Finding the right therapist can be a daunting task, especially for the first-timer. I tell people that the process is a bit like dating. You have to go through a lot of profiles, learn your preferences, meet some duds, and possibly experience some break-ups before you find someone with whom you feel comfortable and aligned.
In looking at profiles, you might find yourself comparing variables such as gender, degree type, experience, ethnic background, or type of psychotherapy. However, just as important is the therapeutic alliance, or the connection between you and your therapist.
Research shows that the relationship between the clinician and the client is a fundamental determinant of treatment outcomes, with some studies even demonstrating that the therapeutic alliance is the most important factor in treatment effectiveness.
And just to make things even more fun, let’s throw in cost and insurance as another consideration.
Given all of these factors, it’s easy to feel intimidated and stuck in inaction. Yes, it is a process, but from my own experience as a therapist and as a therapy-seeker, I can say that finding the right therapist is worth it and completely doable. The following is a step-by-step guide to helping you with the search.
1. Identify what you want to work on
My first goal with potential clients is to determine what’s bringing them to therapy. Common reasons include anxiety, depression, stress and burnout, career dissatisfaction, imposter syndrome, identity issues, and relationship difficulties. Identifying your main issue(s) is the first step in directing your search and finding the right therapist for you.
2. Do your research
Utilize online therapist directories
In order to find the right therapist, you’ll want to read therapist biographies and do some research. Psychology Today and Good Therapy are two examples of directories that make it possible for you to search thousands of therapist listings using keywords. If you have specific preferences for your therapist, niche directories similar to Bridges Mental Health are great resources. Examples of other niche directories include Manhattan Alternative, Therapy for Black Girls, Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network, and Inclusive Therapists.
Identify what type of therapist you’re looking for
Once you start researching, you’ll realize that there are several kinds of mental health professionals. Psychologists, mental health counselors, social workers, marriage and family therapists, creative arts therapists, psychoanalysts, psychiatrists, and psychiatric nurse practitioners are all credentialed to practice therapy. However, certain professions have clear specialties, and training and experience is a better determinant of a clinician’s fit for your needs. For example, while psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners can and do provide talk therapy, they most often focus on medication treatment. A more comprehensive breakdown of the types of mental health professionals can be found here.
You’ll also begin to notice that there are various therapy approaches from psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), to emotionally focused therapy (EFT), solution-focused therapy, somatic therapies, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), and mindfulness-based approaches. The best approach for you will depend on a combination of the issue you’re seeking help with and on personal preference. This Zencare post provides an overview of the most common types of therapy. For more comprehensive descriptions, take a look at this Psychology Today resource.
While mental health professionals vary in their graduate school training, the best clinicians continue to seek post-graduate training and certifications in specific treatment approaches or issues. Make sure to take note of this as you’re browsing.
Lastly, don’t worry if after doing your research you’re still unsure if you’ve found the best treatment approach for your issue. The right therapist will collaborate with you to tailor treatment to your needs.
3. Determine your preferences
While credentials and specialties are important, your connection with a therapist plays a crucial role in how you show up in therapy and consequently, what you get out of it. As part of this, you might consider what kind of clinician you would work best with. Do you need someone warm and supportive? Someone who can draw you out with thoughtful questions? Or perhaps you prefer a more active therapist who will encourage you to try new things. Therapists are trained to do all of this to a certain extent, but some may have a particular style that works better for you.
Your therapist’s background may also be important. For example, since you’re reading this on Bridges, you’re likely seeking a therapist who understands that your cultural upbringing impacts how you make sense of and manage problems in your life. A therapist’s cultural identity is just one of many factors that can affect the development of trust and understanding in a therapeutic relationship.
Cost can be another determinant of the therapist you choose to work with. While most insurance plans cover some kind of mental health services, each plan handles coverage differently. It’s important to educate yourself on your plan’s benefits to determine whether it makes sense to seek an “in-network” or “out-of-network” therapist. Seeking therapy should not cause additional stress. I’ve written a separate guide to navigating insurance benefits here.
In summary, consider which factors most impact your sense of comfort and seek these out.
4. Schedule consults
Once you’ve identified some potential matches, reach out to schedule consultations. You can learn a great deal from a consultation and from the way in which a therapist communicates with you.
Some therapists offer complimentary 15-20 minute consultations, while others begin with a full, paid session; each therapist operates differently.
Consultations are a good way of gauging your comfort and connection; you want to determine if you would feel safe opening up to this person. When I meet with potential clients, my goal is to learn what they are struggling with, what they’re hoping to gain from therapy, and to assess if we’re a good fit. I also leave time at the end to answer questions about the therapeutic process, me and my training, and costs and insurance. I’ve found that people often want to know what the course of treatment entails and how a typical session is structured.
Try to schedule consultations with a few therapists so you can experience different styles and have a basis for comparison.
5. Decide on a therapist and give it a try
Once you’ve identified a therapist to move forward with, schedule an appointment. The first couple of therapy sessions can feel awkward as you discuss thoughts and feelings that you might not have revealed to anyone before. You might decide that you don’t want to immediately dive into talking about something painful, and that’s ok—you don’t have to. As in any relationship, developing trust takes time, which is why I encourage people to keep an open mind and give it a few sessions. Of course, if after a few times you feel that the dynamic is not working, honor that feeling and end therapy accordingly.
Bridges co-founder Diana Liao (she/her) is a Manhattan-based licensed mental health counselor and psychotherapist who works with adults on life transitions and challenges related to identity, career, and relationships. She is passionate about working with diverse populations and is especially attuned to issues of belonging, marginalization, and other complexities that arise from navigating cultural differences. She is a native New Yorker and 2nd-generation Taiwanese American. Prior to practicing therapy, she worked in advertising and marketing.