By Laura McMullen for U.S. News
In whom can you confide your erotic dreams, your fear of dying or your unbearable loneliness? Who can you trust with that secret lodged deep on your gut, that foggy memory or that breath-stealing, panic-inducing anxiety? Who can help you feel better?
Anyone familiar with facing a stream of open-ended questions probably already knows the answer: a therapist.
A therapist can play an enormous role in your life and mental health, but -- in keeping with the theme of reflective inquiries -- how do you know if she's the right one for you? How can you tell if his methods and personality will best help you on your journey?
Let's answer these questions with more questions:
Can you tell your therapist anything? There are times and places for filters, but your therapy appointment is not one of them. The ability to freely voice any thought is key to successful therapy, experts say, and it requires absolute comfort and trust. Expect unconditional support and acceptance from your therapist without judgment or condescension. She should feel like an ally and an equal, says Noah Rubinstein, founder and CEO of the therapist directory goodtherapy.org. "The most important thing is to search for a therapist who is authentic, caring, can look you in the eye and hold eye contact, and has the capacity for empathy and compassion," Rubinstein says.
Is your therapist a good listener? If you're speaking your mind, expect to be heard. A good therapist has finely tuned active listening skills, which means she’s not solely nodding in silence, but guiding the flow of the conversations with well-placed questions. And she's not talking too much -- definitely not more than you. "There's a way to guide someone through identifying the cause of some issue or concern and healing without doing the majority of the talking," says Rubinstein, who is also a marriage and family therapist.
Are you making progress with your therapy? "You should expect an occasional 'aha' moment -- a moment of insight you haven’t had before, when the door opens and you see the light," says Dorothea Lack, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco.
The utility of that "aha" insight is another marker of progress, says Faith Tanney, a psychologist based in Washington, D.C. You should be "learning new things that seem to have value," she says, that "provide new perspective and translate into changes you’re able to make."
Does your therapist set goals? If you and your therapist have discussed goals for therapy, you can use them to gauge progress. Think of these flexible goals as part of a road map for your therapy, so you're not ambling aimlessly through sessions. An important distinction: While goals are great, promises and guarantees are not, Rubinstein says. "[Therapists] should be able to provide hope without expectations," he says. "While everyone is capable of healing, it can take years for some people."
Does your therapist accept feedback? If you don't feel your therapy is progressing, or if you have an issue with the therapist or his methods, speak up. As with any relationship – especially one built on comfort and trust -- communication is key. Plus, at the end of the day, "you're the person paying the bills," Tanney says. While your relationship is very personal, it's also professional, she points out, so don't feel inhibited by awkwardness or intimidation when voicing concerns. As she puts it, "If you had a shirt you didn't like, would you wear it because you didn’t want to offend the clerk?" Tanney admits the parallel isn't 100 percent there, but it’s the same idea: "You are my client; I'm working for you," she says.
In turn, your therapist should respond to feedback professionally without blaming you for a lack of progress or taking your concern personally. She should provide a solution, like a different therapy method or maybe even a different therapist, if progress seems stagnant. If she has no solution, it's likely time to move on. As Tanney puts it: "That person can help with problem X, but you have problems Y and Z and Q."
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