How to Find the Right Therapist
A Step-by-Step Process for Uncertain Times
In my work as a coach, consultant, and facilitator, I am often indirectly asked to take on the role of psychotherapist. Work and life are connected, and mental health absolutely shows up in professional settings, no matter how strongly individuals try to keep to work life balance.
While I am a big proponent of trauma-informed leadership as a concept and will bring its approaches into my own, I have also learned to set clear boundaries with clients around what I can and cannot do for them. I am not a licensed therapist, and I don’t have any immediate plans to become one.
Originally, I cultivated a shortlist of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers I had met with and trusted, along with a few my own clients had recommended. I shared this list with others and kept my fingers crossed that the matches would lead to good results.
It wasn’t until I decided to begin working with my own therapist that I realized this approach was flawed. I needed to develop a process for finding a therapist that would lead to good matches and empower those seeking the help.
In the last six months, I have refined and polished this process for finding the right therapist match. In that time, more than a dozen people have come to me to say they are in the happiest therapeutic relationships they have ever had. This influx of positive feedback has corresponded with a sharp uptick in asks from my clients for help in finding a therapist since the COVID-19 outbreak started. This increase in requests for referrals during COVID-19 makes sense to me.
In a time of collective grief where we are experiencing loss across health, life, livelihood, and ways of being, mental health has never been more important.
So, instead of just emailing my process to clients as they ask, I am taking time to lay out the process for everyone.
How the Process Was Developed
I am not one of those people who says, “Everyone needs a therapist.”
I went much of my adult life without one after having several negative experiences in childhood and later adolescence. Instead, I chose to do the work on my own, self-educate, and put together my own mental health system consisting of meditation and mindfulness, nutrition, exercise, coaching, introspection, and social support systems.
And then, 2019 turned out to be the worst year of my life. I suffered extreme insecurity, uncertainty, and stress as a new founder running a growing business, encountered serious medical issues, and dealt with several losses in my personal life that left me feeling helpless, fearful, and alone.
I knew I needed more support than I had, and I also knew that I couldn’t risk another destabilizing therapy experience at such a fragile time in my life. So, I developed a process for myself that would make me feel confident in making the commitment to a practitioner and beginning the therapeutic relationship in earnest.
That’s why when I was looking for a therapist, I didn’t ask for one or two referrals; I tried to put together as comprehensive a directory as possible that measured strength of the referral, insurance coverage, areas of specialization, geographic location, and availability.
In less than a month, through a combination of seeking referrals and doing my own research, I compiled a list of twelve individuals and proceeded to interview eight in order to choose one.
By the end of the process, I landed on my current therapist, who has been an anchor, a mirror, and a source of objective truth and accountability almost weekly for the last eight months. Without her, I can’t imagine making the personal progress I have in achieving balance, setting boundaries, getting physically healthy, and growing from personal tragedy instead of being consumed by it.
I took my personal experience and codified, generalized, and smoothed it out into a streamlined process anyone can follow to find a therapist, including one who uses HIPAA compliant video tools, to conduct sessions during social distancing.
Find a Therapist
Before searching for a therapist, I believe in the importance of asking yourself a few questions. Specifically, I think three are essential.
- Why now? What is the inciting incident, current situation, feeling state, or other impetus driving me towards making this decision?
- What do I hope to gain from therapy? What will make this investment worthwhile?
- What am I willing to commit and invest as part of the therapeutic experience? Can I revisit the past? Will I be able to openly share?
Once you have these answers and feel confident that pursuing therapy is the right choice for you right now, I recommend compiling a list of practitioners. To put this list together, I suggest asking for referrals from your current primary care physician, as well as people close to you that you trust and would feel comfortable asking for guidance from in this arena.
For example, when I created my personal list, I asked my professional support group, two close friends, my registered dietician, and my doctor for the practitioners they recommended and why. When I asked my friends and colleagues, I focused on asking ones who I trusted might have similar issues or profiles as mine (i.e. startup founders, woman-identified leaders, and diversity, equity, and inclusion practitioners).
With that said, I recognize that folks won’t always have someone to ask for a referral. While tools like Good Therapy, BetterHelp, and Talkspace all offer telemedicine options for counseling and therapy in easy-to-use tech platforms, I have seen the best results using the Psychology Today directory.
Specifically, I recommend taking this route:
- Think carefully about your “musts” in a therapist, such as social identity factors, specialization areas, insurance coverage, and other key decision factors
- Go to Psychology Today and select your geographic location — don’t worry about live sessions; asking for video ones is an option
- Using your own set of prerequisites, use the left hand navigation to filter practitioners based on your needs
- Read through your filtered profiles to determine their philosophies, availabilities, and specializations
- Select five to seven therapists to save
Once you have compiled a list of therapists culled from referrals, online directory tools, and therapy platforms like some of those listed earlier, I recommend creating a personal tracker with therapist names, certifications and licenses, specialty areas and primary focuses, insurance coverage, availability, and any other “musts” you identified earlier. I also recommend keeping “Contacted” and “Notes” fields to track outreach as you seek consultations.
From there, I think it’s absolutely essential to meet with at least three and up to five therapists before committing to one.
The match in the therapy is everything, and you should feel the person you see regularly makes you feel at ease in the space, is someone you can genuinely open up and talk to, and will help you achieve your hopes for therapy.
This is easier said than done, and the biggest mistake I see people make is to simply see the first person they consult. Sometimes this works, but more often than not, it leaves a lot to be desired.
So, how do you really know if a therapist is a match for you?
I believe in treating the first therapy consultation like an interview. Remember, you are determining if this practitioner is a match for you.
I know this is where people feel stuck. It’s awkward sharing your inner private life with a stranger, and the whole experience can feel like you don’t have as much agency and choice.
But you do. The key is to go in prepared.
For each of the therapists you meet with, bring questions with you. Think about the answers that would resonate with you ahead of time so you have a barometer, and make sure to keep some notes on the experiences in each consultation. Once you’ve met with each therapist, compare your notes and determine who the right match will be.
You might find yourself gravitating towards two. Personally, I found this to be the case and had follow up sessions with them both. In those second sessions, it was clear who I would feel comfortable stretching myself with, which was the underlying purpose of therapy for me.
Ultimately, I made my decision — and many of my friends, family members, clients, and colleagues have too — based on this set of carefully designed questions I crafted to make this process easier and clearer.
After giving the therapist your background, your reasons for choosing to start in therapy now, and answers to their questions, ask:
- What is your approach to therapy/psychiatry?
- What commitments do you make to your clients/patients?
- Based on what you’ve heard from me, what areas would we work on if we worked together? Why do you suggest these?
How would we work on them?
- How often would we meet? Why?
- Why do you think you would be a match for me as a therapist/ psychiatry?
- Why might someone not want to work with you?
- Do you think I’m a match for you? If yes, why? If no, who would be?
These questions are written in a specific order to move from high-level, general questions to tailored, specific ones unique to your future working relationship. They are a jumping off point; I fully expect you will pick and choose the ones that resonate with you and add in others that get at the heart of your “why” for therapy and your must-haves in your new therapist.
“There is nothing more frustrating than coming up with the right answer to the wrong question.” –Tom and David Kelley, Creative Confidence
I believe that a relationship with a therapist is a major commitment, one where you are both dedicating time, attention, and energy to moving you closer to your highest vision of yourself, whether that’s a version of you that is more self-accepting and compassionate, more productive and less stressed, free from doubt and anxiety, or any number of other possibilities that feel right to you.
To follow this process mechanically and from the place of you “should” do this because others do it will not yield the best results. Ask yourself what you need — really thoughtfully and intentionally — and then give that to yourself.