A few times in my life I’ve sought out therapy and each time I’ve had a vague feeling of the kind of therapist who would be a good fit for me. Unfortunately, my experience has not been a great one. Similarly, all too often I hear stories from clients about bad prior experiences they’ve had with therapy. This is unfortunate because there are countless wonderful therapists out there.
Because I’m in the field I can usually recognize the signs that someone won’t be a great fit for me simply by reading their website carefully. My hope is to share what I’ve learned, in my own search, and help you find someone who is likely to be good for you. I’d also like to share a few of my own negative experiences and shed light on how you know when therapy feels wrong. Some of these experiences are obvious (you may feel like you want to run out of the room); others are more subtle.
Even knowing what to look for, we can still wind up in an uncomfortable situation. I went to one therapist who answered his phone twice during our first session—once to let his wife know when he would be home, or as he put it, “Done with this last client” and to complain about what an awful day he’d already had, and once more to quickly write down a shopping list she was dictating to him while I sat there. Another time I sat in a therapist’s office and listened to a disturbingly detailed description of the sexual acts that we couldn’t engage in because sex would create a dual relationship between us. She covered many sexual acts. Many. Another therapist sat in her chair, half listening and half feeding a pet squirrel who sat in her lap as it drank from a baby bottle. To make it even worse, the therapist never mentioned the presence of the squirrel.
These were all situations that were easy for me to run away from. When a therapist has a squirrel in her lap, makes you feel sexually or otherwise overtly uncomfortable, or answers the phone to write down a shopping list while you’re in the middle of baring your soul, you know it’s a bad fit.
How, though, do we know if a therapist is just not right for us? They may be a great person, skilled, compassionate, and knowledgeable, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a good fit. I believe that this is something you will feel in your gut. Gavin De becker wrote a fantastic book called ‘The Gift of Fear’. De becker was a criminal profiler who analyzed serial killers and his book is about how to avoid danger by listening to your instincts. The concepts in the book apply beautifully to everyday situations. He explains how to recognize our instincts (or gut feelings, if you prefer) in all kinds of social situations. If you are sitting in your first session and you feel no connection to your new therapist, this is a potential issue. Is he or she warm or cold? Do you like him
or her? Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel heard? Are they listening or waiting for their turn to talk? It comes down to this: do you feel warmth and genuineness from this person you are getting to know? It doesn’t matter whether you think your feelings are valid or not. If you can separate out negative feelings that might be related to fear or anxiety about starting therapy, and you still feel uneasy—or to go a step further, you don’t genuinely like the therapist – they are probably not a good fit.
But what is a good fit—in practical terms? What does that even mean?
I’ve met some wonderful, empathic, intelligent therapists but not all of them would necessarily have been a good fit for me. When you’re looking for a therapist, fit is important. If you think about it, you wouldn’t buy a gorgeous piece of clothing just because it looked good on your best friend or on the rack—you would try it on to make sure that it felt good on you and that it fit properly.
A good therapeutic fit is vitally important to your desired outcome. Fit can involve you and your therapist’s personalities, whether you trust the clinician—typically from the moment you meet – the therapist’s level of openness (you may be more comfortable with an open therapist or one who is very detached), and their therapeutic approach (client centered, psychodynamic, CBT, EMDR, etc.).
Therapeutic approach is less important to me than it is to many therapists. I believe that therapeutic success is more about the relationship between the therapist and the client than the particular school of thought the therapist relies upon. In my opinion, the biggest factor which determines how I will personally feel with a therapist (if I were the client—this may be different for you) has to do with his or her philosophical beliefs about what clinicians refer to as boundaries.
Graduate schools across the country teach students all about appropriate boundaries. The word “boundaries” (in therapy and in life) refers to establishing the rules of the relationship and then maintaining those rules. Basic boundaries in therapy relate to things like: setting appointment times and keeping them, charging an agreed upon amount of money for sessions, not engaging in dual relationships with clients (having more than one form of relationship with a client, such as being a client’s therapist and also being friends or lovers or using a therapy client as your real-estate agent or lawyer, etc.). A few years ago a very powerful Portland therapist was found to have had a thirteen-year sexual relationship with one of her clients, and she also used the client as her personal realtor. This is egregious because there is a power differential inherent in a therapy relationship. The therapist is assumed to have more power in the relationship than the client has and it is unethical to exploit that power.
These boundaries are necessary for the safety and security of both therapists and clients. But boundaries lie on a continuum and they don’t apply only to specific tangible rules but also to how much a therapist shares about his or her private life and experiences. On one end, you have the case of the therapist who has terrible, loose boundaries and has dual relationships with his/her clients and on the other end you have a therapist who maintains extremely rigid boundaries. There are no ethical rules that dictate to therapists that they can’t maintain rigid boundaries and the field tends to value rigidity in boundaries.
