Earlier this spring, I remember reading an article where Oprah said that she had never been to therapy before; that in her mind, her best friend, Gayle King was her "regulator". When you think about all that Oprah has shared regarding childhood trauma, weight battles and pressures with her platform and then you add to that the fact that she gives out so much advice for a living, that seemed rather ironic to me.
It also reminded me of why I oftentimes say to my own clients that there is a difference between something being therapeutic and actually going to therapy. To me, at least once in life, everyone should see a therapist (or counselor or life coach). It's simply a good idea to have a professional help you to look at things from an "outside looking in", totally objective perspective, whether it's for the purpose of healing, revelation, goal-setting — or all of the above.
If you're someone who has either never been to a therapist before yet you've been strongly considering doing so as of late or you've tried it, got burned, and are leery about attempting going again (even though a part of you feels like you should), as a marriage life coach myself, I wanted to share 10 questions that you should personally run through. Ones that can help you feel a lot more confident about sitting on a therapist's couch — for a season.
1. What Specifically Do You Want a Therapist For?
When it comes to this first point, let me say that it would be a bit unfair for anyone who is a therapist to automatically expect you to know what kind of help that you need. After all, getting to the root of that is actually a part of a therapist's job. At the same time, it is a good idea to have some sort of ballpark idea of what you're looking for and the desired outcome you'd like to have. Like me? I work specifically with people who want to keep their marriage together, get it to thrive or those who desire marriage. Sometimes, I'll work with singles who are trying to get some areas of their life together; however, based on how complex and serious those issues are, I'll refer them out.
So, how do you start with your search when it comes to targeting exactly what you want or need? Well, do you want personal or professional assistance? Does it have to do with relationships in any way? Perhaps you've got some patterns/habits that you'd like to break. Are there things about how you live your life that you sense may be rooted in childhood trauma? Maybe you feel stagnant and you need someone to help you to get "unstuck" and set some goals. Ask some questions until you are able to "scratch an itch" so to speak. By the way, if there is something (or one) that is internally nagging you that won't seem to go away, that is a good indication that it should be brought up in therapy.
2. Will a Life Coach Do?
I once heard someone say that the main difference between a therapist and a life coach is a therapist focuses on one's mental health while a life coach is about helping someone reach their goals. I can definitely see there being a lot of truth to that; however, oftentimes a therapist is also considered to be a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor while a life coach? Some have "letters behind their name" while others do not. It kind of all depends on how much education you'd prefer the person you are working with to have. For instance, a lot of church folks go to see their pastor for counsel yet many of them aren't licensed therapists (or even licensed life coaches); they would be more like a life coach. I've been very open that I am a life coach as well. My work comes from years of experience while a friend of mine, who is also a coach, recently got certified.
Personally, when I'm dealing with a person or couple who I feel have some really deep-rooted issues, oftentimes I will recommend that they go to a therapist in addition to seeing me. However, if you're basically looking for assistance in identifying core issues and mapping out a plan on how to move forward, many times a coach (in an area of expertise that you're looking for because there are many different kinds) will fit the bill.
3. Is Their Ethnicity and Gender Relevant?
Not too long ago, a friend of mine asked me to refer them to a life coach. When I asked them what area they wanted to focus on, they said that they needed to get professionally organized and also create some long-term goals. Because this individual is pretty "fist in the air" (I'm sure you get what I mean by that — LOL), I assumed that they wanted someone Black. To my surprise, no. "I would actually prefer someone who sees life from a different lens because a lot of my clients aren't Black." Noted.
Some of you who are die-hard Insecure fans can recall the journey that Molly went on to find the right therapist for her. And yes, sometimes, being with someone who shares your ethnicity and/or gender can be a real comfort because you tend to feel like they get exactly where you are coming from. Anyway, whether that is the case for you or not, definitely factor this in while making your selection. It can make finding your right fit so much easier for you.
4. Do They Share or Respect Your Value/Belief System?
As a marriage life coach, I've worked with a few atheist couples in my time (actually, atheists tend to say married a lot longer than many Christians do…that's another article for another time, though). Because I strive to be a Bible follower, I've been asked if that was difficult to do. Eh, a little challenging only because I am someone who believes that marriage is a faith-based union; however, not impossible because I also believe that you can have morals and not be of the same faith system as I am. Still, since I tend to bring up God and Scripture quite a bit, I do make sure that prospective clients know that I think marriage is a covenant relationship and that I use the Bible in a lot of my counsel — at least a lot of the time. At the same time, there is actually a verse in the Word that talks about speaking in parables (applicable stories), so that folks who wouldn't understand Scripture can understand where you are coming from (Matthew 13:13). Taking that in has made it easier to communicate with folks from all walks of life.
Anyway, the bottom line here is you don't want to see someone who could end up doing a lot of debating with you or you're going to feel patronized around because you both have a different set of values or belief systems. If you're Jewish and want a Jewish therapist or agnostic and would prefer someone who won't bring up faith at all in your sessions, that makes total sense; it's pretty wise to look for that. You're already gonna have a lot to unpack. No need to start, right out of the gate, not seeing eye to eye about core foundational issues.
5. Have You Ever Seen a Therapist Before?
When I say that there is someone in my life who needs to go to therapy, stat — there can't be a bigger understatement when it comes to this topic. While the core of him is good, he makes some of the most redundantly toxic choices that I have ever seen in my entire life. The real catcher is he's so cryptic when it comes to how he moves that a lot of people come to him for insight. It's a mess. The few times when he has at least allowed me to broach the topic of counseling, he once shared that when he took a chance and tried, the therapist actually did something that was extremely unethical; they started developing feelings for him. And so, as of now, that has caused him to stay as far away from therapy as possible.
