Not getting much out of therapy? The right expert for you could be just a couch away, as Jessica Martin discovers.
I have definitely seen my fair share of psychologists. The first was as an eight-year-old to deal with my parents' divorce. She wanted me to draw my emotions, and when my half-hearted swirls were frowned upon ("Are you sure that's how you really feel?"), I faked it and drew harsh lines to represent my 'anger' instead.
I saw counsellors in high school mainly to get out of class and psychs at uni for more legitimate reasons. I had sessions with a therapist to help me overcome crippling panic attacks when I was 19 and two years later I was whisked off to a psychiatrist when I was suffering mild depression. After six months of weekly sessions and a dose of antidepressants, I was feeling good ... but it didn't last.
One size doesn't fit all
A few years later, I found myself in a depression so deep that, at the time, I didn't care if I lived or died. I needed to get back to the psychologist's couch. But this time around, I was referred to someone who wasn't right for me. I'd spend an hour a week (and $170) watching a professional adult draw childish pictures of pressure cookers to try to explain why I felt this way (what is it with psychologists and drawing?).
I felt patronised and ripped off, but I kept going. For months I'd rock up to my appointments with the sole aim of making this surly psychologist smile, which in a way was good because it gave me something besides my own mortality to focus on, but it wasn't the most effective way I could have been spending my time and money.
I'd leave the sessions just as miserable as when I entered them and although I wouldn't say they hindered my getting well, they didn't help. At the time I didn't realise I could switch therapists; I thought it would be rude or that it would be seen as giving up. But you don't go back to a hairdresser who has left you with an inch of hair after you specifically asked for long layers and balayage, do you? The same goes for psychologists.
Rules of engagement
So how do you find a therapist who isn't going to give you the emotional equivalent of a buzz cut? Psychologist Patrea O'Donoghue says you need to ask yourself whether the therapist is someone you can work with. "Just like dating someone, sometimes it takes a couple of meetings to see if you feel comfortable sharing your story with a particular psychologist and just as in everyday life, it's not likely that we will get on with everyone equally well," she explains.
"So be willing, if necessary, to call around and have appointments with a few psychologists until you find someone you have a sense of affinity with."
Mary Magalotti, director and principal psychologist at Life Resolutions (liferesolutions.com.au), agrees. She says the most important thing in determining whether you are working with the right psychologist is your level of engagement with them.
"If you don't feel comfortable that you can build up a trusting and engaging relationship, then it's likely that you will not progress greatly. It's important to understand that therapy will be difficult at times, as a good psychologist will get you to confront your issues and emotions, but this is healthy as long as you feel safe and emotionally held by your psychologist along the way."
Getting on the right track
O'Donoghue says if you're considering seeing someone, you need to be patient and persistent. "Psychology is not a magic pill; it's a process that may take time in order to address the situation you are facing."
As for me? I'm back in therapy, as I suspect I will be, on and off, for the rest of my life. But this time I'm not battling the black dog; I'm working at maintaining my happiness and I've found a psychologist who I look forward to seeing, who impresses me with her insight and compassion.
Therapy is not always an easy process, but it can often be a worthwhile one.
What to consider when looking for a therapist:
• Are they registered with the Psychology Board?
• How long have they been practising as a therapist?
• What are the fees and how long are the sessions? Are concession rates available?
• Can you speak to them before your first session? The psychologist should make themselves available to answer any questions you may have.
• When speaking to you, do they put you at ease and sound competent in dealing with your specific issues?
• Are they emotionally present and tuned into you?
• Do they seem warm, accepting and non-judgemental?
• Do they seem emotionally healthy themselves and not anxious or arrogant?
• Will they challenge you on things when necessary?
• Do you get a sense that they have a genuine desire to assist you in moving forward?