When searching for the ‘right’ therapist, it is striking how similar this process can feel to dating for a number of reasons. Just like finding the ideal mate, finding the right therapist strongly influences your mental health and overall sense of well-being. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as browsing the Psychology Today website, selecting a therapist that specializes in your unique needs and turning up to an appointment. No amount of experience or credentials can substitute for a lack of chemistry, when assessing compatibility with a licensed mental health professional. To form a positive working relationship with a therapist, there must be a strong connection with a foundation of trust and effective communication. In this blog post, we explore some of the parallels between dating and the development of a therapeutic relationship.
Building a Foundation of Trust
When establishing a strong therapeutic alliance, trust is vital to ensure transparency and honesty is present in your sessions. To trust is to believe that someone is good and honest, they do not pose a threat to you and you should feel safe in their company. Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman has found through his research that trust is built over time through small consistent acts, as opposed to grand gestures. Trust is built gradually through consistent acts of connectivity, openness and lack of judgement. For example, knowing your therapist has remembered the names of your close friends and relatives provides reassurance that you have been actively listened to. Each act can be seen as a marble which is being placed into a jar. As you collect more and more marbles, you begin to feel safer in deepening your level of trust and allowing yourself to become more open and vulnerable in therapy.
Awareness of the Element of Transference
When you come into contact with a new person, your experiences with past and current people in your life, will subconsciously influence your emotional reactions to the person. It is not only with a psychotherapist; it is with anyone. This universal psychological phenomenon in which a person’s relation to another person has elements which are similar to and/or are based on their earlier attachments, especially to parents, siblings, and significant others is known as Transference. Engaging in therapy is an intense environment, where emotions are often heightened. For example, someone’s voice, demeanor or appearance may remind you of your mother. Unlike dating, your relationship with your therapist is not a two-way exchange. Your therapist can be viewed as a blank slate (or one dimensional) compared to other people you get to know as friends or romantic partners. Consequentially, your subconscious mind may prompt you to project your personal thoughts onto this new person in the form of your beliefs, prejudices and attitudes. If you become aware of the element of transference in therapy, share this with your therapist so that you can explore and reflect on this dynamic together. Remember, a psychotherapist’s job is to help you apply reason and understanding to your emotions.
Communication Style & Compatibility
Your therapist may be friendly, but remember they are not your friend. If your sessions with your therapist resemble interactions with a friend, then they are not serving you as a therapist. Therapy is purposeful, probing and pragmatic, moving deliberately toward mutually negotiated goals and unearthing and unburdening from the residual impacts of past traumas. If your therapist uses therapy time for any purpose other than to help you, then what they are doing is not good therapy.
You should not have detailed information of your therapist’s family situations, political views and childhood experiences. This time is for you. While a tasteful self-disclosure can be helpful in deepening trust, your therapist has to ensure this session is focused entirely on you. A strong foundation of trust enables you to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable with your therapist, so that each session progressively peels back the layers.
Therapy is a challenging process which prompts you to explore past traumas, painful experiences and ultimately become accountable for your actions and decisions. Therapy is not intended to be an easy or effortless process. Therapy seeks to build your resilience and establish sound mental health. This is a continuous process of self-discovery, challenge and growth. In other words, mental health is not the destination but the journey. The therapist, therefore, is not a chauffeur but a driving instructor. You are receiving direction and guidance but you must make the changes in your life. The style of which your therapist guides you can also pose a challenge. Some of you may prefer a more directive or probing style of communication while others find it comforting and therapeutic to simply engage in Socratic questioning. Be vocal about your needs with your therapist so that you can co-create a process that feel right for you.
There are many different types of therapy each focused towards different elements of establishing positive mental health. Good therapy can come in many forms. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy emphasizes what people think rather than what they do. Cognitive Behavioral Therapists believe that it is dysfunctional thinking that leads to dysfunctional emotions or behaviors. By restructuring your thought process, you can change how you feel and what you Psychodynamic Therapy focuses on changing problematic behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by discovering your unconscious meanings and motivations. Interpersonal Therapy prompts you to closely examine your relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and other key people, with the goal of resolving interpersonal conflict, improving communication and building solid support network. Trauma focused therapies such as EMDR focused upon burdening from the pain stored on the inside so that more adaptive thoughts can come to the surface. Though there are many more therapeutic approaches the aforementioned tend to allow you to establish a good working relationship before progressing forward.
Much like dating there is nothing that breaks down trust faster than cancelled appointments, feeling left down and lack of availability. Your experience with your therapist begins with the front desk. Specifically, your therapist must have well organized scheduling and prompt communication in order for you to fall into a pattern of attendance that works for your personal and professional life.
Progression Versus Stagnation
Good therapy looks to facilitate sound mental health. In striving for positive mental health, you should see changes in your relationships and external environment within a few weeks or months. This change or progress will often manifest in your thought process, resilience and reaction to adverse events. However, if you begin to feel stagnant in therapy it may be time to reevaluate its purpose in your life. You may have come to therapy for a healing and corrective experience but have been left feeling ‘stuck’. Though you may be accessing an understanding environment and your therapist may be emphatic and accepting, are you seeing the benefits to this commitment? There are many different therapists out there and there is a wide array of approaches. Ultimately it is you sitting in front of another person placing your trust in them. It is this complexity that makes the tapestry of human nature so diverse and vibrant. However, it is essential to be mindful of how that person makes you feel both in their presence and when you are apart.
Learn to place trust in your intuition, try to think of it as ‘inner’ tuition. A general rule of thumb is that that if you do not feel connected with a therapist after three sessions, it is a good idea to start looking somewhere else. However, you may have already identified a disconnect before the third session. The important thing is not to judge yourself but much like dating, focus on your personal comfort levels and be assertive and discerning when choosing the right individual to connect with.