If you're hesitant about going to a therapist because you've never been before and you're not sure what to expect, that is totally understandable. Just try and keep an open mind. No one can make you do anything you want to do — including staying with someone you don't like or continuing in something that doesn't seem like a wise fit. On the other hand, if you're damning therapy because of a bad past experience, what I will say is, just like there are some good and bad people in general, there are also some good and not-so-good therapists. To swear off all of them because of one unfortunate situation would be a shame. Besides, how can one meeting — possibly a couple of times — with someone new hurt? You're still in control. No matter what. Always remember that.
6. How Do They Act in the First Meeting?
I'm gonna be straight up with you. Seeing a prospective therapist/counselor/life coach for the first time is a lot like a first date. And just like first dates, there are several red flags that you should look out for. Ready? Here are 10 of 'em.
- If they're late. It means they don't respect your time.
- If you feel like they are over-talking you. They aren't good listeners.
- If they come off condescending or patronizing. You need to feel comfortable.
- If they are distracted. That's just plain rude.
- If you feel like they're giving more of a monologue than dialoguing with you. You aren't to be their audience member.
- If you feel a hell of a lot worse rather than better. No one should feel like shame imposed by the therapist. Do keep in mind that therapy may bring about really uncomfortable moments so that you can get to the root of matters.
- If you sense gaslighting or manipulation. A therapist shouldn't be emotionally controlling or violating you.
- If it seems like a religion session. A faith-based therapist is one thing. Trying to recruit you is something else.
- If you feel no sense of peace. A good fit will bring about some clarity or "ah ha" moments, even from the first meeting.
- If you just don't "click". No explanation needed.
7. How Does Payment Go?
This is huge. Some therapists only take insurance (and well, you already know how that goes). Some will change insurance companies and just drop you (even if you've worked with them for years). Some are willing to work out some sort of out-of-pocket payment plan. The bottom line with this point is assume nothing. I know some people who were really hurt when, after several years of seeing (and becoming really comfortable with) their therapist, they had to part ways because their therapist left their insurance network and so they couldn't afford to keep seeing them. Let me tell it, before even going to the first session, this should be addressed. It would be a shame to find someone you really like, even upon the initial meeting, only to realize that you can't afford them.
8. How Committed Do You Plan on Being to the Process?
I believe I can speak for all people in the counseling field when I say that nothing is more taxing than working with clients where we seem far more invested in their betterment/healing than they do. I can't tell you how many couples I've worked with who don't do the assignments and/or will show up late and/or will cancel/reschedule at the last minute — over and over again. Or, they want to meet far and few between, when their problems clearly indicate that they need to be seeing someone, at least a couple of times a month. Matter of fact, I know a couple who's basically been in some sort of therapy, ever since they said, "I do". However, they are infrequent as all get out and are constantly in a pattern of expecting the therapist to save them from divorce whenever they allow things to go too far. Saving you at the last minute? Yeah, that is not our job. And it's not even fair.
Anyway, once you've met with a therapist for a few times, they should be able to give somewhat of an assessment of how often you should see them and how long it will be necessary (at that level of intensity, whatever that may be). If you know that you are not going to commit to that, you might want to wait until you can. The reality is that some people have a bad experience in therapy, not because of the therapist or the therapy itself; it's because they are mentally and emotionally all over the place and refuse to do the work that is required. And as best-seller author Iyanla Vanzant often says, "We're not gonna fight you for your healing." We shouldn't have to.
9. Has the Therapist Ever Been to Therapy?
This. One. Right. Here. If you're someone who's always been hesitant about going to therapy because you've heard that some of the craziest people are therapists — I'm not gonna lie and act like there's not some truth to that. There are many narcissists who are therapists. There are a lot of arrogant people who are therapists. Some folks use being a therapist as a way of escapism from their own demons and drama because it makes them feel good to fix other people's stuff rather than dig deep and tackle their own. And then there are some therapists who are so delusional that they think everyone needs their insight while they can't humble themselves to hear what they need to do with their own lives.
This is why I think it is totally NOT out of bounds to ask a prospective therapist if they've ever been to therapy before. While the reasons why are not really any of your business, you can learn a lot about someone who is willing to admit that either they've had past issues that they've needed to tackle or, like Meryl Streep's character did in one of my favorite movies (Prime), they go because they hear so much of other people's stuff that they need a professional to help them to process it all and set good emotional boundaries.
One of my favorite licensed counselors, I saw in high school, college and many years into my 20s. Now I have a therapist friend that I run things by when I need them. They are an absolutely godsend. So yeah, a therapist who has a therapist isn't something to side-eye. It's actually something to smile about.
10. What’s the “Proof of Purchase”?
Something that I apply to churches and therapists is, if after about a year, you see no signs of personal growth and progress, that's probably not the place for you. Best believe that, also like a lot of churches, unfortunately, there are some therapists out here who are perfectly fine running your credit/debit card, listening to you and not really tracking for your growth. A thorough therapist will actually talk about where things stand and how you're doing, periodically. And you should expect that because a therapist is supposed to provide you with tips and tools to be better as the result of interacting with them. You definitely shouldn't be stagnant or worse — worse.
I am passionate about people getting the health that they need, so of course, I could go on. I'm hoping that this will help to at least provide you with some peace of mind. Therapy is a blessing. Asking the right questions can lead you to the best therapist. It really can.
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