Few things have the power to help you create positive, lasting change in your relationships and in your life. Psychotherapy is one of them.
If you’ve been in therapy before, you may know what a worthwhile, transformative, life-changing process it can be … or, unfortunately, you may not, at least if you didn’t work with a therapist who was a good fit for your unique personality and needs.
That’s because, no matter how much experience any given therapist has or how many degrees he or she has received, the most important determinant of successful therapy is the relationship your therapist and you create together.
If you’re uncomfortable with your therapist, you’ll find it next to impossible to be completely open with him or her, which is necessary for doing the in depth work required to heal and grow.
This is true for anyone, but it’s especially so for highly sensitive people who feel and process things on a deep, emotional level.
Highly sensitive people who end up working with the wrong therapist can have a difficult time ending therapy and moving on to a new therapist, are more likely to blame themselves for the ineffectiveness of therapy, and can even end up leaving therapy feeling more emotionally wounded than when they started.
Unfortunately, while there’s no shortage of information available on the types of questions to ask a prospective therapist, there’s not nearly as much available on how to tell whether or not a therapist is right for you, especially if you’re a highly sensitive person.
So, let’s try to remedy that situation …
As in any profession, different therapists can run the gamut from being incredibly helpful to completely ineffective and even harmful.
Don’t get me wrong, the vast majority of therapists are more beneficial than not. But most therapists are particularly effective at helping specific types of clients overcome specific types of issues. So …
1. Find a Therapist Who Specializes in Helping People with the Same Problems You’re Having
It probably makes perfectly good sense when you think about it …
A therapist who has a lot of experience helping, and loves working with, children and families may not be the best professional to help someone who’s struggling with social anxiety. Another therapist who is extremely effective in helping couples overcome intimacy issues may not be the best professional to help you overcome long-term trauma.
Of course, there are a lot of “generalists” in the mental health profession – therapists who work with and help individual adults, couples, children, and families resolve a wide range of issues. Generalists are fine. But when it comes to finding a therapist who’s a good fit for your unique personality and needs, you should look for a specialist who has a lot of experience in, and really enjoys, helping people work through and resolve the same types of issues as the ones you’re dealing with.
2. Only Work with a Therapist Who REALLY Listens
If a therapist isn’t really listening to you, then he or she can’t possibly help you find or create solutions to the problems you’re experiencing.
Yes, all therapists are trained to listen to what you’re saying. But that doesn’t mean all therapists are equally skilled listeners. And it doesn’t mean all therapists will give you their undivided attention, as they should.
So how do you know if your therapist is not only listening, but truly hearing what you’re saying?
Exceptional therapists will not only repeat back to you what they’re hearing you say, they’ll also read between the lines and tell you what they hear that you’re not saying but actually feeling.
Conversely, a therapist who isn’t really listening may interrupt you, make incorrect assumptions, forget things that you’ve told them in the past, or lecture you, all of which can leave highly sensitive people feeling misunderstood or invisible.
Of course, therapists are human, too. We all make mistakes from time to time. However, if you feel the need to regularly correct or defend yourself in therapy, it’s time to look for a different therapist.
3. Make Sure Your Therapist Is TRULY Non-Judgmental
A therapist’s job is to create a safe space for you to feel comfortable enough to openly discuss your thoughts and feelings, no matter how many mistakes you feel you’ve made or how difficult your experiences have been.
Accordingly, while a good therapist may challenge you from time to time, he or she should NEVER judge you.
You may feel ashamed of something, but you should never feel judged or shamed by your therapist.
Words matter a lot. This is true in all of our relationships, but especially true in therapy … and especially true when a highly sensitive person is trying to improve their sense of value and self-worth.
So be very wary of working with any therapist who comes across as patronizing or insensitive. Even when a therapist challenges your long-held beliefs, they should do so tactfully and with care.
4. Choose a Therapist Who Has Good Boundaries
A large part of creating the safe space that’s necessary for you to heal and grow is a therapist’s ability to set and maintain healthy, respectful boundaries.
Additionally, it’s going to be nigh impossible for a therapist to help you learn to set and maintain healthy boundaries of your own if they can’t do so themselves.
What does this mean in practice?
While you may view your therapist in a lot of different roles during the course of your work together, the therapist should always remain professional.
This doesn’t mean your therapist should be cold or clinical – which can be easily off-putting to highly sensitive people – but your therapist isn’t your partner, or friend, or parent. They shouldn’t be talking about themselves or pushing you to talk about things you’re not ready to discuss. They shouldn’t be talking about other clients with you, just as you don’t want them talking about you to other clients. And they shouldn’t be overly affectionate or hanging out with you socially outside of sessions.
You may feel closer to your therapist than anyone else. That’s fine. But your therapist should remain professional. After all, it is a professional relationship that you’re creating and that professionalism is required to make sure the therapist remains non-judgmental so you continue to feel safe.
Highly sensitive people are typically very intuitive. If you feel like something is “off” or you feel “uneasy” or “uncomfortable” with your therapist, find another one.
Remember, it’s not about the therapist knowing better than you, it’s about you feeling comfortable enough to do the work necessary to heal and grow!
5. Your Therapist Should Be Authentic
Just as therapists who don’t set and maintain healthy boundaries will have a difficult time helping clients learn to do so, therapists also need to model authenticity in order to help their clients discover and be true to their own selves.
While authenticity is important in any relationship, highly sensitive people can find it especially beneficial to work with a therapist who’s “real” … a therapist who is comfortable with his or her own imperfections and admits their own mistakes.
Pay attention to your therapist’s eye contact, tone of voice, and body language. Trust your intuition. If you suspect your therapist is being inauthentic or full of you know what, you’re probably right!
When all is said and done, you should never feel uncomfortable about moving on or getting a second opinion.
Unfortunately, this can be easier said than done for some highly sensitive people – especially those who have difficulty dealing with conflict or always try to please others.
Just remember that you’re the client. You’re in charge.
You’re not hiring a therapist to make them feel better, and you aren’t obligated to keep paying any professional who isn’t serving your best interests.
Yes, you’re hiring a therapist for his or her expertise, but if the therapist’s expertise isn’t helping you then it’s time to look for another therapist who can.
Would you continue to pay a financial advisor who kept losing your money? Would you keep paying a physical trainer who wasn’t able to help you get in better shape?
I hope not.
Most therapists know they’re not going to be a good fit for everyone. And if they don’t know that, then they’re not good therapists.
Think of it like dating …
The effectiveness of therapy largely depends on how well your therapist and you connect with each other. Yes, it can take some work to find a therapist who’s a good fit, but doing so can be one of the best investments you make and one of the most profound experiences you ever have.
As a highly sensitive person, you owe it to yourself to find a therapist who understands you and can offer you the same level and depth of understanding and compassion you so naturally give others. I hope this helps you do just that!