Because 2015 holds hope for all of us, I want to share the most pivotal way I’ve found hope and change. Back in 2000, right before I broke up with my fiancé, a lay counselor offered to help me through my confusion and crisis. She was my best friend’s mother, and incredibly gifted. She became my first formal counselor. I justified the stooping (as I saw it) to get “help” because I felt my fiance needed help so I would need help to help him. Lots of codependency right there, do you see it? My counselor did. My psychologists over the years have been able to help me untangle the knots in my childhood, they’ve shown me how to be more confident and more humble. In a nutshell, psychologists have helped me become the woman God created me to be.
Since then, I’ve found out the gold mine vs. minefield of psychology. Recently, I had to interview psychotherapists for my own tune-up. One in particular reminded me of Betty Draper’s arrogant psychotherapist in Mad Men. Some counselors do not deserve to counsel us. Since psychologists, like any other people group in a lucrative profession, come in the good and bad variety, I want to share a few tools to help you find a good one.
In abiding hope that 2015 will be rich with change as you become a closer follower of Jesus, I’ve invited Lindsay Snow, a doctoral student of clinical psychology and a Christian to show us how psychologists can be a part of your journey. You’ll enjoy her practical advice. Do look for the underlined sentences that point out red flags.
And speaking of 2015, if you’ve enjoyed RubySlippers, please donate to Soulation. Even a small monthly pledge can keep our doors open.
A guide to finding the right psychologist for you.
Guest post by Lindsay Snow.
Let’s talk about therapy. I sat here for a few weeks mulling over how to introduce the topic of therapy to you, and so far nothing witty or charming has come to mind. But as I’ve typed, deleted, retyped, deleted various combinations of sarcastic jokes and sentimental one-liners, I think I’ve realized something. This is exactly what talking about therapy does to us. It makes us feel like we have to preface it. Like we have to break the ice somehow. I’ll bet most of us feel pretty uncomfortable, albeit, very intrigued. And yet as intrigued or curious as we might be, we hardly ever spend time discussing the ins and out of therapy. Therapy is personal, it’s vulnerable, and it’s clouded in social stigma.
I was a freshman in college when my spiritual director looked me in the eyes and asked, “Lindsay, have you ever considered going to therapy?” I froze, and all my thoughts (which I always have an excessive amounts of) came to a screeching hault. Talk about being caught off guard. My reaction was somewhere in between being offended, embarrassed, and dejected. I needed professional help? My cover was blown. Great.
“So maybe I should call and make an appointment at the counseling or something . . .” I muttered.
The first therapy session was terrifying, confusing, and undeniably awkward. A Thomas Kinkade-like painting of a cottage next to a creek (classic, right?) hung on the wall behind the therapist’s chair. Old, cliché psychology books lined the shelf. Dim, yet warm lighting. Oh, and the couch. The infamous psychotherapy couch. “If she asks me to lie down, I’m out.”
“You can go ahead and sit on the couch,” she prompted. So I sat. And there I was, face-to-face with a young, maybe in her late 20s, graduate student therapist who was looking at me like she wanted to know everything going on inside of me. Terrifying. Who was she? I stared back at her thinking, Okay now what? I shifted on the couch. Sigh. This was going to be a long process. But something about her felt safe, like it was okay with her for me to be as confused and scared and awkward as I was. She wanted to know me.
Fast forward two and a half years and I was still sitting across from that same young graduate student therapist, on the same couch, preparing to say goodbye to one of the most caring, genuine, and present individuals I had ever known.
Fast forward a couple more years and now here I am: the young 20-something-year-old graduate student therapist sitting across from terrified and confused (and sometimes awkward) college students, wanting to know them.
We need to talk about therapy. Despite the potential discomfort, I suspect that many of you have at some point been curious about therapy, been to therapy, or wanted to go but opted not to some reason or another. I want to open the door for conversation (feel free to ask me questions in the comments!), normalize the experience, and provide a helpful framework for finding the right therapist. And not all therapists are good ones!
