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How to find a good counsellor or psychotherapist (Part II)

posted 29 Nov 2011, 08:26 by Christine Schneider   [ updated 20 Mar 2012, 04:56 ]

How to find a good counsellor or psychotherapist (Part II)

(Please note that, as mentioned in part 1 of this article, I am using the terms counselling, psychotherapy, and therapy interchangeably.)


With so many different theoretical approaches to counselling and psychotherapy, it is difficult to state exactly what makes a good counsellor and what makes a bad one. I am certainly very reluctant to recommend one particular theoretical approach to counselling over another one, as very often clients respond better to one approach then another, making it all very individual and dependent on the actual client and counsellor in question. Nevertheless, it does strike me how many clients come to me stating that they have made a bad experience with a counsellor in the past, or tell me that they have had therapy in the past, but that “it hadn’t worked”. Counselling is a process and for it to work it will take time, effort and patience on both parts, counsellor and client. So, whilst I am aiming to give you an overview of what qualities to look for in a therapist, I’d also suggest that you don’t immediately give up and seek another therapist, just because you felt that your counsellor is no good after an initial session. Keep in mind that it is your counsellor’s job to challenge your views and perceptions, how you currently view the world and how you act, in order to help you to achieve meaningful and lasting change. A therapist who simply agrees that you are right and everybody else is wrong and that all of your problems really are your partner’s, your work colleagues’ or your parents’ fault may be telling you exactly what you want to hear; Whilst this kind of positive reassurance may well provide you with some of the nurturing and comfort you may so desperately need, it will probably not help you to move on and change the way you react to your partner, work colleagues or parents.

So how do you know then if your psychotherapist is providing you with the right kind of support you need in order to achieve your own specific goals? My answer to that would be to trust your instincts. One of the most important aspects for therapy to work is the rapport and relationship you have with your counsellor. Sure, during several months of therapy there may well be occasions where you don’t agree, where you may feel frustration, and maybe at times your counsellor may even genuinely get it wrong and misinterpret something you have said, but overall these occurrences should be easily resolvable. If, on the other hand however you do feel a very strong dislike for your therapist from the very start and do not feel that this is the kind of person you want to work with, then there will be little point in battling on.

If you have never had any form of counselling or psychotherapy before then it may be difficult for you to know what to expect. The following is a list of some of the attributes that I would personally want to see in a counsellor. I would expect a therapist to be warm, empathetic and kind. I would expect them to show genuine interest in what I am trying to achieve through therapy and to make me feel heard. Also, especially where therapy is long term and taking place over a period of six months or more, I would expect a counsellor to carry out regular reviews to keep track of the progress and to evaluate which methods and interventions work best for me. Another big issue is confidentiality and trust; I would want to know exactly what the therapist’s procedures are for keeping my data secure and what level of confidentiality I can expect.

This leads us on to another aspect of counselling: who should not be your therapist? In part one of this article I explained that my reason for writing this guide was the fact that I am often approached by people who I cannot ethically take on as clients for counselling or psychotherapy myself. These include people who are my friends, friends of friends, very close friends or relatives of work colleagues or even anybody frequenting the same social groups as I do. This includes people who I may meet regularly in art or exercise classes or similar. When I explain this, people will often say: “…but I don’t mind you knowing personal stuff about me, as I know that you will keep it confidential.”  That may be true, but keep in mind that therapy is supposed to provide you with a secure environment where you can feel safe to explore your most personal thoughts and feelings. Whilst you may feel right now that you’d be happy for me to know about those thoughts and feelings, imagine sitting in my counselling room, wanting to talk about something quite personal, when all of a sudden there is a slight niggle in your mind that says: “…but I’ll see her at the coffee bar tomorrow….” or “…she’ll be seeing my husband at the squash club later tonight…” Can you see how this might affect and restrict what you might feel able to share with a counsellor? And that is why it is usually not a good idea to choose a therapist whom you or your close friends or family will meet regularly in other settings outside of the therapy room. Having said that, your counsellor does of course have a social life, too, and may well be a member of the same fitness club as you are, and as long as you don’t bump into each other on a daily basis that’s fine. In fact, most counsellors will discuss with you what their procedure for chance meetings is, in case you ever were to meet by coincidence outside of your therapy sessions.

Another important aspect to consider is moving from individual one to one counselling to couples or family therapy. Very often counsellors will conduct some sessions where both partners (or the whole family) are present and some sessions where individual members are seen on their own. This is quite normal, however, family and couples counselling usually does require all of the members to start counselling together. This means that whilst a client may have one or two sessions with a counsellor and together they may then decide that it would be more beneficial to bring in the other partner or the rest of the family, it is not normally appropriate to see a therapist for several months and to then decide to move on to couples or family therapy with that same practitioner.

 Finally here is a list of warning signs that may help you to decide if things are going wrong between you and your therapist. Watch out if your counsellor:

  • Interrupts you frequently
  • Seems impatient
  • Does not seem to listen properly or give you their full and undivided attention
  • Takes telephone calls or answers the door/front desk during sessions
  • Does not seem to stick to the same session length every week
  • Is frequently very late or cancels sessions at short notice
  • Will not give you any information about their professional background, training or ways of working, if asked
  • Will not give you any information about how data is kept secure and what their procedures for ensuring confidentiality are
  • Seems judgemental and/or prejudiced
  • Is telling you what to do and regularly uses terms such as “you should”, “you must” or “you can’t”
  • Seems to be giving you advice rather than options
  • Seems to just agree with everything you say
  • Instigates any form of social contact with you outside of sessions
  • Is regularly talking more than you in sessions
  • Just lets sessions happen from week to week without any from of plan, structure or regular review sessions
  • Allows other people (such as the receptionist or other counsellors) to enter the room unexpectedly during sessions

If you are still not sure, try addressing any problems you may be experiencing directly with your therapist. If you do not feel able to do this, then that in itself can be an obvious sign that things aren’t right between you and your therapist. In this case you could contact a different counsellor and ask for a second opinion to see what they say about your concerns.


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