Tips for the New Year: What to Look For in a Therapist
As the winter solstice and New Year approach, it's common to think about new possibilities---I prefer this to resolutions which makes me and so many feel guilty as soon as it's spoken! Many of us know that it would be helpful to have a guide, coach, and mentor through this process, but we don't quite know what to look for. Here's a framework to help you find the right match.
An integrated therapist has the yin and yang of the following qualities: therapeutic presence and therapeutic authority. Therapeutic presence is loosely defined as the capacity to be receptive, attentive, emotionally available, nonjudgemental, and resonant with your unfolding experience (Geller and Greenberg. 2012). Put simply, therapeutically present therapists are understanding, open-minded, and comfortable with a range of different feelings and perspectives. You feel a sense of safety, trust, and warmth in their company and the space seems to open up with them.
It is this disarming quality which makes it easy for you to explore new subplots and turns of your story. In fact, you will find yourself surprised at how much you are saying and learning about yourself just in the telling itself. This is a crucial quality for your new therapist, and you will know it immediately. Trust your intuition here-this one's based on a gut reaction!
Therapists who practice this kind of presence don't have to know immediately and are not bothered by the ambiguity and complexity of what they are hearing. In fact, they will allow you to lead and be in the driver's seat so that you can show them the territory first, and in so doing, instruct them on how to best be of service. The Zen Buddhists would say these therapists have 'beginner's mind', a flexible and creative capacity to be open to new as yet unimagined possibilities. You definitely want your therapist to have this quality because it is the foundation for new insights and growth! This openness allows all of us to take more risks in therapy, to deepen the exploration of our thoughts and feelings, and to get to truly enjoy the deeper waters of the psyche, even providing modeling for us to be more open with the various sides of ourselves and in our relationships too.
Many great therapists have the above qualities, but this is not enough on its own. In addition to openness and receptivity, it is also so important that a therapist be discerning and knows how to move us someplace different and creative. The yang side of the equation, I define therapeutic authority as the confidence to help us organize, make sense of, and put the pieces of our story together for new movement and momentum. This is where the therapist uses his or her theory, techniques, and experience to help you do something new and interesting with what you are presenting, shows how you can become more creative in how you approach it.
So many clients say therapists can be fantastic listeners, but they don't feel like they get enough feedback or wisdom from their therapists. They don't know what to do with their challenges or struggles and don't know how to transform them! The therapist with therapeutic authority is happy to help you blaze a new trail, and will empower you to work on sorting through the various aspects of your experience to find bigger patterns, and new possibilities. Like an artist mentoring a new student, they can see the bigger and smaller picture and can help you with the difficult passages entailed in putting new skills together.
Most importantly, the therapist with a balanced dose of therapeutic authority knows how to do this with appropriate timing, tact, and empathy. They are not going to break you down like a military sergeant, but instead are going to be thoughtfully discriminating and help you to penetrate deeper into your problems and their implied solutions.
It is common to find a therapist who has one or the other side more developed. This is natural, however, it is very important to be able to make sure these are not too out of balance. It is crucial to get the best of both worlds, a therapist who is able to integrate these complementary facets! By doing so, the therapist has what I call a healthy 'therapeutic voice.'
Why is this so important to you? If a therapist has their voice, they will be well-poised to help you develop and refine your own voice. This is the essence of therapy itself, finding a creative engagement, integration, and balancing of these complementary sides-- the yin and yang--which makes life such a joy and adventure!
Hope this helps you zero in on the therapist that's right for you. Here's to a wonderful new year of growth and possibility!
About the author: Michael Alcee, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Tarrytown, NY. He loves working with clients and helping them find the right match so that they can enjoy creative growth and transformation. To find out more about him and his work, check out his LinkedIn page or his website at drmichaelalcee.com.
Geller, S. M., & Greenberg, L. S. (2012). Therapeutic presence: A mindful approach to effective therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.