Qualities to Look for in an Effective Psychotherapist

Do you feel like you might need a psychotherapist but aren’t quite sure what to look for? When dealing with traumatic experiences, heightened emotional distress, or mental illness, it can be hard even to take the step to find treatment. It can be that much more difficult and draining to figure out if a specific psychotherapy provider will be a good fit for you and your needs.

While mental illness can feel isolating, help is out there, and you are not alone. A survey from the American Psychological Association states that “only 30 percent of respondents were concerned about other people finding out if they sought mental health treatment,” meaning that over half of those surveyed view seeing a therapist through a lens that is free of stigma or judgment.

As the stigma surrounding seeking mental health treatment continues to decrease, more people are engaging in therapy and talking about their lives, careers, and relationships with licensed therapists. People in their 20s and 30s are seeking therapy at rates higher than the previous generations, affecting how and what kind of treatment is offered. If you’re searching for a psychotherapist you can count on, there are several qualities to consider.

what to look for in a therapist

An effective psychotherapist draws on science

There is a lot of misinformation about the work of psychologists and psychotherapists out there, and having a therapist who uses evidence-based methods for mental health treatment is vital if you are looking for sustainable results. For example, every week new data comes out to support the ways that specific brain structures play a role in how humans process trauma, as well as how the fears that result from this trauma are treated. Psychotherapists who take advantage of this data to form your treatment plan are ideal.

One type of mental health treatment which has gained widespread popularity is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based form of psychotherapy focused on finding solutions and implementing them in patients’ lives. CBT deals with the connection between thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors, and can be used with patients of all ages and walks of life. It helps treat a variety of conditions, including eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Scientists even hypothesize that CBT plays a role in actively tackling the neuro-pathways that lead to the amygdala, the part of the brain that handles expressions of fear.

Studies have also reinforced that cognitive-behavioral therapies positively impact patients with social anxiety and phobias, and that “improvement was accompanied by a decreased rCBF-response to public speaking bilaterally in the amygdala, hippocampus, and the periamygdaloid, rhinal, and parahippocampal cortices.” In other words, therapy can is linked to changes in our brains and how they act and react. Thus, cognitive-behavioral therapy plays a significant role in how your brain ends up processing negative events and emotions.

The other dominant form of evidenced-based therapy treatment is psychodynamic psychotherapy. This type of therapy has long historical roots. Its modern version has roots in Sigmund Freud and his ground-breaking ideas that mental distress and illnesses could be compassionately treated through talk and conversation. His thoughts were revolutionary at the time, in part, because the conventional treatment for mental illness was being locked away in an asylum.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy emphasizes the curious and non-judgmental exploration of emotions and how they are expressed or repressed. That is, the ways we do or don’t allow ourselves to feel and express different emotions. There’s also a significant focus on pinpointing recurring themes in life and how those are potentially linked to our experiences growing up and, importantly, how those recurrent themes impact our current life.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy can be trickier to study compared to CBT, which has lead to a myth that is it less effective; however, this is not the case. There is strong evidence to suggest that long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy is powerfully healing and that it tends to lead to sustained, long-term changes in people’s lives.

Effective psychotherapists and mental health professionals use science to create and implement a supportive psychotherapy strategy to address your mental health.

Your therapy has a greater chance of success if it is backed by science and the latest technology, which an efficient and successful therapist will use during your treatment. Cutting-edge options, such as data-driven therapy or even those that include using your smartphone to combat depression and anxiety, may also offer more significant insights into individualized ways to approach treatment.

Good psychotherapists are warm and welcoming

Having a warm personality may seem like an obvious characteristic to prioritize in your search for counseling and psychotherapy medical professionals, but it is even more important than you may realize. Many people put up with a less than ideal bedside manner in hospitals or at appointments with their doctors, but when it comes to interpersonal psychotherapy and talk therapy, it’s critically important to find a therapist who welcomes you and makes you feel comfortable.

