What You Want Isn't Always What You Need in Therapy
My therapist and I had an unpromising start. Three years on, I am incredibly thankful that I chose her as my therapist and I understand more about why my choice was a good one, and how I could have felt more confident about it at the time. Instead, I spent a long time worrying about what to base my decision on.
Choosing a therapist can be daunting, not least due to the variety of therapies available. Thankfully, there are tools such as the helpful questionnaire provided by welldoing.org, that match you with possible therapists based on your answers to a number of questions. Once you have a shortlist, meeting the candidates is vital - this could be one of the most important and life-changing relationships you will ever have. But once you’ve met them, how do you decide? Should you, as a friend of mine suggested, make a list of the pros and cons of each? There are three lessons about choosing a therapist, that being in therapy has taught me.
1. Go beyond first impressions
There is no reason why the initial consultation shouldn’t turn into two or three ‘trial sessions’, and something that bothers you initially, needn’t be a showstopper. When I first phoned my therapist to arrange a meeting, she inadvertently said something that offended me. I didn’t mention it in the first session, but it was still upsetting, and a friend suggested I see her again and raise it with her. I met her a second time and we talked it through, and the way she handled it gave me confidence that we could tackle other difficulties in future. There can be frequent cycles of 'rupture and repair' in therapy, and if you find out early on that you can successfully resolve conflict together (particularly if like me you are normally conflict-averse!) that is an incredibly positive sign for the relationship.
2. What you want isn’t always what you need
There are environments we find more comfortable, and ways of relating we are more used to. It’s not surprising we might want our therapist to fit in with this, and to ‘tick boxes’ we feel are important. My ‘boxes’ included having someone who would do at least as much talking as I did, and who wouldn’t leave long silences. One of my ‘potential therapists’ ticked those boxes, but my actual therapist didn’t; and yet I still had a gut feeling that she might be the ‘right one’ for me.
Many of us come to therapy because we want to change; we come to be pushed beyond our comfort zone. If we look only for what we are already used to, we may miss the opportunity to explore the things we find most difficult. I now understand why I needed someone else to lead the conversation, and why I found silences so terrifying. I understand how to overcome those things, and all because my therapist challenged me in ways I didn’t think I wanted or needed. Trust your gut – it may have a better sense of what you need than your conscious mind does.
3. Listen to your subconscious
Your subconscious expresses itself in more ways than through ‘gut feeling’. In therapy, we learn to pay attention to our dreams, our fantasies, and the metaphors and images we are drawn to. They can be powerful tools for understanding ourselves and revealing feelings we may not be aware of. After my introductory sessions with my therapist, I found myself imagining how the view from the window of her therapy room would change with the seasons. I thought about the beauty of the surroundings – her house is by a river - and I could visualise myself returning there again and again. I constructed a fantasy around the only thing I really knew about her at that time – her physical surroundings – and though it felt important, I struggled to understand it. What did this have to do with whether she would be a ‘good fit’ as my therapist? In hindsight I can see that what was significant was not the view or the river, but the fact that I was mentally starting to make our therapeutic relationship my home.
I’m glad I gave those feelings precedence over a pros and cons list. My therapist and I have often struggled to understand each other – but I’ve learned that this is no barrier to being cared for. We have had numerous conflicts – but I’ve learned that mending is possible. Misunderstanding and conflict would have been top of my list of ‘cons’, but without them I wouldn’t have grown. I chose her, and my choice felt like a happy accident; but now I tend to agree with Freud, that there is no such thing as an accident.
Clara blogs at Life in a Bind