Good therapists, bad therapists, outright quacks, inspired brilliant therapists, terrible therapists, therapists who have a seemingly endless reservoir of compassion, and, the truly gifted therapist---they're all out there. I get some of the fall-out in my office from the not-so-good counselors and it is sometimes astonishing to me, the things I hear clients tell me that happened to them with another therapist. Some of the outrageous things I have heard include, the therapist falling asleep in the session, the therapist reprimanding a patient for nervously wringing her hands in a first session, the therapist asking a question and then getting angry at the patient for their (honest) answer. And the list goes on and on. The resilience and determination of these people who got unlucky on their first try but still persisted until they found someone who could actually help, is laudable.
Therapy is a valuable and wonderful resource for us all. In the post titled, Cute Client Comment, I have a link to a concise article about the benefits of psychotherapy. But to be effective, it has to be the right match. No therapist is going to be the best choice for everyone. But, there are some, who are almost in a calling to the profession, and those, will be best for most people.
You would think, with all the training* that we are required to get, that we would all be excellent helpers, but, just like doctors---some are better than others. Part of the effectiveness of the therapist is in the match or, that elusive thing we sometimes call, "chemistry": How do you feel in that person's presence? How's the interaction between the two of you? Do you feel accepted? Does the therapist seem comfortable in their job, comfortable with you, and in considering the problems you present? Does the therapist seem to have less anxiety than you do?!
As time goes on, you should begin to feel that you are in a real relationship. A professional helping relationship is, of course, different from your friendships---you want it to be; that's why you're there. It is mostly one-sided, you will not learn much about the therapist's personal life. They may share a little, here and there-especially the more relaxed, experienced ones or they may share for a purpose: There may be something you are struggling with and the therapist herself has a good example from her personal life to illuminate the topic. Or, sometimes a therapist may share with you that something difficult is going on with them in their own life so that the patient doesn't sense something is wrong and misinterpret it to be about them. I have done both of these. But, generally, a therapist is trained to be not too revealing and there is solid scientific reason for that.
If you are currently in therapy, there are a few things you should not hold against your therapist. The therapist may not always remember every detail of your life. This is especially true if you don't attend regular weekly sessions. There's something about that consistent contact that seems to keep the file on you in the forward position in the therapist's mind. But, think for a minute how much a therapist has to remember...They have to keep the names, relationships, events, and facts of a person's entire life---whatever has been shared in the therapy office---in their immediate memory. And the therapist has to do this for a number of people. It isn't easy to remember all about a person you've never met but we must do that as, often, patients want counseling about their relationships with other people in their lives. Thus the therapist has to remember and retain an impression of, and even facts about, that other person-so important to the patient but, only heard about-by the therapist. Sometimes my patients will bring me a picture, a snapshot of their family or, a particular person they have issues with. That helps me to fill out the image in my mind.
A reason that I may miss a detail (and so I imagine other therapists may do this too-I hope they do!), is that facts are not where my focus is. I am looking for the deeper meaning for the patient or I am working on delineating a pattern in the person's functioning or I may be noticing an incongruency that seems important. This kind of listening is what is different from what one can expect from a friend. It is what you come to a therapist for. So, try not to be impatient if a therapist forgets one little fact. Try not to say to your therapist: "I told you that!!"
So, just don't be annoyed if the therapist asks you to do some part of this yourself or maybe complains a bit about your insurance company (most are difficult and time-consuming to deal with), or isn't as quick as you would like with whatever---writing a letter for you, having your account at the ready, etc. Each patient has a different payment method, and this the therapist also has to keep track of. It can be complicated. Most of us don't like this part as we are clinicians and were not trained to do clerical work (and aren't good at it!). We want to do the interpersonal work. So, if you have a therapist you respect and are fond of, help him or her out by keeping it (the business aspect) simple.
Most of us are used to the doctor's office where all paperwork is handled by support staff. When you have a therapist who agrees to do this for you, they are actually doing you a favor.
Therapists may sometimes behave in ways that seem really odd. If you don't fully understand the powerful constraints of confidentiality, you may be taken aback when you accidentally bump into your therapist in a public place and the therapist doesn't run over to you to say "Hi!" We must wait to see what you do---you may be with someone, you may have any number of circumstances at that time, you may for some reason not want to reveal that you are acquainted with the therapist; so the therapist will follow your lead. They try to gracefully await a sign from you as to whether or not you want to be acknowledged. But, it is awkward sometimes.
The other part of that problem is, what if the therapist is out with someone? If you were to speak to each other, the polite thing to do is to introduce people. But, if the therapist introduces you to her companion, she cannot say, "I'd like you to meet Mary Smith, one of my patients." This would betray confidentiality. Probably, a friendly nod is really the best bet most of the time.
Therapists are not allowed to have what is referred to as "dual relationships". It may seem so natural to you to invite your long-standing, beloved therapist to your daughter's wedding. But, the therapist cannot attend. The definition and protection of the therapy relationship requires it to be kept separate from the other parts of your life. We can't go into business with you,we aren't even allowed to do bartering; we cannot exchange our services for yours, we can't ask you for hot stock tips, etc!!! (You can, however, give us a raise...!)
You can and should expect to be treated with regard and respect by your therapist. Your therapist should be genuine and straightforward but professional in conduct. Your therapist should not be expected to be and should not pose as, a 'guru'. Your therapist should be human and compassionate.
In this unique, not like any other, sort of odd relationship, can you expect your therapist to care for you personally? Maybe, but, not necessarily: I have heard some therapists say that they can treat anyone, whether they like the person, or not. Not me. I have rarely refused to treat anyone, but if I can't find something in them to feel for, I would. I look for that loving part or that growth motivated part or some part that I can connect with in a positive way, personally. But, usually I find it easy to like the people who come my way. Many therapists will become quite fond of a patient if they see them regularly for a long time. The close attention that a therapist pays to a patient, the effort to understand what is beneath the surface, the careful listening, the thinking about that person and their issues, all of this leads to feeling affection. It's normal; therapists are human. At the same time , the therapist must maintain a professional position in relation to the client so that the client can feel that they can depend on the therapist. And the therapist always has to remain ready to hear that client decide to say good-bye.
There's so much to say on the subject of what you can expect from a therapist but this is already a long post. If it gets a lot of traffic, I'll write more on this topic. Be sure to let me know if you have any questions about this. In any case, I hope that, in your therapy experience, you are happily surprised. I hope what I've offered here helps.
If you'd like to read another therapist's offering on this subject, here's a link to one I think is down-to-earth and thorough. It's also a chance to see the difference in style between she and I. As I've mentioned, each therapist is so different and thus, you have to find the one who is a match for you. http://www.therapist4me.com/what_makes_a_good_therapist.htm
Here is another one with yet a different tone: http://www.
*The training is slightly different for each license but for my license, this is required: 19 years of school (not counting nursery school!), 3000 hours of supervised (unpaid) internship hours, an oral and written exam from the state and 36 hours of continuing education every 2 years.
Please join the discussion and leave a comment.
Addendum: I said I would write more on this topic if it got a lot of traffic. Turns out this has become one of the All Time Most Popular Posts and continues to be. So, I did write more on the topic, as promised. Here is Part 2: http://therapiststhoughts.blogspot.com/2012/03/look-before-you-leapthe-imperfect.htm And, you can look forward to more; there is a Part 3, in draft.