Choosing a ‘good enough’ psychologist or therapist

Wade Jacklin

The therapy relationship

Many of the most challenging emotional issues we face come about in the context of relationships with others. It is also true that recovery from toxic interpersonal experiences usually occurs through a therapeutic social exchange. Relationships of any kind can be therapeutic, toxic – or somewhere in between! The relationships that involve greater vulnerability, power, and personal investment have the greatest capacity to be either helpful or unhelpful. Whilst most relationships have a therapeutic effect on us, they do so by default. Your relationship with a supportive employer, or loving partner, are not engineered to facilitate positive changes in how you live your life, it just happens that such experiences often result in this kind of change. The relationship between therapist and client is unique in that it is an inverted form of relationship. It has, as its sole purpose, the advancement of your quality of life, with the connection and pleasure derived by the relationship being an appreciated side effect of good therapy.

My experience of watching and learning from some outstanding psychologists has reinforced that some psychologists have an outstanding capacity, beyond that of many others, to facilitate change in the clients they work with. I have watched Michael Yapko for example, facilitate profound change in a client’s life through the work done in one session. Clearly, there are some psychologists that have an acute aptitude for the practice of psychology. It is also true that you can get what you need from therapy as long as the person you are working with has sufficient knowledge and expertise with your particular area of need.

Research in the area of therapy outcomes has indicated that the experience and training of the psychologist will make a difference to the length of time it takes to achieve results from the process. As no therapist is ‘perfect’ and all therapists will make small mistakes working with you, the main objective is to ensure that you are working with a ‘good enough therapist’, somebody who is good enough to assist you with getting where you need to go in life. Unfortunately, like any profession there are a few ‘not good enough’ psychologists out there whose practice should be confined to behavioural experiments with rats and mice. It is this small group of psychologists that can actually confound and complicate your efforts to develop and grow.

The ‘not good enough therapist’

One characteristic that ‘toxic’ psychologists often share is their conscious or unconscious use of therapy to meet their own needs in some way. Clearly, if the psychologist is using the session you are paying for to meet his or her needs the process is unlikely to be helpful to you and may even cause significant harm. Some of the warning signs that might indicate that your therapist is ‘not good enough’ might include:

•not listening to what you are saying
•get angry with you
•act in a judgmental way toward you
•not providing an adequate explanation for the suggestion or suggestions they make
•having expectations of you that do not seem appropriate
•seeking to become part of your life outside the therapy process
•not clearly contracting with you regarding the nature of the service provided
•betraying either your confidential information or the confidential information of others to you

Other considerations

Perhaps the best means of determining if your psychologist is ‘good enough’ is to trust your intuition. If something feels very off to you than it is worth making some further investigations about the process you are involved in. Generally, the best place for advice and assistance is the Australian Psychological Society (APS). This is the representative body for Psychologists and exists in part to provide quality assurance to consumers of services offered by Psychologists. All psychologists are required to abide by a ‘code of ethics’ that provides a working definition for ‘good enough’ practice as a psychologist. The APS will be happy to give you a direct indication if the behaviour of your psychologist is in contradiction with the ‘code of ethics’. The APS can also seek to take disciplinary action against a psychologist who is deemed to be acting outside the ‘code of ethics’.

As with any discipline there are a number of specific fields within psychology. Clinical psychologists, for example, have specific training and expertise in the treatment of a wide range of emotional and behavioural problems. As a consumer you can feel secure in the knowledge that consulting a clinical psychologist about issues pertaining to mental health (that might include: anxiety, depression, adjustment to life change, trauma)   you will be guided through an intervention process that has been supported and validated through research to be effective for your particular concern.

If you are unsure of what type of psychologist would be best to assist you then I would recommend that you contact the Australian psychological Society for advice. The APS offers a free service to consumers via their Web site that will enable you to connect with a psychologist in your local area that can provide the type of service you require.

Within the area of Clinical Psychology therapists will vary in their training and experience for specific treatment areas. It is therefore always advisable when seeking treatment to ask for a referral to a psychologist with specialist training and experience in your area of need. For example, if you’re seeking marital counselling then it is important to engage a psychologist with specific training and experience in this area. On a personal level it is also important that you engage a psychologist that you’re going to feel comfortable with. You may have a preference for the gender of the psychologist, working with somebody who is of a similar age to you, or who shares a similar sexual orientation. While there is no evidence to suggest that factors such as age, gender, sexual orientation, and personality have any bearing on the outcome of the therapy process, it is certainly true that your comfort, confidence, and trust in person you’re working with will influence the outcome of your therapy. For this reason I would suggest that you approach your initial therapy session as an opportunity to assess the therapists capacity to be helpful to you. After the session take a few minutes to critically appraise your experience against some basic criteria before committing to the process.