How to Choose a Therapist: Five Questions to Ask

Picture of By Tracy A. Greene, LMFT
By Tracy A. Greene, LMFT

Tracy specializes in supporting individuals and families in crisis, helping sort through the emotional impact....

Congratulations! You’ve decided to start your journey towards more joyful and fulfilling relationships with yourself and those around you. Now how do you find the right therapist who can help?

This is a question that I am very familiar with – as a parent looking for services for my children, as a therapist talking to new clients, as a friend helping with resources and referrals, and as a client looking for my own therapist. Based on these experiences, there are five key questions that I encourage everyone to ask as they look for their therapist.

#1: Did You Leave Your First Meeting Feeling Listened To and Hopeful?

The top requirement of a good therapist is to be a good listener. The overall reason to go to therapy is to feel better. You should experience both in your first meeting with a prospective new therapist. While this may seem obvious, a surprising number of people have had therapists who they do not feel were listening to them. You want someone who really hears what you have to say as a first step towards helping you understand the feeling behind the words and then finding an appropriate course of action.

At Los Altos Psychotherapy, we offer a free consultation to anyone who is thinking about working with one of our therapists. This is a chance for you to share where you are at and what you are looking for from therapy, and a chance for the therapist to see if they can be helpful. I encourage you to have a similar conversation with anyone you are considering to be your therapist. The topic of the conversation is you and what you need – it’s not about the therapist. At the end of the conversation did you feel heard? Are you intrigued, curious, or hopeful about starting therapy? If the answer is yes, you may have found your therapist.

#2: Does the Therapist Have Experience with Your Specific Issues?

There are a wide range of issues that may be motivating you to seek therapy. Ideally, you want a therapist who has dealt with your issues before. For common conditions such as anxiety and depression this will be relatively easy to find – almost every therapist deals with these issues during their training. For more severe conditions, such as eating disorders or childhood trauma, look for someone with specific experience. Ask the therapist to describe some of their past cases and their general approach. Ask them about any additional, specialized training they have taken. When very difficult topics need to be explored and discussed, you need someone who can stay in the discussion with you, will not be scared away by what you have to share, and can be there with you in the healing process.

The team at Los Altos Psychotherapy has developed specific expertise in treating severe trauma, eating disorders, teenagers in crisis, grief and loss, and young adults launching into the world. Our therapists continue to develop their skills through ongoing training. We also maintain an extended network of experienced therapists who can provide consultation on particularly difficult cases. This also gives us the ability to refer you to other providers if what you need is outside our areas of expertise.

#3: What Did You Learn and What Insights Did You Gain?

The primary role of the therapist is to help you make sense of what you’re going through. You want to work with someone who can help you learn more about yourself, offer new insights or a new perspective you have not thought about. An experienced and empathetic therapist will show you this from your first conversation. They will work from whatever level of information you are comfortable sharing, without pushing you to share more than you are comfortable with. At the end of the call you should feel like you understand something in a new way and can take some step forward.

Therapy is a process, and it can take time to build trust and rapport. Everyone enters therapy at a different point, with a different readiness to share their private thoughts and feelings. This is completely normal. This is also why you need to work with someone who can meet you where you are today and help you make progress today. Typically this will be someone who feels “warm”, “empathetic”, and “supportive.” This might not be a rational assessment – be guided by how you feel as you leave your conversation with the person.

#4: Where Will You Meet the Therapist?

In our post-pandemic world, we are all used to conducting more of our life on-line. For your therapy, are you looking to meet someone in-person? Some therapists no longer maintain a physical office. Or are you looking to have therapy on-line? Not all therapists provide on-line services. Just ask what they can offer.

I encourage clients to at least begin therapy face-to-face in the office. The in-person contact helps us get to know each other and build trust faster. In particular, teenages and young adults who already spend so much of their day on-line benefit from and make faster progress through in-person sessions. After a relationship is established, on-line sessions can be used to keep treatment going in case of scheduling conflicts, illness, or other unexpected events. At Los Altos Psychotherapy, all of our therapists can provide services from our office in Los Altos, California or on-line.

Please note that any therapist providing care to someone in California, even if providing care on-line, must be licensed by the State of California.

#5: How Do You Plan to Pay for Therapy?

Therapy can be expensive. An important practical consideration is how you will pay for therapy. This is a conversation you want to have right up front.

In general, there are three ways to pay for therapy:

  • Private Pay: You will pay the therapist directly, typically by credit card after each appointment. You and the therapist will discuss and agree on the rate.
  • Insurance with a Superbill: You have mental health coverage but your therapist does not accept insurance. In this case you will pay the therapist directly, then request a reimbursement from your insurance company using the “superbill” documentation provided by the therapist. The amount of reimbursement is determined by your insurance company.
  • Insurance with Direct Billing: If your medical insurance includes mental health coverage and the therapist is “in network”. In this case, the therapist will directly bill your insurance company for your care. This is typically what therapists mean when they say they “accept insurance.”

Many therapists in the Los Altos / Silicon Valley area, including Los Altos Psychotherapy, do not accept insurance and will expect to be paid directly by you for their services. Many, including Los Altos Psychotherapy, are able to provide a superbill.

Trust Your Intuition and Trust the Process

Therapy is among the most personal of projects that we take on for ourselves or our children. While it is important to be thoughtful, it is equally important to trust your intuition. If it feels right, move ahead. If it does not, know that there is someone else out there who can help you and go find them.

And remember – at all times you are in charge of the process. If after a few sessions you don’t feel like you made the right choice there is no need to continue. But if things are going well then keep moving forward as you change your life for the better.

About Los Altos Psychotherapy – Schedule a Free Consultation

Los Altos Psychotherapy is a group practice for marriage and family therapy based in Los Altos, California that works with clients to change lives together. We support teens, families, and adults facing a wide range of personal and family challenges such as depression, anxiety, and young adult support. The practice has a particular focus on difficult to resolve issues like trauma, eating disorders, and teens in crisis. Through empathetic understanding and caring engagement the goal is to help people achieve lasting positive changes in their lives and relationships.

We offer free consultations for anyone looking for a therapist in the Silicon Valley area. You can schedule a meeting, or call us / text us below. Or take a few minutes to meet our team and learn more about the services we provide.