By Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW
When a new client comes in for their first session one of the first things I ask is if they've been in therapy before and what the experience was like. Unfortunately, the answer is often that they had an uncomfortable experience and afterwards stopped coming to therapy for several years. As a therapist, this makes me incredibly sad. I always praise these clients for having the courage to come back to therapy. After having an invalidating experience sharing your most personal and intimate thoughts, it takes courage to come back and try again.
So why do people have bad experiences in therapy? Sometimes it's as simple as an incompatible fit. Not every therapist and their style are right for every person. For example, if somebody is looking for a more goal-oriented active therapist and they go to see somebody who does psychoanalysis, it probably won't be a good fit. Many of my clients did have this miss match and complained that the therapist just stared at them while they talked. A second reason is that sometimes a therapist can be invalidating. Therapy is supposed to be a judgment-free zone, but not everyone experiences that in therapy.
So why do people stay in therapy situations that don't work for them? Many clients feel bad “breaking up” with their therapist. They feel obligated to stay the course even if they aren't getting what they need out of therapy, or if they feel uncomfortable. I always tell my clients that it's important that we have an open, honest, and collaborative relationship. If your therapist isn't open to your feedback on how to improve treatment and your therapeutic relationship, then they're not the right therapist for you. I’ve even had clients tell me that they felt bullied by their therapists. But they continued seeing them because they worried that if they left they would be bad people or that they would backslide. While this experience is rare, unfortunately I think it happens more than it should. If your therapist pressures you to stay in treatment without having a collaborative discussion, they probably are not the right therapist for you either.
How do you find the right therapist that’s a good fit for your needs? I suggest shopping around until you feel like you’ve found somebody you're truly comfortable with. When I take on new clients I tell them it's important for them to find the right fit. Most of the time that’s me, but if it's somebody else that's okay.
The most important thing for me is that clients are getting what they need even if that is something that I can't give them. So when you're picking a therapist, go with your gut. Maybe you don’t feel comfortable talking to them, or you don’t feel that they can help you accomplish your goals. If you get the sense that they aren't the right fit, just tell them. Even if it's scary, you’ll likely find that the therapist is more understanding than you think.
Another way to find a good therapist is to ask a friend or family member for a personal referral to somebody that was helpful to them. Sites like Psychology Today also have great resources to find quality therapists. It's good to do research to find a therapist because the most important thing is not to settle for a therapist who doesn't fit your needs. There are plenty of therapists out there so don't settle.
Elizabeth Cobb, LCSW is a therapist in private practice in NYC with office locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. If you are looking for support, visit cobbpsychotherapy.com to learn how therapy might be able to help.