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How to Choose a Great Therapist or Counselor

Emily Porta

There are a ton of therapists and counselors in Orange County for you to scour the Internet for, so how do you find a GREAT one? I recommend you ask some questions in order to assess. This short article lists just a few helpful questions, in no particular order (please note, the terms “therapist” and “counselor” are used interchangeably).

1. What were they like the first time you reached out to them?

Were they warm, informative and open to answering any of your questions? Did they work to provide you with fees and a schedule that worked for you or provide you with resources that better met your needs? Your first interaction with a therapist is an indication of how it will be to work with them. Therapists are not “one size fits all” so if you sensed a disconnection it’s probably safe to say they did too. Thank them for their time and move on.

2. How did you feel when talking and meeting with the therapist?

Did you feel comfortable sharing? Did they use language that was free of judgment and criticism while providing support or was there a sense of shame and embarrassment when you shared? A therapist’s job is to create an emotionally safe environment for you to talk about whatever it is you feel you want help with and if that’s not the case, it’s time to move on.

3. Can the therapist tell you how they plan to work with you to meet your goals?

A question to ask is “Have you worked with ______ (ie: couples and infidelity; anxiety; feeling like I have no direction, etc.) before?” Followed with, “And what are some of the ways that you have helped people like me?” If you get a clear answer, even one that you don’t really understand (ie: “I utilize a structured technique called Gottman Method Couples Therapy that has 35+ years of research to prove it’s success.”) and it’s followed by, “And I’d love to meet with you and hear more about what’s going on so we can work together to decide a course of treatment,” then you’re probably in good, competent hands.

4. What is the counselor’s general philosophy or modality when working with people?

Counselors all have a specific philosophy when working with people and should be able to clearly and concisely share that with you. It may sound something like “I am a solution-focused therapist, which means I focus on identifying your strengths, looking at times when your problems is not as intense, and helping you find solutions that line up with your goals.”

5. Is the therapist licensed or are they an intern? 

A licensed therapist has completed their master’s degree in psychology, social work or marriage and family therapy, worked as an intern to gain 2,500-3,500 hours, and successfully passed their state board licensing exams (which are not easy). An intern is someone who has gained their master’s degree in the above-mentioned fields but is currently working on gaining their hours and often times are less expensive than licensed clinicians. There are phenomenal interns providing quality therapy services and it’s up to you to decide what level of professional works for you.

6. Does the counselor specialize in any treatment type or do they “help everyone?”

If you’re looking for help for your marriage, find someone who specializes in working with couples. It doesn’t make sense to go to a therapist who specializes in working with adults battling with anxiety, if you're looking for grief and loss support due a recent death in the family. Find a therapist who specializes in what you want help with.

7. What is the counselor’s social media policy?

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, the list goes on and on and in a world where most professionals have an online presence, it’s imperative that you know your therapist’s social media policy. Most counselors discourage clients from providing any sort of online reviews or testimonials as it breaks your own confidentiality and tells the world that you’re seeing a therapist. Also, it’s part of a counselor’s ethical duty to not engage in any sort of relationship with a client outside of the therapeutic one, so “friending” them on social media would be a no-no. It is quite alright to “like” their social media pages, as they typically host articles and tips appropriate for clients but choose wisely before commenting and identifying yourself publicly.

8. Have there been any complaints filed with the board against the therapist?

Find out who their governing board is (ie: American Psychological Association, Board of Behavioral Sciences, etc.) and look up their status. This is simple, as you can search by their license or intern number, which should be clearly stated somewhere on the their website, business card or email signature. If there were any complaints, have they been resolved? Are their licenses pending? 

I hope this has been helpful I know that searching for a therapist can be daunting when you're not sure what to ask and what sets GREAT therapists apart from everyone else. 

Leave a comment below and share your questions about how to choose a GREAT therapist or counselor.


Emily Porta

I was going through boxes from my old office to throw away things I didn't need. In one box I found a poem given to me by a coworker many years ago. I loved it so much, I carried it with me from office to office. I don't know the author but I find it holds a special place in my heart. 

I hold the hands of people I never touch.

I provide comfort to people I never embrace.

I watch people walk into brick walls, the same ones, over and over again, and I coax them to turn around and try to walk in a different direction.

People rarely see me gladly. As a rule I catch the residue of their despair.

I see people who are broken and people who only think they are broken. 

I see people who have had their faces rubbed in their failures. 

I see weak people wanting anesthesia and strong people who wonder what they have done to make such an enemy of fate. 

I am often the final pit stop people take before they crawl across the finish line that is marked: I Give Up.

Some people beg me to help.

Some people dare me to help.

Sometimes the beggars and the dare-ers look the same. Absolutely the same. I am supposed to know how to tell them apart.

Some people who visit me need scar tissue to cover their wounds. 

Some people who visit me need their wounds opened further, explored for signs of infection and contamination.

I make those calls too.

Some days, I'm invigorated by it all. Some days I am numbed.

Always, I am humbled by the role of helper.