I recently began seeing a therapist who appeared to be a great match for me on paper. I walked into her office and was struck by how immediately uncomfortable I was. I started talking, explaining where I was at in my program and what sorts of [negative] feelings I had about coming back to therapy. No response. She just stared at me, and then after several uncomfortably long silences and a few sips of her iced tea, she asked seemingly irrelevant and sometimes offensive questions.
My thoughts were churning, I’m doing something wrong. What am I doing wrong? Okay, I’m being defensive. Lindsay, stop being so defensive. I attempted to engage again, divulging even more personal details. No response. I left the first session emotionally upset. I left the second session emotionally upset. Discouraged, I explained the situation to my roommate (also a budding psychologist), and she reflected this to me: “It sounds like you feel shoved out of the room. No wonder you’re so scared to open up to her.” The light bulb flashed on. There was no safety in that room with her. I terminated with the therapist at the beginning of the third session.
I doubt my recent experience is an uncommon one. It truly feels unsettling, discouraging, and perhaps even rejecting when something like that happens. It is not how therapy can or should be. The good news is that there are ways to assess from the onset of therapy whether or not this could be the right therapist for you.
Simply put, therapy is all about relationship. And it is most meaningful when you establish a relationship that is safe, that you trust, and that has clearly defined boundaries. The whole journey begins by determining which individual you want sitting across from you. You cannot find the right therapist if you’re not sure what a therapist should and should not offer.
Step 1. To research the therapists in your area, you can begin with the American Association of Christian Counselors. You can even search by zipcode for those in the USA. You can read up on each counselors beliefs, training, certification, and schooling. This site lets you do your own research without picking up the phone.
But once you’ve chosen a few, it’s time.
Interviewing a therapist jumpstarts the entire process. When seeking professional help, I want to remind you that asking questions, getting information, and trusting your gut is your right as a client.
This is where I took a misstep in my most recent therapy experience: I walked in and committed to a relationship I didn’t want to be in. I ignored my gut in favor of trusting her impressive credentials when I could have kept shopping and interviewing other therapists.
Step 2. When therapist-shopping, the first step is to ask if the therapist is willing to do a 20-minute consultation/interview session at a reduced rate (or for free- doesn’t hurt to ask!). If this therapist doesn’t do interviews, red flag—move onto the next therapist. You deserve answers before financially committing in a significant way to anyone.
While interviewing, I’ve found that it’s helpful to remember these three categories: the professional, the practical, and the personal.
You always want to know the kind of training and expertise your therapist has. This includes:
- Credentials. Just because someone is a “counselor” doesn’t mean you can trust them. Check out their level of education and verify that they are licensed. Click here to better understand some differences between various counseling degrees.
- Typical clientele he or she sees (For example,“Have you seen with clients who have struggled with sexual identity? How many?”)
- What is their method? What kind of therapeutic approach does he or she prefer to use? Even if you don’t understand their methods (e.g. Relational psychodynamic with some cognitive-behavioral techniques), you can ask for clarification (“Okay, so what does a typical therapy session look like with that kind of method?”)Click here for a description of some of the more common approaches. If the therapist only uses overly academic or clinical terms you cannot understand, red flag. Move on. You won’t be able to connect if you aren’t speaking the same language.
- How does this therapist approach topics that are important to you personally (i.e. spirituality/religious beliefs). For instance, if they’re an atheist (yes, you should ask about their spiritual beliefs if you’re interested), will they be able to help you sort out your beliefs as a Christian? Notice how you feel when you listen to their responses.
- Behavior in sessions. Believe it or not, I’ve heard of therapists taking personal calls and checking emails in the middle of sessions. I’ve also heard of therapists wearing slippers in session. It almost feels silly to include this, but apparently it happens often enough that I should forewarn against seeing a therapist who doesn’t treat you as highest priority during sessions.
