Sometimes we want to heal stress or trauma, but feel anxious about the therapy process, or worry that talking to a health professional could make things worse. We wonder, “how do I find a good therapist?”
To start with, lets talk about what good therapy is not. It is not being given advice or told how to live your life by someone, or made to feel ashamed, small, or frightened. A good therapy relationship is not “one up, one down”, with you less than the other person.
It is also not sitting with someone who insists you “tell all” on the first session, and who seems unaware of your emotional distress as you relive that experience. Nor is it with a health professional who can’t stand pauses or silence, or who lets you talk all the time without helping you slow down, pause and reflect.
And it certainly isn’t being with a health professional who tells you that you are “broken”, or gives you a scary label, or tells you that you will have take a particular medication for the rest of your life, after less than an hour of assessment!
And most importantly, good therapy is not something that can be “done” in six weeks, despite the government’s money driven insistence on this!
So what is good therapy?
Good therapy takes time. It is based on the neuroscience of trauma and attachment, treats you with respect and gives you hope. Good therapy helps you become the person you were meant to be, not just the person that trauma made you be to survive. It encourages choice, collaboration, and empowerment..
Therapy is good when it gently teaches us how to be in the “optimal zone” (Steven Porges polyvagal theory ) which means learning how to chill, relax, soothe and settle ourselves, before we even start talking about the trauma. It turns out that being stressed all the time, especially during therapy, is just not good for us!
So it makes sense that a good therapist should have the skills to help you find a more gentle way to process and heal the past, without having to be retraumatised in the telling of the story. For this reason, mindfulness and body- based talking therapies are now recommended to make therapy safer, as well as the traditional “talking therapy”.
Body based talking therapies such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy or Somatic Experiencing include the latest science on healing trauma, to avoid accidental re-traumatisation that traditional talking therapies can cause.
So the first tip is to ask potential therapists if they are trained in traditional talking and body based talking therapies. (Or are they a “one trick pony” who has limited understanding of modern psychotherapy, seems arrogant, makes you feel small, or mainly just prescribes drugs?)
The second tip is to ask if the health professional has walked in your shoes. Have they done their own work? Are they humble? Wise and knowledgeable? Experienced in trauma? What psychotherapy have they done themselves, and did their training require this? Or did they do it because they were interested?
It is dangerous to assume that any particular professional training makes for the list of qualities above. You may be surprised to learn, for example, that psychology training in Victoria today has no requirement for any type of personal psychotherapy as part of the training (even though the training now takes seven years!) So some psychologists may have done some personal therapy, but many have not!
Of course the problem with this is that the health professional who hasn’t done their own psychotherapy has little idea what its like to be a patient, and is probably going to be less aware of their own “stuff”- for example their own patterns, processes, transference, countertransference, and character strategies.
They may thus be more likely to make assumptions, or be less competent to “hold” clients safely and effectively. Within the therapy relationship, they may cultivate a superior attitude, or simply be less able to attune to the patient, and be less able to “see” the patient clearly through the fog of their own “stuff”.
Also, many mental health professionals may have done some psychotherapy, but have done it in a way which leaves them unchanged by the experience. So a third tip is to ask a potential therapist “what changed in relationship to your self or others as a result of your own therapy?”, or “how did therapy make you grow?” If the therapist is not comfortable to answer such questions, this could be a red flag.
So I suppose to summarise, after about twenty years of my own personal psychotherapy, if I were looking for a psychotherapist today, I would look for someone with the capacity to be aware enough of their own processes that they are able to provide a safe container for the work, including allowing space for uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and behaviours, and also someone with the skill to help me become more calm, settled, and mindful. I would also look for a professional who did not rely on drugs as the main treatment option! I look forward to your comments on this!