Choosing a Therapist: A Detailed Guide

Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT
Updated on May 1, 2024

Finding a therapist might seem easy, but choosing a “good one might be a daunting experience for a lot of people. There are probably a lot of concerns you have when it comes to choosing the right person. After all, you’ll be opening up to them and relying on them to help you work through some of the most consequential issues in your life. But don’t worry. that’s completely normal. You can alleviate some of this fear by simply understanding the various therapy modalities and the different types of professionals This knowledge can help you understand your options and make a more informed decision.

interviewing a therapist

Therapeutic Approaches

Several therapeutic approaches can be incorporated into a given treatment. Some professionals specialize in specific treatments, while others will cater the approach they use to the individual needs of the patient.

Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Approach

Developed by Sigmund Freud, an Austrian Neurologist, the psychodynamic approach focuses on changing behaviors, feelings, and thoughts by discovering their unconscious meanings and motivation. If you believe that your problems might be caused by unconscious motivations, you might want to go to a psychodynamic therapist. He or she will help you explore the subconscious and bring about solutions to the presenting problems.

Cognitive Approach

The cognitive approach to psychology is a theoretical perspective that focuses on mental processes such as thinking, perception, memory, attention, and problem-solving. It assumes that human behavior is influenced by internal mental processes and that these mental processes can be studied and understood through scientific methods.

This approach may be appropriate for patient psychological care when the patient is struggling with problems related to their thought patterns, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions. This approach can be particularly useful for individuals with mental health conditions such as anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which often involve negative or distorted thinking patterns.

Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach, developed by Ivan Pavlov, focuses on changing behavioral patterns through some level of conditioning or reinforcement. The goal of this approach is to help increase the desired behavior and decrease unwanted behavior to solve the presenting problems. Some behaviorists use a form of behavioral desensitization, repeated exposure to feared stimuli (or the cause of anxiety), for a person to become less fearful.

Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the inherent goodness and potential of human beings. This approach focuses on understanding human experience, subjective feelings, and personal growth rather than simply studying behavior or unconscious processes.

This approach emphasizes people’s capacity to make their own rational choices and reach their maximum potential. The humanistic approach helps the person be more aware of the here and now, for them to be responsible for themselves.

Types of Therapists

Once you have a superficial understanding of the more popular and mainstream therapeutic approaches, you can take a look at the different types of mental health providers. While these professionals provide some level of mental health service, each brings a different type of training and experience to the table.


Psychiatrists specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. As they have to complete medical school as part of their training, they are also able to provide drugs. Psychiatrists are trained to provide psychotherapy or “talk” therapy which aims to help change a person’s behavior or thought patterns.


Psychologists usually have a master’s degree or doctoral degree in psychology (Ph.D. or Psy.D.). They are trained in counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing. Psychologists are not able to prescribe medications or diagnose mental illnesses, but they can make referrals to psychiatrists.


Licensed counselors are usually required to have at least a master’s degree in counseling and up to 3,000 hours of experience before they can practice. Although counselors are unable to prescribe medications to individuals, they can diagnose and provide treatment for mental illnesses to groups or individuals.

Social Workers

These master’s degree-level professionals (there are some Ph.D. holders) provide social services in health and mental health-related areas. Social workers are typically trained to assess the psychosocial needs of their clients, including environment, social status, mental health, and functioning within society.

Deciding on a Therapist

Now that you have a basic overview of your options, here are some suggestions to consider when choosing a therapist.

Talk to Friends and Family Members

Ask others about their experiences in counseling and therapy. This can be particularly helpful if you are new to the process. You may discover that often, people you know have been in therapy. They might also be able to provide insight into what kind of service you might need. If you have friends or associates who are therapists, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations.

Call Local Agencies and Organizations

Calling local mental health agencies and asking for recommendations for therapists who have experience with your type of diagnosis will help narrow down your search. Not only might these agencies be able to provide a few names, but they might also be able to recommend resources that are close to your area. National organizations may have local chapters or contact persons near you. Keep in mind, though, that recommendations or referrals do not ultimately guarantee the quality of service you will receive, hence the next point.

Prepare Questions for the Interview

This is your life here. You should have the sole authority to decide if you want to keep seeing a therapist or if they are not what you want – and this includes character, professionalism, or whatever it is that may be personal to you. Do not be afraid to show up to your initial interview with an extensive list of questions. Write them down so you do not forget any.

The questions on your list could range from the intensity of services, charges, fees, meeting times, insurance questions, and certain policies, to more personal questions such as information about the therapist. You will be disclosing personal information to this person; be sure to feel as comfortable with them as possible from the initial interview. If none of the therapists that you have interviewed is satisfactory, keep looking.

Trust Your Intuition

If it feels like the wrong fit between yourself and the mental health professional, you should not feel the need to continue with them. During your first appointment, be aware of how you feel when you are in the room with the therapist. Do you feel heard when you speak? Notice everything. You might not decide on the first session if the therapist is for you or not; just be honest with yourself as soon as you feel uncomfortable.

You should also take note of any red flags, ethical concerns, or boundary issues that you think might affect your relationship with them. Be sure to raise these concerns with the therapist. A good counselor will not feel threatened by your honesty, rather, they might be willing to address your hesitation, or better yet, refer you to someone else that might work for you.

Made a Decision

You have learned the differences between all the labels and alphabets behind the names, you have narrowed down the kind of therapeutic approach you are looking for, and you have interviewed friends, family, associates, and even therapists. Now it is time for you to decide which one you are going with.

While selecting the right therapist is a vital component of the overall process, it is more important to stay focused on improving your mental health. Getting so worked up about finding the right therapist for you might cause you to lose sight of the real issue. Beware of getting too involved in finding the “ideal” mental health professional. This could lead you to never getting started on the work you need to do. Do not let perfectionism get in your way; be careful not to get into your head too much about the “right” therapist.

Be more concerned about your healing process. If you have found someone who fits your needs, is caring, skilled, flexible, genuinely listens to you, and wants to work together to solve the problem, it is time to stop searching. If you still want to have the flexibility to easily switch therapists at any time, and you prefer to conduct all your sessions virtually, you may want to consider signing up with an online therapy service.

While finding the right therapist, whatever that might mean to you, could be an unnerving experience, it is very doable. Keep in mind that if you are having a mental health emergency, you should immediately call 911 if the situation is life-threatening. Several mental health hotlines are available 24/7 to help you if you need to speak to someone urgently. Otherwise, just do your homework and trust your instincts.

Aside from finding a therapist with the right experience and relevant educational background, look for a therapist with whom you feel safe, comfortable, and understood. As mentioned earlier, the therapeutic relationship is so important in psychodynamic therapy. Plus, you will be diving deeply into difficult personal issues. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important that you find a therapist that you trust.


Adebolanle Ade, MSW, RBT

Adebolanle Ade is a Mental Health Social Worker and Registered Behavioral Technician. She has many years of experience writing and advocating for mental health awareness.

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