Questions to Ask a Prospective Therapist

Looking for a good psychotherapist can feel like a big hassle. The impulse to just go with the first person you meet and avoid having to look any further can be strong, but unless you find someone right off the bat who feels like the perfect fit, it’s best to do some shopping. For a healthy and successful therapeutic relationship, you will want to find someone skillful you can trust, who treats you with kindness and respect, and who maintains good, strong boundaries. So it’s important to be selective. There are many different therapists—and types of therapists—out there, so don’t assume that the first one you meet is the right one for you. Plan on talking to at least two to three different practitioners so that you can get an idea of what you want in a therapist and who will be a good fit for you.

While many therapists will want you to come in for a get-to-know-you session that you will most likely have to pay for (although some offer free, short consultations), it will save you time and money if you can have at least a 10-minute phone conversation with a prospective therapist before you set foot in their office. This is especially important if you have experienced therapy-related trauma in the past. Having an initial phone conversation allows you to get an idea of what the practitioner is like, how they manage boundaries, and see whether any red flags pop up to signal you that maybe this is not the right therapist for you. An introductory phone call allows you to determine the likelihood of their being a good fit before you meet them.

I highly recommend you do three things before you start calling your prospects:

  1. Take some time to consider what you want in a therapist. What kind of therapy do you want to do (e.g., cognitive-behavioral, Jungian, somatic, transpersonal, etc.)? How much do you want to pay? Do you need someone who takes insurance? Do you want to work with someone who specializes in trauma? If you’ve suffered abuse in the past, give some thought to what kind of boundaries feel appropriate for you and what’s negotiable and non-negotiable in terms of the therapist’s behavior.
  2. If you’re going to be paying out of pocket, decide what your monthly therapy budget is and what you can afford per session. A therapist may have the expertise you’re looking for but charge more than your budget allows. Depending on your needs and your budget, you may want to consider options such as having sessions every other week or doing longer sessions. (Longer sessions can be particularly helpful if you’re doing trauma-oriented work such as EMDR or Somatic Experiencing.)
  3. Put together a list of questions based on information you want to know. When you get the prospective therapist on the phone, start interviewing. Depending on the length of your list, you may not get to all of your questions, but you can hopefully cover the most important ones.

As you are contacting your prospects, let them know you would like to ask them some questions and would appreciate the chance to speak with them on the phone for 10–15 minutes. This gives them a heads-up so that they can set aside time for the call. Make sure you provide them with your phone number and some good times to reach you.

To assist you with putting together your list of interview questions, here is a sample list that includes questions to ask when you first speak with the therapist (and/or when you have your first session), as well as questions to ask yourself after your initial contact and/or first session, to help you gauge your reaction to the therapist. A number of the questions are from an excellent book called Take Back Your Life—Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships by Janja Lalich and Madeleine Tobias, and I’ve also included several of my own. Decide which ones are most important to you and ask those first. The rest you can leave for your first session (if you decide to meet the therapist) or a follow-up call if you decide you want more information. You should have answers to all the practical questions by the end of the first session.

If you think of other questions you’d like to add to the list, please leave a comment below!

