How to know you have the right therapist

(Short version of this blog first appeared on The Mighty) Contains swearing

I pose a question to anybody who attends therapy/counselling/psychology – however you chose to phrase it.  Do you know how to decide you have found a good psychologist or therapist?

For my American friends I assume you can shop around – a freedom less open to us Brits who are given a very limited pool of options if we choose to stay within the framework of NHS psychological services. Of course, we can always go private. So, if you do, how do you know how to know you have found the right person? I don’t claim to know the exact blend but sometimes it will just be a defining factor that feels right.  I don’t think you can make a list and use it as a reference. Because sometimes you will find yourself surprised by what will feel right. Even in what you may not think of as the ‘right person’. And sometimes the ‘right person’ may not be who you think they are.

When I first met my psychologist I had an immediate shut down response. She was everything I wasn’t with a floral skirt, chunky jewellery, long untied hair and a very ‘grown up’ and therapist-y vibe. I didn’t connect because I thought she would be too ‘fluffy’ to get me, the place I was in and the needs I had  and so requested a male psychologist who I thought would be more straight forward to talk to – less inclined to fluffy ideas or conversation. Incidentally, I have since had some time with the male therapists or nurses within the service and I have to say they very much are as I expected. But at this point in time my therapist wrote me a letter commending me for my honesty and said she would find somebody. When nobody was forthcoming owing to staff shortages and psychologist caseloads, I had gone for some time following a period of hospitalisation with medical supervision from the nursing service but no psychology follow up. Knowing this my psychologist asked me to have a second go at working with her.

I’m extremely glad I did. My psychologist IS quite softly spoken with what I call ‘therapist-y’ body language, the clasped hands, open body posture, the head tilt and the eye contact straight out of the nursing and psychology Big Book Of Helping People.  She does the requisite mm-hmms and sympathetic noises to ensure that I know she is listening and encouraging me to keep going when I am talking. But she’s also got a potty mouth, a great sense of humour, calls you on your bullshit – sternly if need be and an amazing assortment of shoes. She also lets me and the group I’m in express ourselves our own way, so we are often in our socks, shoes kicked off, drawing out concepts using quotes, road signs, graphs, and cartoons. We put posters on the wall to help memorise, practice our skills by playing catch with a juggling ball, we scribble out sections we hate or rewrite them and we have a great selection of bubbles, pretty things to look at or hold for mindfulness (or as we are all prone to referring to it fucking mindfulness) and a ‘talking stick’ – which is actually a talking fairy wand. A useful thing in a DBT group to be honest when it is needed to stop arguments breaking out or people shouting over each other as only the person holding the talking fairy wand can speak.

But this one week prior to lockdown cemented it for me and made me realise that my psychologist is the right one for me. But just as importantly I realised why. In psychology there will inevitably be times when you meltdown, spiral, lose control – however you choose to name it there will be times when you become overwhelmed.  When I feel really bad sometimes, I need to sit on the floor. When I am overwhelmed I feel I could explode and am spiralling out of control. This can be a physical feeling as well as mental when it gets too intense. Sitting on the floor helps.  If I can feel the wall at my back and the floor under my legs and feet, I know I’m connected – tethered to the earth not spiralling inside my own head or through the universe. It grounds me and puts the control back into my world slightly. It’s a much-needed grounding technique when I am at breaking point. This certain week I had to sit on the floor for our whole one to one session as I was in an awfully bad place.  I told her this when I came in so I did my usual routine of turning the clock around to prevent certain triggers from affecting me then pulled the chair across the room and sat on the floor against the wall.  Without hesitation she also pulled her chair out of the way she sat on the floor too.  She’s got a pretty bad knee so it can’t have been a comfortable thing to do.   It was a small gesture but had a massive impact and made me realise I was working with the right person as I was comfortable enough to sit on the floor like this but her gesture made me so much more certain of why. It would have been easy enough for her to stay sat in the chair and talk to me from above me but she didn’t do that – she didn’t look down on me while I talked and sit away at  a distance. She came down to where I was and didn’t try to make me move until I was ready. She met me where I needed to be and was with me while I needed to be there. THAT’S a good therapist

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