What makes a good therapist?

Y’all, my therapist is so good.

While it’s really, really easy to identify why a therapist is bad (that’s going to be a fun post/essay/book/dissertation one day!) it’s kind of a challenge for me to explain a good one? When I do it comes out generic – a good listener, supportive, affirming, kind, warm, non-judgmental, stuff like that. But man, when I look for a therapist I’m mostly assessing for traits like “seems basically competent,” “would answer phone in less than 36 hours when I’m in the ER,” “probably won’t pressure me into meds so I can be ‘normal’ “.

What makes a good therapist?

1. Degrees aren’t a clear sign of anything. I’ve had both amazing and horrifying experiences with folks across the spectrum of letters at the ends of their names. I can’t generalize which degrees have been the best in particular, but I can confidently say that almost all of my greatest horror stories come from times I worked with someone with a PhD.

2. Perceptiveness. In the first session I had with my current therapist he actually uttered the words “intergenerational trauma” when I skirted around using the phrase because my bar was so low and I didn’t want to be let down. I basically fell off his couch. A seemingly small thing, but it was the exact turning point for knowing that it would be a great fit.

3. They navigate tough moments with your best interests in mind. I had this therapist at home when I left high school for a bit who was great, she was really the first person who helped me with my mother and accepting my sexuality. One day I showed up at her office and waited outside the door for our session to start…5 minutes…10…20…I think I called her a couple times too. I left her office in an absolute fury and stomped all two miles home instead of just taking the train. By the time I got home she’d finally called me back – which, in my rage, I did not pick up – and left me a voicemail. She sounded mortified, and explained that she had just completely forgot because there was a lot going on with her. As in, she got overwhelmed because her son was preparing for his bar mitzvah….lol can’t make this up guys. To make an already long story short, it was an oddly crucial incident to my work in therapy because it revealed a lot of underlying issues embedded in my explosive overreaction to the situation. Well, I mean, to be fair I was 16, but you get the point. She took complete responsibility for the situation and was understanding of my anger and betrayal in a way that became so important to my work with her, ultimately. Not the most constructive advice to blow up at your therapist and see what happens, but it’s worth keeping in mind if things unexpectedly get rocky.

4. A collaborative demeanor. Ok so I said I was going to stay positive on this but CAN’T STOP ME ON THIS ONE. One time I had this crappy therapist who thought she was a celebrity because she was on MTV once (pls don’t ask lmao). After weeks of dissociating and feeling really unsettled by the work we were doing, I asked for clarification about the process and what goals we were setting. She had the most unhelpful, vague, and condescending non-response ever, so I just ended that then and there. The positive side of this idea I’ve seen more clearly in psychiatry, which I’ve mentioned before. YOU are the one who is the client in these situations and your therapist having some agenda you have no part of is unacceptable. One telltale sign: if your therapist says they “see something” in you that you’ve yet to discover, yet won’t tell you what that is – bad. Bad. Bad therapist. Spray bottle for you for being manipulative as fuck.

5. Trust your gut! I’ve had times where I’ve left sessions being like, “I dunno, I want to give him a chance, meh” while simultaneously saying that the experience left me feeling ashamed. No. Looking forward to seeing your therapist, finding yourself remembering their words in tough moments, having this sense that they like you and are invested in your wellbeing – that’s the ticket.

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