Therapy costs time, money, and energy. Communication of details helps maintain the frame of therapy. Make time to ask questions about:
- Cost. Therapy can be expensive, but many therapists operate off of sliding scales (adjusted prices for various clients depending on circumstances). Don’t be bashful about questioning the cost! Some providers will ask “What can you afford?” so you may want to think about this ahead of time.
- Insurance. Contact your insurance provider to see if they cover the cost/reimburse a percentage of the cost. Ask the therapist if they accept insurance to cover fees (note: some do not; it’s a matter of personal preference for most private-practice therapists)
- Duration of treatment. Sometimes therapy can last a few sessions, a few months, or even years. After your first meeting, your therapist will probably want to get some of your background story and then they may provide some suggestions about a general time frame, which can help mentally and financially prepare you for what’s ahead.
- Paperwork. Signing “Consent to Treatment” forms and “Confidentiality” forms protects your legal rights as a client and outlines the expectations of treatment, the limitations of confidentiality, and emergency/cancellation policies. Read the forms, and ask boldly for clarification for whatever feels fuzzy to you.
If you don’t have an ease in this interview, a shoulder-relaxing feeling when you start talking, you will have a very hard time growing with this therapist. A therapist can provide all the right details and possess all the right kinds of degrees/certifications and still not be right for you. The question is, “Do you feel comfortable and safe with the person sitting across from you?” The answer should be “Yes” even when they poke at what hurts.
Your therapist should be someone who is:
- Competent. The therapist should be able to seamlessly talk through introductions, paperwork formalities, and descriptions of what the session ought to look like. At a gut level, you want to feel like the person sitting across from you knows what they are doing.
- Consistent in beginning and ending therapy sessions on time.
- Compassionate and genuine. Again, go with your gut. You should be able to trust their care for you and feel heard in every session.
- Honest about their own limitations as a therapist. They admit to not knowing all the answers and practice their profession with a sense of humility.
- Willing to sit in silence with you.
- Capable of maintaining personal and professional boundaries. If a therapist shares too much information about his or her own personal life during session or at any point seems interested in seeing you outside of therapy sessions, it’s time to find a new therapist. Boundaries in the therapeutic relationship protect our privacy and cultivate trust. If the boundaries feel too loose, big red flag.
- Open to feedback from you about what has been both helpful or unhelpful in therapy.
- Has their own agenda for therapy. This could be as subtle or as explicit as feeling like what you’re saying is not good enough, that you’re being pushed toward certain kinds of emotional responses, or that your therapist continually misses what you’re saying. A good therapist should be able to hear you and easily get on the same page as you.
- Insists on telling you how you ought to live your life. A basic goal of therapy is to help you stop “shoulding all over yourself.” The last thing you need is a therapist telling you how you ought to be. Chances are you are already aware of the issues- you didn’t bring yourself to therapy because everything in life has fallen perfectly into place. If you feel shamed or unsafe in therapy, red flag alert!
- Becomes harsh, angry, or bitter toward you at any point in therapy
- Violates the professional/ethical code of conduct. If you’re interested, click here to see the psychologists’ ethical code and here for marriage and family therapists’ ethical code.
It wasn’t too long ago that I wrapped up the final session with my very first client. The experience itself was enriching, fulfilling, weighty, and incredibly anxiety-provoking. As I debriefed the termination session with one of my instructors, she encouraged me with a bit of wisdom that one of her instructors had given to her. She said, “Lindsay, all any client will ever want from you is to feel cared for, accepted, and known by you. Your job is to offer that to them.”
An experience of being cared for, accepted, and known. That is what therapy can and should be. Boldly move toward this.
Lindsay is a Southern California native who, for the past six years has called the city of La Mirada home. After she earned two Bachelor’s degrees in Biblical/Theological Studies and Psychology from Biola University, she decided it would be a good idea to go to graduate school for a doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Currently, she attends Rosemead School of Psychology but can be found in any local coffee shop studying and drinking more coffee than is good for her.