Finding a therapist who is a good fit is so important, and it eludes a lot of therapy-seekers when they are in a moment of need. Laurel Roberts-Meese, MFT, and Cindy Shu, MFT, break down some of the key things that can help you find a good fit.
LRM: Cindy, what comes to mind for you when someone asks you how to find the right fit therapist?
CS: Everyone who is looking into therapy should ask themselves that question. The relationship and the fit is SO important. One of the most important things to consider is if a therapist you’re considering is culturally competent. What I mean by that is: are they open and curious to learn about your own individual cultural experiences?
LRM: And what exactly is culture? It’s so different for each person.
CS: Yes, that’s exactly right, it will be different for each person. For me, my background is that I’m Chinese-American, I’m a female, heterosexual, etc, but each person has a list of unique cultural experiences. It can be nationality, race, sex, ethnic background.
LRM: And religion, or military affiliation. If you’ve got a military background and you’re working with a therapist with no exposure to that culture, it might be challenging to explain all those things. So what are some things that people should consider when trying to find a culturally competent therapist?
CS: First you should identify what are your cultural experiences, and what identities and experiences are important to you. What is important that the person you’re sitting in front of understands about you? Just because someone might be Asian-American, it may not be at the front of their mind or a cultural experience they want to explore. So identify what experiences you want to dive deeper into in therapy, and then ask if the therapist you’re considering is able to do that with you.
LRM: So your spiritual or racial identity may be secondary to your experience working in the world of fine art, if that’s something that’s really critical for your therapist to understand.
LRM: Culture can span so many different things. Sometimes it’s racial or ethnic, but it can be religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other identity groups. Sometimes it can be really hard to find someone who’s culturally competent in all the intersectional identities that a person might have. In that case, it might be best to think about what’s most salient in your experiences that you need your therapist to understand. So once you’ve boiled it down to, let’s say, identifying that you need a therapist who understands your experience as a queer woman, what might be some red flags that your therapist isn’t culturally competent in the ways that you need them to be?
CS: It would be incredibly hard for therapist to fully know every cultural experience an individual has. I think the biggest key is for therapists to approach each individual with cultural humility. It’s important to come from a position of curiosity and openness and willingness to learn from their own clients about their specific cultural experiences. I can’t say I know everything about [the experiences of] every client that sits in from, but it says something when you’re really excited to be informed, and also to walk alongside as [the client] is figuring that out for themselves.
LRM: I think you really hit the nail on the head. Humility is so important. Is there anything worse than an arrogant therapist? Someone who’s just going to tell you about yourself? [Laughs] No, you’re there to explore, not to have someone tell you who you are, so that humility piece [is important.] In looking at the flip side, how you might know your therapist is NOT culturally competent and not a great fit if they are telling you about yourself or your experience, or even superimposing their own experience onto you; I had that happen to me once and I had to tell [my therapist] to stop. If you’re experiencing frustration in having to explain your experience to your therapist. Now, no therapist is going to completely understand every nuance of your experience right off the bat, that’s just impossible. But if you’re having to spend a lot of your session time explaining your experience to your therapist, [that might be a sign that it’s not a great fit.] There is a way it could be done that would be helpful, but if you feel like you’re having to educate your therapist repeated and it’s cutting into your time, and it’s cutting into your time to reflect on yourself and do your own work, that kind of a red flag.
CS: Yep, definitely. It’s also being self-aware when you feel a resistance in the therapeutic room. If you’re feeling like, “You know, I just can’t seem to get my words across in a way for you to understand, and this is getting frustrating and I’m feeling unseen and unheard, I don’t want to keep having to provide you with information just so you can understand me a little more.” That sort of tension of tension. When you find that right-fit therapist, someone who is culturally competent and practices humility, you get this sense of… *sighs* “This person gets me, this person wants to learn about me and my unique experiences.” It’s a completely different feeling. That’s when you know you’re in the right place with the person.
