without worrying about being judged or needing to appear any particular way.
6) Am I comfortable interrupting and correcting them?
There will be times when your therapist is talking and you suddenly have an A-ha! moment, or think of something you don't want to forget, or when your therapist is talking too much and you want to say something. There will also be times when your therapist doesn't quite get it, and you'll need to correct them. If this feels too hard or intimidating with someone, they're not the right fit.
7) Do I feel like they genuinely care about me?
Walking the line of providing comfort while applying appropriate boundaries can be tough. Some therapists might err on the side of caution, creating too much emotional distance between themselves and the client. With others, better boundaries might need to be created. In any case, if it feels like either you or the therapist is watching the clock tick, it's not the right fit.
Now that you know some things to consider, search for therapists in your area (Psychology Today, Yelp, and Google Maps are great places to start), and request free introductory or consultation sessions (or at least a phone call). Many therapists offer a partial or full session for free, and if not, you can always ask at least a few questions over the phone. Just explain that you're "therapist shopping" or "trying to find the right fit." They will understand, and will not be offended if you do not end up continuing with them. Therapists recognize the importance of the fit; so, you should too.