And, occasionally, I'm ambushed.

My job is wonderful and hard. I admit that. I have no problem sharing that with clients either, because their lives are hard too. We are in it together. I am giving thanks today for my new office. I begin this week seeing clients there. It is my home. If you want to venture and grow with me, then you are welcome here. If you are completely scared and unsure, you are welcome here. Everyone that wants to try is welcome here. 

The Crappy Therapist

Emily Porta

Bad therapists happen. It is a fact. There is no screen in grad school that weeds out the therapists that shouldn't be therapists. Now, if you don't like your therapist - that can happen and in fact can at times be normal. I believe that when you enter my office, we engage in a dance, a dance that you have done over and over. My job is to help you see the dance steps that aren't working for you, that keep you from the life you want to live. But, that means, I have to learn to dance with you. So, yes, if you find out that you burn a lot of bridges with your relationships, you might try that with me. That isn't so much what I am talking about. I am talking about bad therapy - therapy that ends up doing more harm than good. So how do you know that you are getting bad therapy? Here are some pointers:

• The therapist talks more about themselves than listens to you. Every therapist has an opinion about what to share and how much to share of their personal life. That's cool, until the session is all about them. Nothing is worse than a therapist that shares because they need to get something off their chest. This is about you. The sharing should be to help you. 

• They want to hire you, befriend you, or have sex with you. These all break the ethical guidelines of our profession. There is great information on how to report a therapist that has had a sexual relationship with their patient, just click here. Any type of relationship outside the therapy room is called a "dual relationship" and must be avoided because it impacts your therapy. Hard to get good therapy when you are hired to do some clerical work for your therapist. The roles get too confusing. 

• You say something isn't working and they don't listen. One of the characteristics of a good therapist is being open to changing the way they work with someone if what is currently being done doesn't seem to help the client. If you speak up (kuddos to you for owning your time in therapy) and share that something didn't feel helpful, the crappy therapist will either ignore you, demean you, or be completely offended. 

• They give advice. I have heard this time and time again. Therapists making suggestions on how to handle a legal or financial matter. I didn't go to law school, and even if I had, as a therapist, I am not acting as a lawyer. I can provide referrals, but I cannot advise on matters outside of my expertise. 

• They don't value your time. If they are always running late, forget your name, can't find the file you need, then they probably are too consumed with other things and not valuing your time or your presence. Sure, we all make mistakes and forget things. But I am talking about long standing patterns. 

• You have been going a long time, but nothing is changing. This goes back to what I was first saying. Sure, it could be that you don't want to be in therapy in the first place so you are determined to make it fail, ok, but a good therapist I would hope would acknowledge that elephant in the room if it is at all obvious. Therapy works! I believe in it! If I don't see improvement or change in my clients - I ask them about it. We work together to figure out what can be done differently. I think it is sad to keep taking their money because they are willing to give it to me, knowing that the therapy isn't working or that I am not a good fit. Part of being a good therapist is knowing what you are good at and when to refer out. 

So, now that I listed a few tips, do you think you have a bad therapist? What should you do? You have several options, but most importantly, don't stop therapy. Don't sacrifice your joy, your potential freedom, and happiness because of this. Find another therapist, they often offer free consults. If you think that therapy isn't right for you, try life coaching or spiritual direction. There are people out there that can help you, don't give up!

Why be a therapist?

Emily Porta

It is no secret, I love my job. So I thought I would give a little rant and rave about what makes what I do an amazing thing.

• I meet amazing people. Some of the most heroic and resilient people have come through my office. They have survived and thrived through trauma, loss, grief, and more. Their stories are not only amazing, but they touch my heart and transform me as well. Just when you think you have heard it all, you learn that you haven't and that each person is so unique, not one single experience is the same. 

• I get to be a guide. I am not the boss, the instructor, the one with all the answers (contrary to what you may hope). I get to walk along side someone in their pain. Share the pain and maybe lighten the load. I get to "figure it out" with them. 

• It's an adventure. Just when I think I understand something, I get a surprise or an unexpected answer to a question. There is never a dull moment. If I had all the answers...this job would be boring.

• I change too. You can't be with people and not challenge yourself as well. That is the joy of being in community. We shape each other. It is a beautiful process and a honor to involved with someone's growth.

• It is energizing. I don't come home from work stressed out with paperwork and other pointless stuff that I once had in my other life. Nope, I come home with my brain full of ideas, questions and excitement as I watch peoples' stories unfold. 

• It's a big picture thing. You know that whole ripple effect. A little pebble in the water sends out waves into the lake. I want to be a pebble that sends out waves through generations of change in peoples' families. The work I do with my clients, as I like to say, changes their family tree. Patterns get broken so that the next generation doesn't have to repeat it or work through it. 

So if you are an MFT or CSW intern and wonder what all the work you are doing is for, well I hope this helps encourage you just a tad. AND if you are thinking about therapy, find a therapist that loves what they do. There are so many more reasons why I do what I do...and these are just a few.