LRM: You get that feeling of relief when you experience that feeling of *sighs* “Okay, they get me.” That feeling of being seen, feeling understood… it doesn’t get much better than feeling understood and seen, and everyone deserves that. The relationship between you and your therapist is too important to just have an okay match. You don’t want it to just be okay. It’s a deeply intimate process, it’s an investment of time and resources and vulnerability. It should be a GREAT match.
CS: And it should be reciprocated. A therapist that can see and witness your vulnerability is incredibly validating, especially if you come from a culture where you don’t feel comfortable to do that with your closest friends. The fact that you could potentially open up to a therapist and be received well is where the healing begins.
LRM: Absolutely. And in the worst case scenario, if you’re with a therapist that doesn’t understand your culture and there’s that disconnect, you may actually re-experience some microagressions or minority stress of particular identities that you hold, and that’s actually very damaging, to have a therapist reinforce the things you’re experiencing out in the world that you need healing from.
CS: Exactly, it could be re-traumatizing. Individuals come to therapy to work through trauma, and if a therapist is not culturally sensitive and aware of their own biases and prejudices, it could create a lot of further harm and trauma. The purpose of therapy is to NOT traumatize people any further, but to give people an outlet to work through the trauma and create some strength from it.
LRM: Absolutely. And I think this is just the tip of the iceberg on this conversation. I’m wondering if as we wrap up we can throw out some types of culture that maybe wouldn’t come to mind that might make a good match and should be considered, and may be critical in making a good match. Something that comes to mind for me is finding a therapist that uses humor in the way you do, or at least works with it. Or maybe a therapist who has the same energy level; some therapists are very placid and calm, and some therapists are upbeat and really chatty, and finding someone who feels like a good fit for you is cultural consideration, even if it’s not aligned with a particular identity or interest group.
CS: Right, it could just be a personality match, if you enjoy spending time with your therapist and connect on a deeper level. Do you feel you’re on the same energy level, etc, those are all important considerations.
LRM: And they may be more important than sharing a particular cultural identity. That ‘click’ of finding a really good personality match sometimes can override other things, and you might be willing to do a little more educating about a particular experience you had if it is a great personality fit.
CS: Definitely. It’s really important for clients who are looking for a right-fit therapist to really think outside what they think therapists are. To share a little of my own experiences, when I worked with a therapist, I never thought to seek an Asian therapist, or even a therapist of color. That never crossed my mind. That’s a whole different topic, but if I could have done things differently, I would have looked at my values and my cultural experiences and looked for someone who mirrored that. I think that’s an important part of the therapy process, for your therapist to be able to mirror all parts of you, and your cultural history and background is so much of who you are. For that to be seen and honored in the therapeutic space is really incredible. With that said, I would encourage people who are looking for the right-fit therapist to really identify what is important to yourself and see if the person you’re on the phone with for that initial conversation would be a good match for you.
LRM: I also want to mention that it is okay to try out a few different therapists. You should be transparent about it, you should say, “I’m really making sure I get the right fit so I’m going to do a session with a few people.” You can’t do multiple sessions with multiple therapists, we’re not allowed to do that unfortunately, but you should be able to get a good sense in a session or two of how a therapist works, if it’s a good personality match, and some beginnings of their cultural competence.
CS: Yeah. And I want to add that there’s so much emphasis placed on the therapeutic process, and I think it really comes down to whether both parties are willing to be open and vulnerable and responsive to each other. Those things help the difficult experiences and cultural nuances. If there is that foundation of trust and reciprocity and mutual understanding, then that IS a right-fit therapist for you.
LRM: Absolutely. If people have questions for you, or want to work with you, or want to talk about finding the right fit therapist, how can they get in touch with you?
CS: You can find me at my website or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. I love working with individuals who are struggling with depression, anxiety, or trauma. My passion is to work with the Asian-American community. I really want to serve a population that is under-served in mental health.
LRM: I think your clients are lucky to have you and I wish I could work with you! If people want to get in touch with me, you can schedule a free consultation on my website. I also have a Facebook page. Cindy, thank you so much!