How do you choose a counsellor or therapist?

We all have times in our life when things are hard, and when we don’t feel at our best.

Sudden unforeseen events such as the loss of a family member, the break-down of a relationship or a more challenging life situation can lead our normal stress response to go into overdrive and get overloaded.

If our coping strategies are working well, and if the threats and challenges are not overwhelming, we can deal with the crisis and move on.  However, if the situation is more complex it can make us feel like everything is getting too much and we don’t know which way to turn or what to do for the best.

When we’re feeling this way then it’s often a good idea to turn to a counsellor or therapist for help.  But how do we choose?

The last thing anyone wants to do who is going through a difficult time is to shop around – it’s often said we take more time selecting a pair of shoes than choosing a counsellor or therapist.  It is difficult to make rational decisions and choices when we are not in the right place in our heads.

To add to our confusion the UK has no current statutory regulations for therapists.  This is due to change with the introduction of minimum standards of training, supervision and ethical guidelines but that is in the future.  For now, a reputable therapist will be registered with a professional organisation that’s been accredited by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA). See our list of contacts below.

The first port of call for most of us, however, is our GP or a recommendation from a friend.  Unfortunately, luck can play part in who we find ourselves opening up to and the recommended therapist may not suit us at all.  Opening up is never easy, so as much as possible we should try and find a therapist who instinctively makes us feel comfortable.  It is all about the chemistry between counsellor and client and sometimes it can take more than one counsellor before we find one we are happy with.

Before you choose

Take some time to think before you choose a counsellor:

  • Consider what you would like to achieve from the therapy
  • As it can take a number of sessions before you start to see progress consider how you will fit these sessions into your life
  • There may be ways of helping with the cost such as existing insurance cover, workplace counselling schemes, or some private therapists offer lower rates for those on low wages.

Making Contact

Most therapists offer a free phone consultation at the beginning of treatment.  This will give you a chance to briefly discuss your needs and an idea if you will feel comfortable with them.

Here are a few helpful questions that you may like to think about:

  • Find out about their professional background
  • Be clear on their type of therapy – could this work for you?
  • Try to understand what you would like to get out of counselling
  • If you also want to work on the relationships within your family and then a family-orientated therapist may be something to consider
  • Ask about fees, number of sessions and how often they will take place

What sort of specialist do you need?

The term counsellor and psychotherapist are increasingly used interchangeably.  A psychodynamic therapist (psychotherapist) may be for you if you believe there is an unconscious motivation for your behaviour.  However, a counsellor may take a more person-centred approach.

For those who have more specific problems, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offered by clinical psychologists may be beneficial as it addresses each emotion separately.

Other specialists include family therapists who consider the family as a whole and relationship and psychosexual counsellors who will see couples together.

I can speak to my friends

Of course you should talk to your friends and family, and it certainly is a great support when you’re going through a tough patch, but it helps to talk with someone who is objective and has the skills to allow you to find the source of your problems.  A trained counsellor not only supports but challenges you to gain valuable insights into yourself.

Here are a few signs that therapy could be good for you:

  • If you are becoming moody or agitated
  • Things that are troubling you are having a negative impact on your relationships with others
  • If you are feeling lost, alone or isolated
  • Things are feeling insurmountable to manage by yourself or with the help of friends.
  • If you have thoughts of self-harm or have lost interest in life
  • Your relationships with others are strained

A good therapist will challenge you to find ways to help yourself.  They will listen and support you without judging or criticising.  But it’s not all about listening, many will offer practical advice, or provide detailed feedback about the way they understand you and your problems.  A trained counsellor can help you to gain a better understanding of your feelings and help you to find your own way.

Moral values and ethics

A professional counsellor is a highly trained individual who is there to assist and guide but never to judge.  However, some vulnerable people may see the professional as an expert and maybe over-influenced by them.  The skill of a good, ethical, therapist is to help the person find their own way of making effective decisions leading to positive changes in their attitude or behaviour.

Counsellors may occasionally reveal something about themselves and this can be useful if it has a therapeutic purpose, but no trained counsellor should dominate the conversation.  The session is your time to talk.

It is the responsibility of the counsellor to ensure that you have confidence that your relationship is based on the trust that your personal or any other disclosed information is protected from inappropriate disclosure to others They may, however, be required by law to disclose information if they believe that there is a risk to life.

An ethical counsellor would not meet or attend social occasions with you or ever initiate an intimate relationship with you. This is unethical conduct.

A trained counsellor would never invalidate you or make you feel wrong but if at any time you do feel undermined within the session you must discuss it, as this may be something that you need to work through together.

Raising issues you be may unhappy about regarding your counselling or therapy may help you get what you want and need from your counsellor.  However, if you are still uncertain then contact your GP, the professional body your counsellor is affiliated with or the Citizens Advice Bureau.

More research? 

Learning more about counselling and therapy can be helpful and may even reduce the need of seeing a counsellor. Here are some useful books to read and sites to visit:

Dr Sarah Edelman’s – Change Your Thinking with CBT (Vermillion, £12.99) – is a guide to help improve your life by overcoming stress and combating anxiety.

Dr Linda Blair is a chartered clinical psychologist and has written – Straight Talking (Piatkus £10.99) – where you can learn to overcome insomnia, anxiety and negative thinking.

Andrew G Marshall who is a Relate counsellor has written – I Love You But I’m Not In Love With You (Bloomsbury Press £10.99) – This book offers a programme to help couples who have ‘fallen out of love’.

Stop worrying and start living by reading The Worry Cure written by Dr Robert L Leahy, the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy (Piatkus £7.99).  You will find easy-to-follow advice and techniques which will help you take control of your thinking.

If you think you are suffering from depression then visit where you can access free online CBT therapy
or supported by NHS Scotland offers a free online CBT life-skills course.

Other contacts

Relate, the Relationship people

College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists

UK Council for Psychotherapy

British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies

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