Written by Leisa Tanner – Individual & Family Psychotherapist
I am often asked by friends and family for referrals to therapists for support with a range of issues. Having been a therapist myself for over twenty years, and having accessed my own therapy at various stages of my life, I take such requests very seriously and think very carefully before I recommend a fellow therapist. I do this for a few reasons.
Going to therapy is a big step. A good step. An important one. I am mindful that it takes a considerable amount of courage for anyone to share their story with another person. Being a therapist is a tremendous privilege. For another to trust us with their story is an enormous undertaking and hence referring to another therapist is something not to be done lightly.
In my own experience I have both witnessed, and received, wonderful and less than helpful experiences of therapy and these have given me an opportunity to reflect upon my own practice and the experience I give to those who come to see me.
In my experience a good therapist is one who helps you tell your story, who listens carefully to the words that are said, and the words that are not and the spaces in between the two. Through thoughtful questions and gentle reflection, a good therapist helps the many layers to your story unfold. Through empathic listening and well timed offering of insights, a good therapist can help their client think about their emotional pain and reflect upon the complex factors which may be contributing to that. My experience of good therapy has often been the combination of a therapist who is not only a good listener, but one who can ask me questions which make me think differently, which help me to see my story for all of its facets and to think more deeply about what changes I would like to see in relation to this issue. Sometimes a question asked a little differently, or an opportunity to see a situation reframed in a different way can create a wonderful ripple effect of change that may previously have been inaccessible.
A good therapist rarely gives unasked for advice, suspends negative judgement and creates emotional safety.
And what of ‘less than helpful’ therapy? In my experience, a therapist who can only offer manualised treatment may not be able to hold the complexity of your story. A therapist who seems preoccupied, disinterested or irritated with whatever brings you to therapy is not for you. If a therapist rushes in with advice or snap judgements, they are unlikely to be able to walk the journey with you long term. A therapist who is also not aware of their own limitations of experience may also be unhelpful.
It needs to be said that sometimes too, a therapist who was helpful in the past may not be the ‘right’ therapist for you in the future. Our needs change. Sometimes we ‘outgrow’ our therapist and need a new therapist who offers a different approach to reach a new stage of growth. ‘Goodness of fit’ issues may also occur. A good therapist is open to exploring this with you, regularly asks how you are finding therapy and if they as a therapist can be offering you anything different. If a therapist is sensitive and self aware, they ideally can initiate these conversations with you and can enable therapy to get back on track.
Therapy, when done well, has the potential to provide a platform for thoughtful exploration of your emotions and a vision for change. Finding the right therapist who can provide this space for you is not only helpful, but essential, as you embark upon your journey of growth.