An alternative way to find the right therapist
Knowledge versus soft skills
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.
“I came to you at my lowest ebb with a specific problem in mind. We tackled that but did not stop there and went far beyond what I had ever hoped for, just because you cared for me. You helped me understand not only the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’ I do what I do and that has provided me with the foundations to move forward and continue to improve myself.” C.
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 for me, 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 have helped me build a portfolio of success stories over the span of my career.
“Every problem i was facing we managed to turn it into a learning experience. I am really glad I found someone who cared for me. Thank you!” A.
“I liked that our sessions were well organised, not just talking, but actually going over goals, schedule, etc. The use of tools and techniques was valuable. It wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t care.” K.
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 without charge, they’ll read, get supervision from colleagues, do whatever they can to find a way to help you. And if they ever realize they are not suitable, they’ll find someone else to help you and propose it themselves. Find someone who cares.
How do you know that your therapist 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 apologize when an admin error occurs on their side? Are they personable yet professional? Notice how you feel being in that room with them.
“Throughout our sessions I felt you cared. I liked that we did not entirely focus on the eating habits, but also on surrounding issues in my life like relationships and family. This gave me an overall guidance in life by looking at me as a person and not just focusing on the specific problem. It also helped my relationships and my shyness a lot! I now adapt the challenging assumptions technique in social settings or others, and it made me a happier person by worrying less and challenging all the bad thoughts in my head. So I enjoyed that I came to you because of one specific problem, but it enriched my life as a whole”. S.
Trust that you know better (in most cases, this is true)
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.
NB: A version of this article was originally published here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Patapia Tzotzoli founded My Psychology Clinic where she gained her reputation working as Clinical Psychologist with clients on one to one basis in London and worldwide via online therapy. She specialises in adult mental health and couples therapy. Studied at the universities of East London, Oxford and Cambridge and trained at the Institute of Psychiatry where she worked across world-renowned NHS Trusts.
Click here to book a session with Dr Patapia Tzotzoli at My Psychology Clinic.