Dr. William Edwards - Licensed Psychologist
"The journey to an emotionally rewarding life often is best taken with a compassionate guide who has walked the path himself."
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By William Edwards, Psy.D.
Medical SelfCare January, 1988

Choosing a psychotherapist is one of the most important decisions many of us ever make. Unfortunately, the decision is usually made during a time of emotional turmoil and vulnerability, when making even minor decisions may be difficult. Unlike selecting a car or refrigerator, there is no Consumer Reports to point you in the right direction.

People often falsely believe that getting psychological help is a sign of weakness. Sadly, this inability to ask for help particularly plagues men. Many men who would see a doctor for tennis elbow would never seek therapy for depression or other emotional problems.

Clinical research has shown that the large majority of those who seek therapy benefit from it. However, some obtain little help or actually come away feeling harmed. When you enter therapy, you are not only a patient, but also a health consumer. To be a satisfied consumer, you must be an informed consumer.

No therapist, no matter how skilled, works equally well with all patients. Someone who "worked wonders" for a friend may not be right for you.

Here are some important qualities to look for:

  • Genuineness. Does the therapist seem authentic and real or does he or she appear to be playing a role? If, for example, your therapist often pretends to grasp something when clearly confused, seek another therapist.
  • Empathy. Is the therapist a good listener, and does he or she understand what you're experiencing and feeling? It's essential that a therapist be able to walk temporarily in your emotional shoes. I say "temporarily," because the therapist must then step back into his or her own shoes. No therapist is perfectly empathetic. But if you frequently feel misunderstood or on "different wavelengths" with your therapist, seek help elsewhere.
  • Warmth. Does the therapist convey interest in you and concern for your well-being? A common complaint is that therapists are cool and aloof. At the other extreme are therapists who confuse caring with over involvement in their patients' lives. The best therapists are those who are able to attain a balance of caring and concern while maintaining a professional stance.
  • Acceptance. Do you sense that the therapist accepts you, warts and all? All of us have our "dark" sides. It's only when we feel accepted that we're able to risk revealing our vulnerabilities.
  • Experience. Has the therapist treated people with your type of problem? Has he or she seen patients long enough to refine therapeutic skills and develop experiential wisdom? As a consumer of mental health services, don't hesitate to ask about your therapist's experience.

Since some disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder and anorexia often benefit from medication, if your therapist is not an M.D., it's important he or she have physician colleagues to refer patients for medication evaluations.

Negative Clues. Now that you know what to look for in a therapist, what are the things to avoid? Exploitation is at the top of the list. This usually involves some type of sexual contact. Such behavior is a flagrant violation of ethical standards and the law. If your therapist has suggested or initiated sexual contact, you are literally in the wrong hands. Report any therapist who is sexually exploitative to the appropriate state licensing board and arrange to see someone else.

Dual relationships should also be avoided: a therapist who is also a relative, friend, neighbor, or colleague. Such relationships introduce pressures which may subvert the therapist's objectivity and freedom. You risk ineffective treatment and the erosion of your other relationship.

Also avoid therapists who are unprofessional or disrespectful. I know one person whose therapist fell asleep during a session. When confronted, the therapist said it was the client's fault because his problems were "boring." Tell such a therapist to find someone else to pay for his naps.

You and your therapist should use the first several sessions to determine if the two of you feel comfortable working together. If you develop reservations, voice them honestly. This gives the therapist an opportunity to address your concerns.

How long should therapy take? There are no simple answers. Clearly, much depends on your problems and goals. If you are generally satisfied with your life but have encountered a crisis, six to 10 sessions may be sufficient.

If your symptoms have been present for a long time and you are deeply dissatisfied with important areas of your life such as relationships, self-esteem or recurring mood problems brief therapy may be insufficient.

One dilemma is choosing among the myriad types of therapy available. While there are important differences in therapy approaches, they share a common theme - the need for trust, respect, and teamwork between client and therapist. Some therapists adhere to one school of thought, most blend several approaches into their own style. For myself, I've found psychoanalytic theory to be the most comprehensive and informative, but also rely heavily on humanistic, interpersonal, and cognitive psychotherapy.

Therapy can help you create rewarding relationships, emotional comfort and resilience and effective coping strategies for the inevitable challenges life brings to us all. If you are a wise consumer and an earnest collaborator, you will find your effort well rewarded.

Dr. Edward provides services to residents of Centennial, Littleton, Highlands Ranch, Greenwood Village, Parker, Denver and surrounding areas.

To make an appointment or ask questions please call me at 303-220-9385 or e-mail me at edwards@drwmedwards.com

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