How to Choose a Counselor or Therapist

It’s easy to find a counselor but perhaps more difficult to know if you’ve found one who is right for you. There are a number of questions you can ask that will help you to choose a counselor. This short article outlines 14 of these questions, in no particular order (please note, the words “therapist” and “counselor” are used interchangeably). Thanks to the GoodTherapy.org therapist members who contributed their ideas for this article! If there are other important questions to ask or things you’d like to add to this list, please post a comment below.

1. What does it feel like for you to sit with the therapist? Do you feel safe and comfortable? Is it easy to make small talk? Is the person down to earth and easy to relate to or does he or she feel cold and emotionally removed? Is the counselor “stuck in her head,” or overly emotional and empathic? Is the therapist a “know it all” or arrogant? Sure, for many of us, going to a therapist for the first time is a bit anxiety provoking, and it’s important to tease out our own “stuff” from the actual counselor. But, if a counselor doesn’t feel like a good fit for you, that’s okay; there’s absolutely no contract or rule requiring you to continue working with any counselor. However, it’s important to check to see if there’s a part of you avoiding therapy through a dislike or judgment of the therapist. If you find yourself reacting negatively to every counselor you see, then the issue could be yours and may warrant you sticking it out with a counselor in an effort to work through your fears of beginning therapy.

2. What’s the counselor’s general philosophy and approach to helping? Does your counselor approach human beings in a compassionate and optimistic way? Does he or she believe humans are born loving and lovable, or does the counselor believe people are genetically deficient? We at GoodTherapy.org believe that good therapists and counselors adhere to the elements of good therapy.

3. Can the counselor clearly define how he or she can help you to solve whatever issue or concern has brought you to therapy? Experienced counselors explain how they can help, are able to give you a basic “road map,” to their approach, and can even give an indication of how you will know when therapy is finished.

4. Does the counselor seek regular peer consultation? An important professional activity for any wise counselor is regular consultation with peers or consultants. Consultation serves a number of purposes, such as, but not limited to, reviewing cases, receiving advice, getting unstuck, discovering one’s own blind spots, and noticing how one’s own “stuff” may be getting in the way. Consultation provides a counselor with a necessary reality check, a degree of objectivity, and feedback. Even the best therapists benefit from the help of others.

5. Can your counselor accept feedback and admit mistakes? A healthy counselor is open to feedback and to learning that something he or she said hurt or offended you. Good therapists are willing to look at themselves, to check their feelings, and to honestly and openly admit mistakes.

6. Does the counselor encourage dependence or independence? Good therapy doesn’t solve your problems; it helps you to solve your own. Likewise, good therapy doesn’t soothe your overwhelming feelings; it helps you learn to soothe your own feelings. Like the old proverb, therapy is most powerful when it helps people to learn to fish for themselves rather than rely on another to feed them. If your counselor provides wisdom, answers, or emotional support without encouraging you to access your own resources, it is more likely you will become dependent on your therapist to help you feel better, rather than learning to depend on yourself.

7. Has your counselor done his or her own therapy? One of the best ways to learn how to help someone to heal is to do your own therapy and to experience the healing process firsthand. Thus, therapists who have been in their own therapy benefit from this as a learning experience and are probably better equipped to help because of it. Most good healers are wounded healers—those who, in the process of healing their own wounds, have developed the know-how to help others to heal theirs.

8. Does the therapist have experience helping others with the particular issues for which you are seeking therapy? The more experience therapists have addressing a particular issue, concern, or problem area, the more expertise they have developed.

9. Does the counselor make guarantees or promises? It’s important for a therapist to provide hope but not absolute unconditional guarantees. If you have the will to change and put in the necessary time and energy, healing is possible. Most of our wounds and defenses are the result of what has happened to us and to those around us. Healing can happen quickly in psychotherapy, but only after getting safely through the layers of protective gate keepers, which understandably can take a long time. So, although everyone is capable of healing, changes can take years to happen for some people; unfortunately, because time is limited, some may never achieve the level of healing they desire in this lifetime. In addition, people are not always at a time and place in their growth where they are ready to heal, and a given therapist may not be the right person to help them. Overall, there are numerous factors at play in the therapy process that may contribute to or interfere with healing; we are conscious of some of these factors, and others we are not aware of. And so, there are no guarantees without conditions. More information is available here: “Sometimes We Can’t Help.

10. Does your counselor adhere to ethical principles in regard to issues such as boundaries, dual relationships, and confidentiality? There are numerous ethical guidelines designed to keep counselors from harming clients. Most important, there is a guideline barring against dual relationships. When a therapist enters into a therapeutic relationship with a client, he or she should not have any other relationship with that person, such as teacher, friend, employer, or family member, although there are some exceptions to this rule in villages or very rural communities. The principle behind this guideline is really about whose needs are getting met. A therapist should be there to meet your counseling-related needs for empathy, understanding, support, guidance, unburdening, and healing. When a counselor gets his or her own needs (emotional or otherwise) met by the client, he has crossed a boundary, and the therapy process can be damaged or ruined. This is one of many ethical guidelines, and it’s important for a counselor to adhere to these. For more information on ethical standards, you can visit these links:

11. Is the counselor licensed? Licensure implies that a counselor has engaged in extensive postgraduate counseling experience which, depending on the state of licensure, may include up to 3,000 hours of required supervised experience. It also means the counselor has passed a licensing exam. There are many unlicensed therapists who have years of experience and do excellent work, but licensed counselors have (generally but not always) jumped through more hoops and have undergone more extensive supervision than unlicensed counselors. You can contact your State Professional Licensing Board to verify the licensure of a provider.

12. Does the counselor have a graduate degree? There are numerous people who call themselves “counselors” or “therapists” because they have taken a weekend seminar or have learned a certain therapeutic approach. But without a graduate degree in counseling, psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or another related field of study, such a person lacks the education, training, and skills to provide safe psychotherapy and counseling. It is highly recommended to only work with counselors and therapists who have graduate training. People without graduate-level education in a mental health field may lack the necessary skills and know-how to properly diagnose and treat issues, and there is a great danger in misdiagnosing and mistreating. Psychology is an enormous field, and human beings are multifaceted and complex. It takes years of education and training to effectively help people. Without the proper training, there is great risk of causing harm.

13. Does the counselor have postgraduate training? Many new counselors fresh out of graduate school have had excellent book learning but lack enough actual counseling experience to claim expertise and feel totally confident. Postgraduate training in a particular approach to psychotherapy is often the next step in a new counselor’s career and is helpful in getting a new counselor to the next level, where he or she will have more confidence and know-how

© Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC