Imagine you’re gazing at a marketplace in a foreign country. Perhaps it’s in a desert town, laid out with gaudy stalls. You can see buses to different destinations scattered around a depot. You’re a traveller, looking for a guide to take you on a difficult journey. Guides come up to you asking you where you want to go, and telling you that they can get you there – “no problem!” You wonder how to find someone you can trust to help you get safely to where you want to go? This is the problem faced by many travellers on life’s journey. Only, the marketplace is the internet, the stalls are websites, and the guides are therapists.
You could take the recommendation of a friend, which may work so long as your friend is in a similar place, and shares your preferences and objectives. Or you could look at a listing of qualified therapists: if they’re qualified and still practising, you may think they’re OK. But this is like choosing a driver by looking at hotel’s list, then asking to see their driving licence. Do you trust whoever made the list? And is the fact that they’ve got their licence enough for you?
School of psychotherapy
If you know something about psychotherapy, you could choose a therapist from a list put out by whatever school of psychotherapy you favour. Many schools of psychotherapy have developed, each with its own maps of the mind, showing particular hazards and ways out of them. Each has its own jargon, its own lore and its own association. If you’re comfortable with that school’s way of seeing the world, then choosing it could make for a harmonious journey. But beware: none of these schools has a complete map of the human landscape, and much of their lore may be word-of-mouth plus reverence for some founding father.
Evidence based psychotherapy
You could choose a therapist with scientific credentials: the kind of guide who is also a trained surveyor. Psychological science has mapped the human landscape pretty thoroughly with its surveys, and clinical psychologists use this information in their practice. If they’re true to their training, they’ll take a surveyor-like approach to therapy, giving you surveys to complete and proceeding in an orderly fashion. Personally, I think this approach to therapy is the most informative and reliable, and there’s a whole movement of “evidence based therapy” behind it which tries to validate particular treatments for particular problems. However, just as someone can be a good surveyor without being a good guide, so a therapist can assess you thoroughly and plan your treatment without being able to use that information to help you with the practicalities of getting to your destination.
You’re wanting a guide who has escorted people successfully to wherever you want to get to in life, and has helped people get over the kind of obstacles you face. So you need to talk to the therapist about the problems you’re facing, and ask them whether and how they’ve helped people with similar problems in the past. Some problems are very specialised, and for those problems you’ll be wanting someone with specialist skills. But most problems people face are the stuff of human life, which experienced therapists will have seen before. So asking a therapist about experience will eliminate relatively few of the candidates.
Maybe you have several places you want to get to in life: you may want to get out of the depression you’re in, and move towards a successful career, whilst avoiding whatever traps and pitfalls which you’re most anxious about. You may also be yearning for a good relationship. If so, you could ask each therapist what route they might take to help you over your problems to where you want to be, and in what order. You’ll be looking for a therapist who offers a clear itinerary which takes in all your destinations.
If your starting point and preferred destination on life’s journey is like that of most travellers, then you will find that clear routes have been laid out, like regular bus services. There are established treatment protocols for common problems like depression, generalised anxiety, and low self-esteem. A lot of people who take the established routes to popular destinations get where they want to get to, but not all.
Perhaps, however, you want to go your own way, to explore your inner landscape. Or you don’t know where you want to go in life. If so, you won’t be satisfied by therapy with a set itinerary, and you may not even want to have the kind of scientific surveys that psychologists use. You may want to be inspired, to treat your exploration as a personal quest. In which case, you may be looking for the therapist equivalent of a tracker: someone who helps you learn the moment-by-moment skills of observing the clues in your inner and outer world, and following them wherever they lead.
Whatever therapist you’re looking for, talk to them, and pick someone whom you feel an affinity for. When you’ve done that, you’re ready to start the journey.