All The Ways That Finding a Therapist is Like Dating and Two Big Ways It’s Not

Finding a good therapist isn’t easy. Even with websites that do the matching for you, there are still many factors to consider. You realize that your way of thinking or feeling hasn’t been working for you. You want a change, even if it means asking a stranger for help. But which stranger? It must be someone you like well enough. Someone you can trust with your secrets, and whom you think can help you. Plus there is location, fee, insurance panels, and the quality of the waiting room magazines to take into consideration. If you’ve never been in therapy before, you’re probably dizzy with questions and concerns. It may feel like entering a new frontier each time you seek a new therapist, even if you’ve benefited from therapy in the past. But the process isn’t entirely unfamiliar. In many ways, finding a therapist is like dating.


You may have looked up his or her online profile before you met. You saw the picture, read a short but sweet bio and got a flavor for their personal philosophy. But until you two are sitting across from each other, you don’t know if there will be chemistry. It should be obvious pretty quickly. Ideally, each of you is comfortable around the other. There’s something in common between you, maybe a shared attitude. Just because there’s chemistry doesn’t mean the union will be effective, of course. There’s still plenty of work to be done. But if the chemistry isn't there you can’t keep seeing this person, just to be nice. It makes more sense to move on.


But how? It’s undeniably awkward to be the one who breaks it off. And the temptation arises to just disappear. To not show up when expected, to not return any calls. It’s your right as the client to ghost this person, of course. But if you were seeing each other for a long time, consider that it might be very therapeutic-it might benefit you-to meet one last time and explain why you’re leaving instead.


Others may find the following a scandalous suggestion, but if you can afford it, consider seeing a few different people and trying to find the best match. Not indefinitely–that would be confusing for you and unethical for them. But consider meeting up with maybe two or three different people, just once. Evaluate your mental health and check in with yourself after each meeting: was the conversation labored or effortless? How do you feel about them? More importantly, how do you feel about yourself? Are you hopeful for how things between you might progress?


Once you find someone that you click with, how much personal information should you reveal in the beginning? Some people spill everything right away. As if unburdening themselves for the first time, there’s an outpouring of the most painful and difficult events in their lives told in chronological order. Others choose to hold the more sensitive material back until they know they can trust the other to respond with compassion. That makes sense. Trust is always built over time.


And now for the two big ways therapy is completely different from dating: sex and money.


Let’s start with the obvious, which should go without saying, but surprisingly doesn’t. Traditional talk therapy does not involve physical intimacy of any kind. A therapist/client relationship differs greatly from romantic relationships in this aspect. Many therapists try to avoid even handshakes and hugs. We’re generally fine with high fives. And most of us won’t recoil in horror if clients try to hug us, but it’s not something we’re likely to initiate. Anything beyond that, any intimate touching or sexual behavior, is illegal, unethical, and damaging for the client’s mental health.


The other way that finding a therapist is different from dating involves payment for services rendered. So even though the topics of discussion in these therapy sessions are intimate, the two of you aren’t friends, family, or lovers. One of you is paying the other for service. And the service provider has regulations about late cancellations and bounced checks that might come across as more than a little rigid in the dating world. There are limits placed on how many contacts you can have between sessions. The conversation is completely lop-sided with the client sharing almost exclusively and the provider listening without disclosing. In fact, the therapist/client relationship is so stilted and unbalanced, if you passed each other in the aisle at Trader Joe’s, you’d probably both look the other way.


So where does that leave you, looking for the right therapist in an ocean full of mental health professionals? For anyone trying to find a therapist, who’s tired of feeling the way they’ve been feeling, remember that the therapist is only one part of the equation. Arguably less than half. If you show up for regular sessions and remain open to whatever comes up, willing to work through uncomfortable feelings, you will likely find therapy to be effective for you. It turns out, you’re the one you were looking for all along.


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