Questions to Ask a Prospective Therapist

  1. What is your counseling experience? How long have you been in practice? How long have you been licensed?
  2. What types of clients do you work with?
  3. What are your areas of expertise?
  4. What type of therapy do you practice (e.g., cognitive-behavioral, Jungian, transpersonal, somatic, etc.)? What does that involve?
  5. What is your educational background?
  6. What is the length of a regular session?
  7. What is your schedule and availability?
  8. What is your fee? Do you offer a sliding scale?
    Note: If you want to consider options such as longer sessions or every-other-week sessions, this is a good time to ask the therapist about these and other possibilities.
  9. What is your cancellation policy?
  10. What’s your policy regarding phone calls? Are you reachable in a crisis or an emergency? How often do you check your messages? What’s your policy regarding returning phone calls? Do you charge for phone conversations?
  11. Do you take treatment notes?
  12. What’s your privacy policy? Do you ever share information and under what circumstances?
  13. Do you have an advisor or someone you consult with regularly?
  14. Do you believe in setting treatment goals? How are these established?
  15. Tell me a little about how you hold boundaries for the relationship. What kind of therapeutic container do you provide?
  16. What do you do when you run into a client outside the office?
  17. Do you ever conduct therapy sessions anywhere other than the office?
    Note: If the therapist says they sometimes meet clients in coffee shops, make “house calls” or conduct sessions in their home (and do not have a dedicated home office), this may be a warning sign of someone with boundary issues.
  18. What’s your experience working with trauma and abuse? Do you have experience working with PTSD? How do you work with trauma and PTSD? What’s your approach? What modalities do you use? (For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy, EMDR, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and other modalities/techniques may be used in working with trauma.)
    Note: If the therapist uses few or no techniques other than talk therapy, ask if they refer out to someone more experienced in working with trauma, should you need that kind of support.
  19. How do you feel about spiritual or New Age concepts? Do you incorporate any New Age or spiritual techniques in your therapy? Do you ever use hypnotherapy or guided visualization techniques? If so, how do you determine if and when these techniques are appropriate?
    Note: While these techniques may be beneficial for some clients, they can be very triggering for others. It should be up to you as the client to decide whether or not you want to incorporate them into your therapy.
  20. What is your policy about having physical contact with clients? Do you ever hug or initiate any types of touch or contact? Do you ever use physical touch as part of therapeutic treatment? If so, how do you ensure proper boundaries are maintained?
  21. Do you believe it is ever appropriate to have sex with clients or former clients?
    Note: If the answer is anything other than “Never,” run—don’t walk—away from this practitioner as fast as you can!
  22. Have you ever worked with anyone who was a victim of sexual misconduct by their therapist?
    Note: If you have been the victim of abuse by a therapist, it is entirely up to you what you tell a prospective therapist about your situation and when. It’s completely understandable if you do not feel comfortable disclosing information about your abuse until you know this practitioner better and feel you can trust them. If you do feel comfortable disclosing some basic information, then feel free to ask the therapist if they have any experience working with this or similar issues.

Questions to Ask Yourself After Initial Contact with a Prospective Therapist

  1. How do I feel about this therapist? What’s my initial reaction?
  2. Do I feel accepted, respected, and comfortable?
  3. Am I experiencing any negative reactions (emotional or physical)? If so, is there anything I can pinpoint about the interaction that I might be reacting to?
  4. After a first session in the therapist’s office: Did anything in the environment make me feel uneasy?
    Note: It’s not unusual to react to the furniture, paintings, books, or other objects in the office.
  5. Was the therapist direct and open in answering all my questions or did they avoid answering some of them?
  6. Does the therapist seem sensitive, intelligent, and mature, someone with whom I can feel safe?
  7. How confident do I feel in this therapist’s ability to work with me?
  8. Did the therapist give me the impression that they have all the answers or could “heal” me?
  9. Did the therapist go overboard in assuring me that they were the right therapist for me? Were they trying to come across as the perfect therapist, the only one who could help me?
    Note: If the practitioner acts as if they have all the answers to your problems or they’re the only one who can help you, move on to someone else.
  10. How much talking did the therapist do? Did the therapist talk so much that I felt overwhelmed or didn’t have the opportunity to say what I needed to say?
  11. Did the therapist talk about their personal life? How much did they disclose?
    Note: This could be a red flag about boundaries. The therapy should be about you, not about your therapist.
  12. Do I feel that I can easily give feedback, state my needs, and be respectfully heard by the therapist? Do I feel that I can say no to the therapist if I need to?

Regarding red flags, if you feel anxious after seeing the therapist for the first time, that’s not necessarily a sign that something’s wrong. It’s normal to feel anxious or even wary of someone new, especially if you have trust issues. What you want to pay attention to is if you consistently feel triggered by the therapist and it doesn’t lessen after a few sessions, or if you feel in some way unsafe. If this happens, you may want to bring it up in therapy. If the therapist is open to discussing the issue and making changes and adjustments, that’s a good sign. However, if the therapist acts as if it’s your problem or tells you you’re wrong or that you should feel safe, that’s a big red flag. If this happens, move on to someone else!

It’s critically important that you find a therapist you can trust, who makes you feel safe, comfortable, respected and accepted. This is non-negotiable. You may need to speak with several practitioners before you find someone who feels like a good fit. That’s okay! You are worth it! Don’t settle for someone who disrespects you or can’t give you what you need. Just because someone is a practicing therapist doesn’t mean they have done their own personal work! Remember, therapists are just as human as you are. They’re not psychic or endowed with special healing powers or have a direct line to God. They’re simply people who chose to go into a helping profession to support people in need. Some are good at their job and others aren’t. It’s up to you as the consumer to be as discerning as you can. No one else knows you or what you need better than you do yourself. So honor yourself in this process and find a therapist who honors you!

