How to notice a great therapist
You have decided that you want to get serious about loving all of you and want to start working with a therapist or changing from one you are not quite sure about. I commend you on your courage, deciding to look inwards, even if parts of you might be worried about what lurks in your subconscious. Looking inside and being really curious about yourself is an revolutionary act in todays world. And unlike a view of being curious and involved with yourself as narcissistic, it’s very different. Trying to control how you and others see yourself is narcissistic, based on deep fears. Being curious and open to see who you really are from a place of love is healing and will benefit not only yourself but everyone around you. Your relationship to the parts of yourself is how you relate to everyone else. No one can be more intimate and loving towards you than yourself. That is the threshold of how much you can let in from others. And that threshold can be infinitely larger than you imagine right now.
In June of 2022, during a trip to the US, I worked with a therapist that completely changed my view of how much positive change is possible with a great therapist. Working with this therapist was as psychoactive as the psychedelic experiences I had, only that these changes in how I perceived me and the world stayed permanently. This therapist would just sit in front of me and ask me to scan my body. On the first day, my awareness of my body was strong as never before. I could notice when I would dissociate and the room would feel bigger. I would notice when a fear in me arose that projected that the therapist might hit me. All that was a level of awareness I had never had access to before. I noticed how I used humor to distract from fear. I cried in session three. After every appointment, I felt hopeful and joyful as never before. My mind got quiet, and I could enjoy just sitting in the park and watching the birds. Something I would have never done before. All of this within a week of three hours of daily therapy. Even when you discount that, before, I did half a year of weekly behavior therapy and never experienced such fundamental shifts in well-being. I never left the appointments feeling joy and hope. That new therapy experience made me realize that before, I was afraid of the therapy appointments because the therapist was afraid of my emotions. I only cried once with the previous therapist within half a year because she subconsciously communicated that she couldn’t hold my sadness.
On the other hand, with the therapist from the US, I noticed that opening up so many things so quickly was also destabilizing because when I moved back to Berlin, I now needed to continue without her presence. That was also due to losing trust because she had a weak spot that she could not address when I raised it. So what makes a great therapist? Here is my answer in the hope that it may inspire you to find yours. Overall it seems that the therapist can only raise you to their own level of awareness, emotional resiliency, and healing:
First, what is the goal of therapy? It’s learning to become aware of parts of your mind that you are hiding from yourself. It’s to learn to love the parts of yourself that you disown. It’s learning to become more embodied or embodied at all. It’s learning to feel safe in your body. It’s learning to notice how feeling relates to body sensations. It’s learning to let the emotions move through you rather than fully identifying with them. It’s learning to love all of your emotional experiences, especially the difficult ones. It’s learning to have boundaries. It’s understanding who you are and stopping wanting to change. It’s learning to know that you are already perfect. It’s learning that whatever you dislike about yourself is a natural, human reaction to your life experience.
A simple heuristic for how good the therapist is: How often do you cry in your sessions and feel better about yourself afterward?
All of those things can show up in very obvious or subtle ways. If you have a history of trauma, your first instinct is likely to doubt yourself. Actually, from my experience, your body will likely know pretty well what’s going on. If you avoid going to your appointments, e.g., by being late, and you don’t feel better afterward or, even worse, your body is telling you something.
So what will a great therapist do to support you in that?
- never judges you
- always on your side
- they can sit with your sadness, and you can cry around them. But, if you never cry, you are most likely picking up on them, not being okay with your sadness.
- they want to work with you long-term
- they do not worry about you
- they are open to your feedback, and your suggestions (let’s walk outside, I want to go outside for a break)
- they are stable in their emotions
- they can hold your gaze for a long time without hardness
- they are gentle and know that slower is faster with trauma
- is aware of transference and will work with it, making you feel it’s safe to discuss how you feel towards them. E.g., you project your mother onto your therapist and feel like she might be disappointed about something you said, but you feel safe to tell your therapist, and they don’t feel threatened in their identity but rather work with that.
- they mainly help you to notice things in your body and mind
- they point you to yourself a lot; they are humble and curious. So your progress will feel like it’s all your work.
- they create a relationship where you feel like an equal
- they ooze a nonjudgemental ness and openness
- they will teach you techniques to regulate your nervous system
- they know about dissociation and can notice when you dissociate and then do exercises with you to regulate your nervous system
- they don’t want you to change
- they are more curious about you than you are yourself
- if you are chronically late, see that as a sign that parts of you are afraid of the therapy appointment and address that directly
- they know and have experience with meditation practice
- they will not just talk with you; they will use hypnosis, exercises, embodiment, and pauses to allow you to get out of your head into your body and emotions.
- they will let you have your emotions and not interfere with that
- they will do boundary work with you; they will train you to say no and feel your inner boundaries
- they are aware of how deep the impact of trauma goes, they will be open to you asking to leave the room, going for a walk outside, asking for shaking your body alone in the room, etc., to feel safe
- if they are insanely great, they will even suggest those things above to you when they notice you are triggered and dissociating
- they learn from you and want to learn from you
- they are creative and think for themselves; they don’t follow strict rules but rather experiment with what works
- their main agenda is for you to become more you
What will a well-intentioned but not great therapist do to keep you stuck?
- think they know what you need better than yourself, and you might start believing them at some point.
- Can’t deal with big emotions; they will subtly signal that they are uncomfortable with what you share or you are being emotional. E.g., crossing their arms, slightly tensing their eyes when you become emotional or talk about a problematic experience. You might even feel you are a burden or manipulative because you subconsciously sense that they are afraid of your emotions (it’s called countertransference).
- they create a relationship where you feel they have authority
- they will worry about you
- they want you to change and want your approval
- see drug use as a problem without being curious about the underlying pain
- they will only talk about emotions to avoid emotions
- they will try to make you feel better
- they think that just experiencing the pain is healing when actually the amount of pain felt must be met with an equal amount of love and patience. Anything else is just reexperiencing trauma.
- strictly follow the rules and guidelines
- promises you quick solutions and fixes
- they want you to become like someone they imagine
May your heart be filled with love for all your parts, friend. May you have a safe journey inside and through this mystical adventure of life.