Starting Therapy 101: What kind of therapist is right for you?

As you begin your therapist search process, it’s helpful to know that there are different types of therapists and therapy approaches you can choose from. Most seasoned therapists don’t follow a formulaic approach, but are able to draw from a number of tools in their toolbelt, crafting a therapeutic approach that is unique to the two of you and the moment you’re in.

Still, having a basic understanding of the approaches that are out there can help you appreciate the lens through which a therapist may approach your challenges, what is likely to happen in a therapy session, and if that style resonates as helpful to you.

Tomasilienne, Operations & Support Lead at Zencare and Therapist Matchmaker

What is your therapy type?

To boil it down, there are two major schools of thought in the therapy world, both of which have given rise to a multitude of variations. Which of the following appeals more to you

Psychodynamic Therapy 🛋 is focused on helping you understand why you do the things you do; with increased insight, you might begin to notice patterns in how you think, feel, and relate, and be more conscious of the forces that drive your behavior as echoes of the past. Psychodynamic therapy and the related psychoanalytic therapy tend to be more open-ended, may be longer-term, and place particular importance on the relationship between therapist and client, which can serve as a mirror for relationships outside of session. Session may involve guided conversation, questions, reflection, and noticing themes that emerge from week-to-week.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 🧠 examines the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and teaches you concrete skills to notice and interrupt unhelpful patterns. CBT therapists may give homework or use worksheets in session, allowing treatment to be shorter-term, more structured, and focused on alleviating specific symptoms. Related to CBT are Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which has an emphasis on mindfulness, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), which fosters emotion regulation and interpersonal skills, and exposure-based therapies, which target specific fears and compulsive behaviors.

What expertise could you benefit from? 🤔

Beyond the treatment approach, for certain concerns, you might also wish to consider the level of expertise or specialization a given therapist has.

While most therapists are qualified and experienced treating general concerns like relationships, self-esteem, anxiety, depression, with other challenges (such as addiction, postpartum concerns, OCD, and eating disorders) it’s important to ensure that you’re comfortable with the level of training your therapist has received.

You can think of this like going to your family doctor: you’re probably fine to see any doctor in the practice when you have a cold, but if you’ve dislocated your shoulder, it’s off to the orthopedist for a quicker recovery.

Still, level of specialization is not the be and end all when it comes to successful therapy: studies show that the greatest predictor of successful therapy outcomes is the relationship between therapist and client, so it’s most important to find someone who makes you feel safe and heard.

A therapist with an advanced degree and hundreds of starred reviews could be a terrible therapist for you if you don’t feel comfortable speaking with them, so try to notice how you feel before, during, and after an initial conversation. If there’s any rush of excitement or tingle of hope, they could be a good person to book a first appointment with.