Dr. Ryan Howes, a psychologist from California, sums it up best in an article with Lifehacker: “The therapist can be the most highly trained person in the world with years of experience…but if you can’t open up to them, the therapist is worthless.” Dr. Howe goes on to explain why trusting your gut is the most important factor in your decision: “If you feel safe and comfortable talking to them, the therapy will be more beneficial.”

It’s also important to note that it’s okay to switch therapists to improve therapeutic relationships and the overall quality of your psychotherapy sessions. If you find that your relationship with your current therapist seems lacking, it’s well within your right to seek treatment from someone different. First, if you can muster it, talk to your current therapist about your concerns and feeling disconnected from the work of therapy or them. That kind of conversation in therapy — although far from easy — is incredibly powerful and can even be transformative and make way for personal growth. Psychotherapy is about getting help and perspective in your life, and so you need to make sure that you are satisfied with your relationship with your therapist. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with your current treatment plan or think that things could be better, express your concerns to your therapist, and seek out a replacement if you deem it necessary.

Remember, you are in the driver’s seat of your wellness. If you’re not sure where to start your search, there are plenty of resources to help you find a great therapist. In addition to consulting with your doctor or friends, you can also try the therapist locator offered by the American Psychological Association.

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Great treatment comes from a personalized approach

As medical technology and health care advances, one thing is becoming overwhelmingly clear: individualized primary care approaches yield results. From immunotherapies that fight aggressive cancers of the brain, skin, and pancreas, to a personalized approach that tackles the underlying causes for inflammatory bowel disease, medicine is focusing on gene therapies that serve as targeted solutions for specific people. The same can be said for the importance of personalization in psychotherapy.

The human brain is distinct, as are the experiences and perspectives of all patients. To accommodate these differences, therapists and scientists look for individualized and responsive strategies that address mental illness on a case-by-case basis. One such researcher is Dr. John Greden, who founded and serves as the executive director of the University of Michigan’s Depression Center. In addition to hosting panels to break down the stigma associated with conditions like depression, Dr. Greden is also searching for ways to treat depression specifically and effectively. He says that “precision treatment is a term we have been using to address the specific causes of depression that people might have. There is no single approach that works for everybody with depression.”

When looking for a psychotherapist, you should find practices that offer an individualized type of psychotherapy treatment, not one-size-fits-all solutions. While cognitive-behavioral therapy, behavioral therapy or psychodynamic psychotherapy all may be a good fit for some patients, others may benefit more from mindfulness exercises or gaining insight into what motivates self-sabotaging behaviors. Some patients are excited about trying new cognitive therapy methods and cutting-edge psychological treatments, while others prefer to stick to established approaches.

A good psychotherapist, together with you, will be able to develop a treatment plan that addresses your needs as well as what you want from your therapy, all while promoting healthy living. Everyone goes to therapy for different reasons, so it’s vital that you work with a therapist who is willing to meet you where you are.

Good psychotherapists are accessible

One other aspect to consider when weighing the pros and cons of psychotherapists or mental health counselors is how accessible they are. When you begin your clinical mental health treatment, you quickly learn that the role your therapist plays in your life can be a big one. With such a meaningful relationship, it’s vital that you’re able to maintain your connection, regardless of where you are.

Accessibility translates to how readily you can reach your therapist between sessions when you’re feeling unable to cope. Alternatively, this might take the form of how quickly you can see them for an extra session during a given week when you’re struggling more than usual.

Nowadays, psychotherapists are accommodating patients’ schedules in a variety of ways, and one significant way is by keeping their services accessible across multiple methods of communication. In addition to meeting with your therapist for a therapy session in person, there may come a time where you need to conduct therapy sessions via telephone, video conferencing, or text message.

Online therapy can be a great way to keep your scheduled day and time with your therapist, even if you’re on vacation or out of town for business. If your psychotherapy practice offers remote opportunities in addition to their in-person services, that may be another reason to proceed with them for treatment.

