"I think finding a good therapist to work with is a challenging prospect... Why is it so difficult to find a good therapist? Because the qualities that might be ideal for one person may not work as well for another. A therapist is more than a plumber for your mind; you can’t just pick one at random from the Yellow Pages. Well, you can, but you may not find the right one using that method.
...No matter what qualities I may suggest a person look for in a good therapist, ideally a person should look at finding a new therapist as a test drive, a completely temporary arrangement that may or may not work out. Most people try going to a single therapist, find it incompatible with their needs, and never return for a second session (much less try again with a second therapist). The key is to find a therapist that seems to complement your needs and your personality."
Having said that, we both agree that there are some fundamental qualities to look for while you are test driving a new therapist. Dr. Grohol said a good therapist:
1) is positive and empathetic.
2) is professional, courteous, and respectful.
3) recognizes his/her strengths and limitations.
4) is genuine.
I would add that a good therapist...
5) is not defensive. If a patient needs something the therapist can't give him like expertise in an area he does not have deep training in; if the patient asks for a second opinion or says something critical about the therapist or her work, as hard as it might be, it is not therapeutic and certainly isn't professional for the therapist to get defensive.
6) has a minimum of authentic credentials that are verifiable. Credentials and licensing of health workers, from medical doctors to hair stylists is done by the state to protect consumers from charlatans. It's OK and responsible to ask for your therapist's credentials and if you don't understand what they are, ask for an explanation (which should be given without defensiveness :-)
7) is reasonably accessible. If you need to reach your therapist he/she should have a clear procedure for how and when you can do that outside of sessions, after-hours and in case of emergencies.
8) is not judgmental. Listening to people without judgment is a big part of providing a safe place for therapeutic work to happen. Therapists are trained to be aware of their triggers – those people, places, things that get in the way of our impartiality. We all have them. Most of the time we can process them in our own therapy or set them aside for the sake of our work. If we feel we can't treat certain conditions without being judgmental we are obliged to refer the patient to someone who can. For example, I would have a hard time treating a sexual predator, even while recognizing that they have a right to treatment and their seeking treatment is good. I would need to refer that person to someone who I know does good, non-judgmental work in that area.
9) keeps good boundaries. This means physical as well as psychological boundaries. A good therapist doesn't suggest she can be friends with her patient, or encourage meeting outside of the office. Confidentiality policies are crystal clear and in writing. Physical contact is limited to a handshake until it is clear that a light hug would be welcome AND therapeutic. A good therapist keeps the therapy session to the time allotted (usually an hour).
I don't mean the therapist should be all uptight and rigid about such stuff. In fact, keeping good boundaries is a lot about what Dr. Grohol said about being genuine and professional, courteous and respectful.
Read the interview with Dr. Grohol in its entirety – I highly recommend it! His take on therapy and the therapeutic process is like a breath of fresh air as illustrated by one of the most popular posts on PsychCentral 12 Most Annoying Bad Habits of Therapists.
You might also check out a new blog called Therapy Soup dedicated to all issues of psychotherapy and the therapeutic process, demystifying it and helping to answer your questions about it.
Related articles:10 Ways to Find a Good Therapist