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  1. Some unfit therapists may answer these questions in a quite satisfactory manner, but then do a bait and switch.

    Example: I asked my candidate therapist where he stood on recovered memories. I did not want to run the risk of working with someone who would be too eager to push me. The guy said, carefully, that his job as a therapist was to maintain a safe and boundaried space and not to push.

    Great. I proceeded to work with him. After I got emotionally dependent, this person would, every so
    often, remind me of that first interview and make it seem I had been rageful and out of control.

    I remained with this person for a very long time. Let us say, several Presidential administrations.

    So, here are some things to ask about — and also look for.

    Are many of the therapists clients friends with each other? Not good. This brings confidentiality issues and is a big red flag that the therapist fails to avoid dual relationships.

    1) Ask how long clients work with him or her. It is a very bad sign if a lot of people have been seeing
    this person for over a decade. You want to be a client, not become an inmate.

    2) My abusive therapist conned me to believe he was special and that he was my only affordable option. Never let someone trick you into this kind of dependency.

    3) Keep neutral and ask whether the therapist has benefited from a guru or lama or spiritual master.
    You will get an informative answer only if you seem potentially sympathetic.

    If it turns out the therapist is a long time disciple of a master (male or female), I urgently advise
    getting away and looking for a therapist who is not in such a dependant relationship. I thought it none of my business that my therapist was involved with a guru. Turns out the therapist was so emotionally tied in that many of his clients were disciples, he lived as close as possible to the ashram, decorated
    his office according to the guru’s dictates, and the mental health professional he referred me to was also a disciple of this same guru.

    In short, this therapist was not fully grown up. He was and is an inmate within his sect. I advise never to get involved with a therapist who believes in gurus or is a disciple of one.

    Set a specific goals for yourself in therapy and review it carefully. Beware of mission creep.

    Get away if the therapist teases you.

    If the therapist tells you to keep something a secret, get the hell out of there. Too many of us need therapy because we are burdened with secrets.

    Dare to look the therapist up on the state licensing website. See if he or her license is current. If you ever feel afraid to do this type of fact checking — beware. You should never feel afraid of your therapist.

    If you ever feel glad you are ill with a cold because it means you can skip a session, that is a big red flag.

    Take a two week break from therapy on your own time. See if you feel refreshed. If the therapist opposes this — beware.

    • Great suggestions! Thank you for sharing! I particularly agree with leaving a therapist who teases you or asks you to keep secrets.

      I do think that there are Buddhist or other spiritual therapists who have benefited by having a spiritual teacher, but I agree that if a therapist is in a dependent relationship with a guru or teacher that can be a red flag. If you have a more “spiritual” therapist, it’s important to be clear which spiritual views, beliefs and practices are YOURS and which are the therapist’s. You should not feel pressured, teased or blackmailed into adopting views, beliefs or practices that do not resonate with you. If you think there’s too much spirituality in your therapy, set a boundary and say so. Also, some therapists have their own “cult” following, so be wary of anything that smacks of cult or group-mind mentality and head for the door.

  2. Pingback: General and Emergency Information for Victims of Therapist Abuse – Surviving Therapist Abuse

  3. I experienced abuse with this psychotherapist , he went to my hometown saying he will provide protection for me turns out I was left devastated from his therapy . But unfortunately I went there on my own to get psychiatric evaluation , he put me on psychotic depression, I felt so emotionally drained from him . I couldn’t do anything about it , protection protection from ? EviL people

  4. My abuse was by a therapist… try finding another therapist who’s willing to listen… really listen… not try and change what you know to be true… it’s been very difficult as I cannot trust anyone…. yet I know I can’t sit back and say oh well…. it’s eating my insides !!!!

    • Rosemary,

      I’m sorry to hear you’re having such a difficult time with subsequent therapists. A therapist should absolutely be able to listen to you and respond with respect, without trying to change anything. I have sometimes called a number of different therapists in the search for one person to work with. I do an initial phone call and pay close attention to how they respond to me. If I experience any discomfort with their response, I move on to the next person. It can be hard to find the right fit.

      Of course, there are different ways to heal. Writing about what happened can be very helpful. You are welcome to post your story on the Your Stories page and maybe you will get some supportive feedback. I also often recommend that people contact the email responders at TELL — Many have found that helpful.

      All the best!

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