Ever since I started contemplating a “breakup” from my therapist, I’ve been pondering what it is I am actually looking for in a new therapist. I’ve spoken to numerous counselors in the area recently and I’m realizing my questions haven’t quite been as concise as I’d like them to be. I believe this is because I know from my relationship with C what I don’t want but I’m not really certain what it is I do want. It’s so easy to determine what feels bad, much less so to determine what might feel right, especially when I’ve never actually experienced the “good enough” therapist.
Most of what I think I want comes from reading the posts many of you share from your own therapy experiences. I’ve always been grateful for the perspective you all bravely share here but I’m definitely even more grateful now as I search for someone new to walk with me on my healing journey.
I thought it might be a good idea, for me and maybe this will help others as well, to make another list: what I am looking for in a therapist.
1. Chemistry: With C, we had a fantastic intellectual chemistry but that was sort of it. She didn’t meet me emotionally. I remember, really early on in my therapy with her I had to schedule an emergency session because I ran into my rapist while out having dinner with a friend. In this session I was a weeping mess. C made no effort to do anything to acknowledge my anguish. She was just a cold presence. I felt like an island floating in a sea of my own tears, completely alone. That was the first time I thought about not going back. I knew then that I wanted the chemistry to be complete. I want to feel like “this is someone I can tell all my secrets to” and “this is someone who can handle seeing the darkest parts of my soul.” Intense.
2. Consistency: I need someone who follows up when they assign me therapy homework. I always did the work with C but it never came back up, we never processed how it went. I also need consistency in policies. I can’t emotionally handle abrupt changes like the one C pulled. I need to know that my therapist knows her own limits and is comfortable maintaining those limits. And, I need to know I’m not going to be abandoned. I know how important self-care is for therapists and I know they need their vacations but I need someone who doesn’t take a vacation almost every other week.
3. Transparency: I need to know where I stand with my therapist. C was actually really good about this. I always knew when the emotions I sensed from her were between her and I or they were between her and someone else. Eventually she went wrong with this transparency thing though. She lied to me after the policy change. Then she lied again. The 3rd time I finally got more of the truth but I never felt I got the whole truth. It didn’t help that she took the position, “if you don’t trust me then you won’t believe anything I tell you anyway.” That wasn’t the case, I would have believed the whole truth. I need a therapist who trusts me enough to tell me the whole truth when I need that truth.
4. Flexibility: I know this one seems to contradict the need for consistency but stay with me. I do think a therapist can be flexible and consistent. C was really good at the flexible part but she wasn’t the greatest at communicating when things were changing. Still, when a therapeutic approach wasn’t producing results despite my putting in the work, she would change the approach. She wasn’t married to one methodology/theory. I need a therapist who is willing to learn and grow with me, one who understands I am an individual and what works for other clients may not work for me. As my part of that, I always communicate what I think I need and I make sure that I articulate the reasons for those needs. I just hope for someone who really listens when I ask. For instance, I know I don’t process well when sessions are just auditory. I need something visual, written. I need a therapist willing to help me incorporate that component into my therapy. It’s important that she trusts my knowledge of myself.
5. Empathy: It is one thing to offer words of understanding, it is an entirely different thing to genuinely be able to put oneself in the shoes of another. I have a deep well of emotion. It is a lot and sometimes I have no idea what I’m feeling. I need someone who can step into the well and help me identify those feelings so that I can articulate them and begin processing them. But the therapist should have a rope, so she doesn’t get stuck in the well with me. I wonder if C was unable to get out of the well, if maybe her stuff got mixed up with my stuff. If maybe I dragged her into the current. I don’t ever want to feel like I’m too much for my therapist.
6. Balance: I know there is an inherent power imbalance in the therapy relationship, one which C refused to acknowledge, but I’d like a therapist who knows how to balance that power differential. If I’m with someone who is happy to do all the talking, I let them; that’s how I survived growing up, by staying quiet. So, I need a therapist who is okay with quiet. I need time to process and find my voice. And I need a therapist who truly wants to help me feel empowered, who truly works with me to co-create the process and the relationship.
7. Negotiation: This one might not make a lot of sense but part of what hurt me so much with C was the fact that she didn’t give me a chance to be part of the renegotiation of boundaries in our relationship. She talked about wanting to help me learn empowerment and boundaries but she put me in a very disempowered position by unilaterally deciding how and when our relationship changed. If I had some say then I would have felt like I had a choice. I would have more readily accepted the changes because they would have been negotiated between us. I would have truly been empowered in the relationship instead of being told, “these are the policies for my practice. You do have a choice here: you decide if they work for you or if they don’t.” Basically, she was immovable. I do what she says or risk abandonment. I don’t want to be in that position again. I think in a relationship of mutual trust, which the therapeutic relationship should be, then there needs to be discussion and negotiation before big change. There are so many ethical gray areas to navigate in the therapeutic relationship, it’s important for the client to feel like he/she has a voice.
8. Comfort with Discomfort: Here I go again, another oxymoron/contradiction. But really, sometimes I made C uncomfortable because I was so hypervigilant. I noticed everything and she felt scrutinised. She wasn’t comfortable with her own discomfort and often I felt blamed for being the way I am. I felt shame. So, I need a therapist who can handle feeling analyzed. And I need a therapist who can handle completely honest feedback about the relationship and the process because I’m going to give it. C liked my honesty at first, I’m not so sure she liked it after January. I hope for someone who can continue to appreciate my unfiltered approach. Therapy, to me, should be the one place I can be unfiltered. Mind you, even in my unfiltered and honest state I am still composed and polite.
9. Boundaries: The most important one. I need a therapist who can own her own stuff and not put that stuff on me. I need a therapist who has established practices but will not be rigid and cold about them. I need boundaries that will create a “holding space”, a place of containment and I think that means they need to be fluid. Boundaries should be malleable. I need help with boundaries so I need a therapist who can model what good boundaries look like. And, I need a therapist who won’t freak out and withdraw care when I rub up against her boundaries because sometimes I get needy, and sometimes I will test her limits. It isn’t ever on purpose. It’s a response to old wounds and I always see that afterward. I just need a therapist patient enough to wait for me to make those connections. I need a therapist who knows that no matter how much I test boundaries, I really do respect a person’s right to have them.
Ultimately, I just hope to have a therapist I can learn how to trust. I hope she can meet me where I am intellectually and emotionally. I hope she is willing to be flexible when necessary. I hope I can find a therapist who trusts my knowledge of myself and the knowledge I have of therapy (because I do know quite a lot already). I hope I can truly experience unconditional positive regard. I hope I can find a warm, calm place to lay down my burdens each week.
I thought I wanted things like a therapist who isn’t afraid of hugging or holding clients. And I thought I wanted a therapist who was okay with outside contact (but who wouldn’t change her mind). I thought I wanted someone to tend to my attachment wounds. Now I think the things I thought I wanted are just secondary. They’re definitely wants and not needs. I know my “need” list is lofty but I hope it’s attainable. I hope I can find a new therapy experience and heal from the old one.