What does this mean to you as a client? A therapist who values strict adherence to personal boundaries will probably not share anything with you about their life. You may prefer this. You may be uncomfortable with a therapist who shares personal things with you. Most therapists won’t tell you much, if anything about themselves. Years ago a colleague of mine told me about a fellow colleague of ours who had five sets of the same suit so that she could wear the exact same outfit each day, down to the scarf and shoes, so that clients couldn’t read anything about her or her mood on a given day based on her clothing choices. This therapist had no personal pictures in her office and her clients didn’t know whether she was married or single, had children or didn’t.
This struck me as disconcerting. If it worked for her and her clients, more power to her and to her clients but she would not have been a good fit for me.
Whether I’m the therapist or the client, I’m engaging in a relationship. If I’m the client, I feel vulnerable. I’m sharing the deepest, most private thoughts in my head. In order to do this, and more to the point in order to heal and grow in therapy, I need to feel a deep level of trust, empathy, and connection. I don’t want to sit in a chair, talking about things I may have never shared with anyone, and hear twenty-three different versions of, “How does that make you feel?” I don’t want to feel like I’m the only vulnerable person in the room. I don’t want to feel like my pain is bouncing off of a detached therapist and hitting me in the face. I don’t want to feel alone.
As a therapist, I understand how it feels to sit in the client’s chair and feel vulnerable and alone. I come to my clients with my heart and mind completely open. If you are overwhelmed with grief, I will likely cry with you. If you crack me up, I may snort. If you are describing an experience that sounds very similar to something I’ve also gone through, and you are struggling, I will not leave you hanging out there on a limb alone. I will tell you about my shared experience, if any and if appropriate, in an effort to ease your confusion or help you process the pain. I will use my own past experience as a light on a path that may appear dark to you.
This doesn’t mean that therapy with me is “Ronda hour.” I don’t tell clients anything about my life for my own benefit or because I want their therapy to be about me. I share openly with clients each and every time I believe that by sharing something about my own experience I will help my clients in some way.
As a therapist, I tend to be very direct. I am highly engaged. You won’t have to guess about how I feel or what I’m thinking. My clients love that. My business has built to full capacity based almost entirely on referrals because my clients tend to like people like me, so they tend to have people like me in their lives, and when those people need someone to talk to, my clients/former clients refer them to me.
I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. Research shows that two out of every ten people you encounter in your life won’t like you. This is such a relief. This means you can stop trying to be everything to everyone because it’s pointless to try. Not everyone is going to like you. Not everyone is going to like me or fit well with me in a therapy relationship.
Accepting this fact allows us to find “our people.” Because most of my clients come from referrals, they already know quite a bit about me (their friend/relative tells them about me ahead of time) but even if you found me randomly on the internet, you would know a lot about me simply by reading my website. If you read my blogs, you will get a glimpse into my personality and mindset.
If you come to see me or any other therapist and you don’t feel a connection in the first session, please don’t feel obligated to continue therapy. Search for someone else. You are not obligated to keep seeing someone just because you saw them once.
I have one last thought I would like to share. If you don’t feel a warm connection to your therapist, they may not feel a warm connection with you and this mutual struggle will likely critically interfere with your ability to work through the issues that brought you to therapy. I once had a client I couldn’t seem to reach. I tried everything. I poured my heart into it. I felt anxious before our sessions but didn’t know why. I’d never felt that way before. I tried to talk to her about it but she consistently denied that there was an issue. Finally, after months of non-productive therapy (a waste of her money and time and many hours of anxiety and frustration for me) she screamed, “I JUST DON’T LIKE YOU, OKAY!? I NEVER HAVE! I JUST SEE YOU BECAUSE YOU HAVE GOOD IDEAS!”
Okay. I was relieved. I referred her to someone I hoped was more to her liking.
The problem is that healing, successful therapy isn’t about good ideas or theories or psychobabble. For therapy to be healing it needs to be based on a foundation of a warm, trusting, safe relationship.
Always trust your gut.
Suicide Prevention & Bereavement Counseling
New Direction Counseling
Ronda Gallawa-Foyt MA, LMHC
3615 Grant Street Vancouver, Washington 98660
Suicide Prevention & Bereavement Counseling, Individual, Relationship and Grief Counselor in Vancouver, Wa 98661. A safe and welcoming environment to helps you move your life in a positive direction. New Directions Counseling Therapist Ronda Gallawa. #suicide #prevention #Counseling #Vancouver #Portland #clinic #psychology #Bereavement #Therapist #Grief #Couples #Therapy #Teen #Family #Marriage
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