Remote therapy is powered, in part, by how advances in mobile technologies are being adapted for the world of mental health.  Technology has a significant impact on the way health professionals approach online therapy. Apps can now collect biometric data, as well as offer daily depression and anxiety screenings. These advances can streamline the intake process and give doctors and therapists valuable information to calculate baselines of mood and sleep, critical factors in many mental health conditions.

Smartphone apps can also assist you with mindfulness and breathing exercises, both of which have been shown to help decrease anxiety. All of this helps make psychotherapy more approachable and accessible, a major win for anyone nervous about getting help.

However, as useful as these advances in technology are, an instrumental and influential element of therapy is the experience of addressing your struggles in the presence of a warm, thoughtful and attentive professional. Early data suggest that sticking with therapy conducted via technology (for example, text-based therapy or any form of online counseling) is more difficult and that people drop out of that kind of therapy at higher rates compared to in-person therapy. Thus, early research indicates that while convenience is increased by remote therapy so, too, is not sticking with it.

A great psychotherapist listens

At the Therapy Group of NYC, we know that in addition to offering their insight into your life and the problems you are facing, a great psychotherapist is also an uncommonly skilled listener. Being truly heard ties to the importance of finding a therapist with a warm and inviting demeanor since a good listener is someone you feel like you can confide in. In his article for the New York Times, “How to Be a Better Listener,” Adam Bryant outlines key components of listening, such as being fully present, withholding judgment, and using body language to show that you’re listening. Bryant shares that listening “is an act of empathy.” Your therapist is working to see your world through your eyes, a skill that requires an empathetic mindset and years of painstaking education and training.

When you have a therapist who listens to you, you have more confidence in their thoughts and observations and are more likely to open yourself further to the work of psychotherapy. Therapy can dredge up uncomfortable memories and difficult topics. However, a therapist who listens will give you the space to work through these talking points at your speed.

A warm and professional therapist who listens will also make sure that your experiences and perspectives are validated, even as you work together to reframe and reassess how you walk through the world.

Just as it’s essential to find a therapist who listens to you, it’s equally important to be open and receptive to what your therapist is sharing with you. In Bryant’s New York Times article, he advocates asking open-ended questions so that you can “listen to learn.” He shares that by actively listening to the person speaking to you, “you can unearth [their] insights with a combination of genuine interest and some open-ended questions.” This can be especially important as you enter into the sometimes unfamiliar world of psychotherapy. Clarifying the experience and your and your therapist’s expectations from the get-go can be a powerful tool for setting yourself up for success in future sessions.

Positive psychotherapy extends to all aspects of the treatment process

Frequently, you’re seeing a therapist to deal with the stresses and demands of modern life. Therapy is supposed to offer you clarity and peace, not more stress. If your treatment is causing you unwanted tension — and not the helpful discomfort of growth —  it might be time to consider making a switch to a different therapist. Everything from the timing of your sessions to the location of your therapist can have a positive or negative impact on your attendance, and the overall effectiveness of your therapy. That also includes payment structures and policies, which do not have to be overly complicated.

From the outside looking in, therapy can appear mystifying. While it is essential that privacy and confidentiality are honored to the highest degree when it comes to your therapy, that does not mean that the general process of therapy has to be shrouded in mystery. If you have questions for your therapist, ask them for plain English discussion about why something is done a certain way or why mental health insurance is so confusing. (Believe us when we say that, we too, are sometimes just as confused by health insurance companies, but we’ve learned a few things along the way.)

Therapy is complex — especially when it comes to your personalized treatment. That said, excellent therapists welcome discussions about topics such as their approach to therapy, how the flow of therapy session is managed, and why they place emphasis on specific themes more than others. In our view, the best therapists are the ones who take a collaborative approach and do what they can to help you to examine if they are a good fit for you and your goals.

As demand for psychotherapy in major cities increases, it’s important to find a therapist you trust. Effective psychotherapists are effective because they draw from data and science, utilize new technologies and treatments, and put you first in their practice.

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