After I wrote “Therapy for Beginners,” I received an email from a reader who had noted that my current therapeutic relationship wasn’t my first, and that my first therapist wasn’t a good fit. She asked me what I looked for in my next therapist and how I ended my relationship with the first one. As I was responding, I realized I wished I’d had someone to write to during that time, someone to give me just a little bit of guidance for a tricky situation. I’m writing this for all of you who don’t find love at first therapist and for those of you who are scared to even try. I hope you will find a therapist who gets you and is able to help you well.
I’m not sure I would have even started going to therapy if I’d known I would have to break up with my first therapist. You could discover a lot about my relationship with conflict by looking back at my history with hair stylists. For years, I went back to the same person, the neighbor directly across from me, because she made me a new appointment at the end of each haircut. She wouldn’t listen to me when I asked to mix up my hair; she kept right on cutting it the way she liked it. I was able to stop having her cut my hair only when I moved out of state for college.
I’ve gotten better about conflict over the years, but as I sat in therapy for the first time, I wasn’t in a very strong place. I’d recently been suicidal, and I was scared out of my mind that it would happen again. I went to therapy as though I were accepting a vaccination. I didn’t expect it to be pleasant; I expected it to protect me.
But slowly, I began to heal, and as I did I noticed that my therapist and my hair stylist had a lot in common: neither of them listened to me.
One day, after thinking about it for several weeks, I didn’t make an appointment at the end of the session as I’d done every other time. I gave my therapist a hug, told her I would text her if I needed an appointment again and walked out the door. I never called her again and she never called me.
I was proud of myself for walking away, but therapy had opened up a whole new collection of questions. I wanted to go back, but I was afraid of being misunderstood again. I was afraid that there wasn’t a therapist for me.
I stopped seeing my original therapist in the fall, and it wasn’t until the following spring that I became serious about finding a new one. I knew therapy was good for some people, and I wanted to be one of them.
Eventually, I reached out to a referral I’d gotten from the daughter-in-law of a friend (who didn’t know me at all). When someone asks me how to find a therapist, that’s always how I recommend starting—with a referral. It’s nice to have some frame of reference for a mental health professional, even if it’s a loose connection. In my case, it was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Unlike my first therapist, my new one didn’t expect me to commit to her right away. Our first session wasn’t a session at all, but a consultation (she didn’t charge me). She asked what I was looking for and let me talk. I told her about my past therapist and what was hard about our relationship. It was as though I were telling a first date about an ex, and just as personal.
First, I wanted to know if she was in therapy, or ever had been. I didn’t want advice from someone who couldn’t take it. In the course of that conversation, she told me about some hard things in her own life, which helped me to trust that she was a safe person to share my pain with.
At the end of the consultation, I felt heard, but I also didn’t feel pressured to make a next appointment. Several times she told me she’d rather I find a therapist who was a good fit than have another bad experience. She told me therapists are not one-size-fits-all.
After I had shared some of my story, I asked her if she thought she could help me. She said yes. I took a deep breath and listened to the way I was feeling at the moment: peaceful. I made that second appointment.
Only later did I realize that part of the reason I had felt so comfortable with her right away was that she reminded me of Brené Brown. She looks a bit like her, and her voice is similar. I was calmed on a level that I couldn’t even explain. Although I don’t advocate seeking out celebrity doppelgangers as a technique to find a therapist, this was a nice bonus.
It took a few sessions for both of us to settle into our therapeutic relationship. Like any other relationship, we needed to get to know each other and see what worked and what didn’t. I continued to tell myself that if it wasn’t working out, I could tell her, and she would understand. She also made it clear that she didn’t expect our relationship to always remain the same. At different times I might come more often than others, and I might not come at all for long stretches if I didn’t need to. That made me feel like I had space to grow (and let me know she wasn’t counting on me like a paycheck).
As a culture, we don’t expect to find the right fit, first try, on almost anything. Most people expect to date a person or two before they get married, or try on more than one bathing suit, but not many people seem to expect that the same rules apply to therapy. My therapist represents a place of absolute safety for me. I need to be able to trust her implicitly with the hardest parts of my life. If I can’t do that, it won’t work. Why did I expect that it would be easy to find that person? Knowing what I know now, I’m surprised it happened the second time around.
If I could go back in time to my past self, discouraged and frustrated with herself and others, I would tell her therapists are people too. I would tell her it’s okay not to click and to move on. I would tell her therapy isn’t perfect, and that her therapist won’t ever be either. I would tell her that the uniqueness of her specific self with her specific therapist is what makes it all worth it. Because when it’s bad, it’s terrible, but when it’s good, it can change your whole life.