How to Choose a Therapist



-The decision to see a therapist can be a hard one to make, as I discussed in my last column, “It’s All In Your Head” ( Once you’ve made that decision, the next challenge is finding the right therapist. How do you go about that?

Most people begin by soliciting referrals. You ask your friends, your doctor, you troll online, search directories such as Psychology Today or American Psychological Association, etc. Pretty
soon it becomes apparent that there is a wide range of varying choices. How do you select among them a therapist that’s right for you?

Here’s one way to think about it that might help simplify the process:

There are essentially three basic criteria to examine before you choose a therapist. Meeting the criteria won’t guarantee success, of course (if anyone EVER gives you a guarantee in this business, run, don’t walk, in the opposite direction!), but it does provide a solid basis from which to work. The three criteria to look for in a therapist are: competence, integrity, and “chemistry.””

Professional licensure is designed to assure a level of competence through qualifying exams and the requirement of continuing education, so make sure the person you’re considering for your therapist is licensed as a psychologist, social worker or psychiatrist. Checking out their schooling and number of years in practice might give you some more comfort on this dimension.

This is hard to ascertain in advance, but it is a vital component in allowing you to feel safe and secure in the therapeutic relationship.

You’re looking for a therapist who can help you. In other words, you’re trying to hire a therapist,
and all those names you’ve gathered are applicants for the job. But the “job” of a therapist is unique in some respects. While in most situations, job applicants can supply a potential employer with references, it’s not possible for the therapist you have under consideration to suggest that you contact a former patient to learn about her work. However, one thing you can do is call and ask for some time on the phone to talk with the therapist about what you’re looking for. If he or she won’t give you ten minutes on the phone to help you make this important decision, then move on. (They may not be free to talk the moment you call, of course, but the therapist with integrity will suggest another convenient time). That phone conversation is where “chemistry” comes in.

Talk to several therapists. See how the conversations go. Ask yourself: Do they ask good questions? Do you like their answers? How about their tone and attitude? Do you feel comfortable? Do you relate to their outlook on psychotherapy? Do you think they might be able to “get” you? Do you feel you can be honest with them? Do you think the two of you can work together? Your answers to these questions are all aspects of “chemistry.”

Psychotherapy is a cooperative project. You and your therapist are a team working on your behalf, engaged in a process that takes commitment and hard work, but can also be joyful and liberating. Once therapy has begun, it’s important to stop from time to time and evaluate—together—the progress you’re making. That way therapy can keep pace with your growth, and the team can continue to be effective.

Therapy is hard work, but when you’re working with the right partner, important, meaningful change can take place. Good luck!

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist practicing short-term, solution-oriented psychotherapy in downtown D.C. She is affiliated with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at The George Washington University. For more information, check out or


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