Shopping for a therapist or counselor can be a little like shopping for shoes. The therapy fit is determined by how well our own personal style aligns with that of our treatment provider. Just as there is no wrong way to shop for shoes, there is no wrong way to shop for a therapist.
Here is a brief sketch of a few core therapy modalities to help you determine what kind of treatment might be right for you.
Some therapists work exclusively with thoughts and behaviors to help clients ameliorate their symptoms. This approach (Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy or CBT) works particularly well with circumscribed issues (e.g., OCD, panic disorder, specific phobias, etc.) and is often solution-focused. CBT is a good fit for folks who are hoping to ameliorate their symptoms without delving too deeply into the feelings associated with these symptoms. CBT therapists usually expect patients to work independently between sessions; homework is often given for this purpose. Because the focus of CBT is mostly on thoughts and behaviors, this modality may not be ideal for those who are looking to know themselves and to be understood by their therapist at a deeper level.
By looking closely at the past, Psychodynamic psychotherapy helps clients gain insight into why they do what they do. Psychodynamic psychotherapy endeavors to reveal thoughts, feelings, and issues that reside in our unconscious minds, hoping conscious awareness of these entities will produce desired change. Psychodynamic therapy can be useful for those who wish to delve deeper into their emotional world to find a greater understanding of what motivates their behavior. It has been my experience that, while understanding can be useful, often it is not quite enough to inspire lasting behavioral change.
In recent years, the use of mindfulness in therapy is becoming more widespread, with promising results. Mindfulness-based therapies help clients examine, without judgement, like puzzle pieces, their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to determine how each plays a role in their present-day lives. When clients understand and honor each piece's contribution, they are better able to rearrange the pieces to optimize for personal growth. Mindfulness-based therapy is predicated on radical acceptance, with the understanding that fully embracing ourselves as we are is a crucial step toward figuring out where we want to be. Though most mindfulness-based therapies take the past into consideration, the primary focus is on the present moment, both inside and outside the therapy room. This is the modality that best describes my approach.
Though prospective clients often ask what modality or approach I use, over the years, I have found that methods and modalities matter less than most people think. What clients really value is how they feel in the presence of the therapist. In fact, studies have shown the therapeutic alliance is the most effective predictor of how people will do in therapy. Though your therapist may be a well-respected expert in his or her field, if you find it difficult to personally connect with him or her, it is unlikely the therapy will be effective.
So what do you do with all of this information? First, simply notice how your body responded to each modality description. If you found yourself leaning forward in curiosity while reading about one specific modality or another, this is your body's way of guiding you toward the approach that is right for you. Knowing what modality of therapy you think would be most beneficial will help narrow your search for a therapist.
Once you've found a few therapists who use your preferred approach, I encourage you to spend a few moments on the phone or in person with each prospective therapist. Notice how you respond to each therapist or counselor. Ask yourself the following questions:
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, dating coach, and writer whose therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of Seattle, Washington. She has been providing counseling and dating consultation services since 2000.