• The relationship between client and therapist is one of the most important elements of successful therapy

  • Finding the right therapist means finding one that cares, says Dr Patapia Tzotzoli

  • If you want to be matched with the right therapist for you, start here

As a therapist, collecting feedback is considered good practice, and I have been doing so since I first started working privately over a decade ago. Feedback provides clients with the opportunity to give me their honest opinion about our work together and helps me to continually improve my skills and services.

As part of my self-audit, I was recently going through these forms and noticed a recurrent theme. In an open-ended question inviting clients to write “any other comments [they] wish to make”, I noticed how many had independently written that I cared. This made me wonder. 

Over this decade, my skills have advanced and my experience increased. At the same time, people I’ve worked with have come from so many different walks of life, and they have been of different genders, ages, races, financial status, and sexual orientation, with different levels of mental health challenges. Yet their most often shared observation was that I simply cared for them. I found this striking and it made me reflect further. 

While at university training as a clinical psychologist, I was part of an academically strong bunch of 20 postgraduates with varied clinical experience. Among the bunch was Annie, who was always smiling and softly spoken. I recalled how many of us were drawn to her and had admitted that if we were seeking a therapist, we’d choose her – but why Annie? I also remembered that during appraisals my supervisors consistently fed back about my perseverance and personal approach with clients. At the time, this puzzled me – why was it even worth mentioning?

In reading through my feedback forms, both these experiences finally made sense to me. At such a high level of ability, the differences between therapists came down to soft skills. And these were not the product of any exam or training, they were just part of an individual and were of significant value when engaging and interacting with clients.

How are these soft skills expressed? 

I now have better insight into the value of soft skills. Qualifications, continuing professional development, and clinical experience are clearly important for conducting effective therapy. I’ve been challenged and stretched over the years and have had to tap into my knowledge and experience repeatedly to help my clients. Yet, I have always approached each client as a fellow passenger in life who happens to be struggling with something that is keeping them from their path and needs some answers in order to keep going. Everyone is a completely unique and individual case, and I exert the same effort, time, and zest into helping each of them find their answers so they can breathe more easily again.

Nobody taught me this, it just always felt right to do it this way. I now know that my approach is a combination of professional skills and personal qualities that has helped me build a portfolio of successful stories over the span of my career.

The “right” therapist

I often come across articles offering advice on how to find the right therapist. They usually direct you to assume a consumer approach and ask questions about qualifications, skills, cost, etc. These are sensible questions but the answers will not necessarily lead you to the right therapist.

My advice is to find someone who cares.

Well-qualified therapists should be a safe bet, but how can you really assess their qualifications or level of experience? What do you really know about the work they’ve done? Would the most popular or well-known therapists really give you the attention you’ll need? I also appreciate that health professional costs are often high and that we all have a budget to stick to. But trust me on this, if you find someone who cares, their fees will be justified. At the end of the day, ask yourself, how much is your mental health worth to you?

So, find a therapist who cares. Remember, that doesn’t mean that you need to like them, or that they need to like or approve of you. I’ve worked with people who have addictions (sexual, gambling, substances, etc.), with people who have been violent and aggressive, people who self-harmed or were suicidal, have extramarital relationships, have caused emotional pain to others, even with people who have committed crimes and have been jailed. But to me, this was just part of their story. I focused on the fact that they chose me to help them and that I really wanted to help them.

So personal preferences are not a requirement for someone to do their job and be a good therapist, in fact they are often a counterindication as boundaries can get blurred. What they must do is see you and respect you as a human being. If they care about doing a good job and being successful in their work, then you are in good hands. They will put in the extra hours, they’ll read, get supervision from colleagues, do whatever they can to find a way to help you. And if they ever realise they are not suitable, they’ll find someone else to help you and propose it themselves. Find someone who cares.

How do you know someone cares, I hear you asking. The answer is, instinctively. You’ve got to see them working. When you are with them, try to pay attention to the little things. Do they make the effort to see you beyond what you perceive as your weaknesses, imperfections, and troubles? Do they see you as a person with a struggle and not as a patient or a second-class citizen? Do they look as if they feel good after a session because they see you progressing? Do they champion you? Do they contain you when you are not feeling well? Do they pay attention? Do they sincerely apologise when an admin error occurs on their side? Are they personable yet professional? Notice how you feel being in that room with them.

How do you know that your therapist cares?

In my first session, I always inform new clients that we’ll be having a chat and I’ll be asking lots of questions but that shouldn’t be their main focus. Instead, what they need to consider as they walk out of my door is whether they liked how they felt during this hour. They should ask themselves whether they felt comfortable and want to continue working with me in the environment we both create. I remind them that the qualifications and skills are there, but they will have less impact if working with me doesn’t feel right to them. In this case, I pledge to help them find another therapist. If they want to come back though, they need to ask themselves if they feel they can trust their care to me. And there are no degrees, reviews or reasoning that can justify this, it is just… personal.

So, believe in yourself that you can identify the right therapist for you. And when you do, know that it will be worth investing your time because it is worth investing in your mental health and it is worth investing in you.

Further reading

But, how do I find the right therapist?

Why the therapeutic relationship is so different

9 things I wish I had known about therapy

Does psychotherapy really help