Five Questions To Ask A Therapist

I don’t know why, but my go-to metaphor (or is it an analogy?) for describing how you find the right therapist is like buying a pair of pants.  There are a TON of brands and styles, and sometimes it takes trial and error before finding a pair that actually fits you.  Therapists are no different.  We all have varying backgrounds, certifications, worldviews and treatment modalities and what works for one client may not work for another.  

I would describe my style as more process-oriented, focusing on what’s happening between me and my client so that I can get to the heart of the matter.  My emphasis is also on emotions, helping people feel them, relate to them differently, and express them.  I’ve worked with a handful of clients where this approach was just not going to work, and that’s okay! We determined that a more skill-based therapist would suit their needs and a referral was made.  Done and done.  

Here are my five questions to ask a potential therapist before you start your session.

1)   What Is Your Approach To Therapy?  

This question is important because it all comes down to what you’re looking to accomplish. Like I said above, if you’re someone who is striving to understand yourself better, to explore past traumas, make sense of relational wounds, etc., you might want to work with a therapist who is more process-oriented.  If you’re struggling with obsessive thinking, unhelpful behaviors, and depression, a more skill-based, cognitive-based therapist may be more for you.  

2)   What Is Your Fee and Do You Accept Insurance?  

Fortunately, therapists are legally bound to tell you this before you start your session, so it’s likely this will come up anyway.  This question is important because you want to be able to afford your therapy and if you’re banking on using your insurance, you’ll want to make sure the therapist is in-network (takes your insurance).  

In some cases, therapists will offer a sliding scale fee and you can call your insurance to see if they will except out of network reimbursement (that’s when the therapist submits a receipt to the insurance and you might get some money back).  Both you and the therapist have to be able to afford to live, so it’s good to know if a) they can afford to work with you and b) you can afford to work with them.

3)   What’s Your Style? Are direct in session or more reflective?

Surprisingly, therapists can be very direct, upfront, and not at all sugar coat their opinions. I know some clients who need this and respond really well to this approach.  If, however, you’ve experienced any kind of relational trauma, PTSD, depression, or other shame-inducing experiences, you may find that a therapist with a softer edge is more for you.  This could be someone who infuses compassion-focused interventions, where the goal is not to tell you how to “fix” something, but is all about making sense of why the thing exists in the first place.  If your psych-savvy, you could even ask your therapist what their Myers Briggs profile is!

4)   Do You Have a Lot of Experience Treating X?

If the answer is no, consider looking elsewhere. If the answer is no, but you feel a really strong connection with them and like everything else they have to say, give it a day to think on it.  It wouldn’t make sense for a client who is newly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, for instance, to work with someone who specializes in grief therapy.  Yes, they may be grieving their diagnosis, but that is just one small part of the bigger picture.  It would be better to see someone who has experience with that diagnosis and can create and effective treatment plan.  

5)   How Will I know I’m done with therapy?

This is a tricky question because there is no clear-cut sign that you’re done.  However, it is important to understand what the goal you and your therapist will be working toward and getting a clear idea of what will constitute readiness for termination.   Typically, I like to tell clients that we’ll know when they’re done with therapy when certain things take place like: a reduction of panic attacks (i.e. you’ll go from 3x per week to 1x per month and won’t respond to the attack the same way as before), an increased feeling of connection with others, or when you and I are finding that there’s less of a need to talk about your presenting issue because it’s not as impactful, etc.  

Going to therapy is a lot different than going to the doctor.  With a doctor’s visit, there’s usually (usually) a visible thing that you’re treating (like a tumor, broken leg, diabetes, etc.).  In therapy, the presenting problem is usually not so visible, but a lot more nuanced. Talking to your therapist about what will determine the end of the therapy can do two things: Get you both on the same page and establish a working alliance/treatment plan.  

As you will discover, finding the right therapist takes time and persistence, but if you’re committed to the quest, you’ll likely strike gold! The best way to look up a potential therapist is to go to psychologytoday.com, type in your zipcode, and start the process.  Once you’ve done that, you can start to refine it by presenting problem, insurance, and therapy modality if you already know which one you respond the best to.