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How do you choose the right therapist?

When you have taken the decision to start therapy, you will quickly find yourself in the process of googling therapists at random in search of the perfect match. It can easily feel like a complex task to sort through all the different offers that exist, and it can feel like a job on its own to understand the difference between the many options available.

Who does therapy?

The first thing you will encounter, are the different titles for different kinds of therapists. Education wise we differentiate between psychologists and psychotherapists in Denmark. Here, psychologist is a protected title, indicating a finished master’s degree from the university, meaning at least five years of studying in total. When you have a master’s in psychology, you are allowed to call yourself a psychologist and offer therapy as a treatment. It is common practice that a psychologist will receive supervision from a more experienced colleague in order to improve and to ensure the quality of the treatment. In Denmark, a psychologist reaches authorization after documenting at least 1000 hours of therapy and 160 hours of supervision. This means that you can be in therapy either with a psychologist (cand.psych.) and an authorized psychologist (cand.psych.aut.).

Then we have psychotherapists, which in Denmark is an education of its own, consisting of both theory and practice about therapy. This is a private education, usually done part-time and varying in length depending on the school. It is often studied in relation to a specific method of treatment, whereas psychologist study the broad aspect of psychology, and then can choose their method of focus later on.

Then there are psychoanalysts, which comes from the tradition initiated by Freud, and this has its own method and education as well, also private. Here you can expect to go to therapy at least once a week and for a longer time period than other therapies. At the other end of the spectrum, we find coaches, which is a shorter education, and is often directed towards more narrowed down goals of counseling, for instance career or education.

What is the difference between therapy methods?

Besides therapists having different educational backgrounds, they also work with different methods. Every therapy method has its own theory and ideas about how humans work, what they need in order to get better, and how long that should take. Very superficially described, you have for instance behavior therapies, where change is created through adjusting behavior, narrative therapy, where change is created by adjusting the stories we tell about our lives, or dynamic therapy, where change is created by adjusting the subconscious patterns and beliefs we carry. And many more can be added, depending on how you divide the different traditions.

Every time a new method of therapy is brought to light, you will be able to find studies showing how this particular method is super effective. You will also be able to find studies showing that when both therapist and client believe in the method they are working with, there is a greater likelihood of the therapy being effective. A nice starting point would be to read a little about the method your potential future therapist is using. Do you relate to this method? Does it make sense to you, how this would be helpful?

You can also ask yourself if a particular method sounds like something you would need. For instance, if you feel more comfortable when things are organized and predictable, maybe it makes more sense for you to choose a therapist and method with a high degree of structure. If you feel a bigger need to dive into your emotions and explore past experiences, you probably will feel more comfortable in a method that values exploring these aspects. A rule of thumb is that you need to be able to see the point of the way your therapist works, or at least be willing to try it out with dedication. And then remember that sometimes you might be surprised about what ended up being effective.

How do I know what is right for me?

It can benefit you to do a bit of self-investigation yourself beforehand, by looking into what you want help with and how you want help. If for instance you are struggling with your relationships with other people and feeling like you are repeating the same patterns over and over, it would make sense to find a therapist with knowledge about attachment and interpersonal dynamics.

You might also come across general recommendations for what kind of therapy has an effect on what kind of issue. These recommendations are based on research and also provide guidelines for mental health treatment in the public system. Remember however, that even if a type of treatment works for a lot of people, it is not guaranteed that it will work for you. And this type if research contains some level of bias due to what kind of treatment is easier to use for a controlled research setting, what method has an easier access to funding and so on.

You can ponder for an eternity on what therapy method is the best match for any specific mental health issue, and you can develop complex formulas calculating how to match up client and therapist. Yet, several studies have found that it is the alliance, as in the relation between therapist and client, that has a central significance for the effect of the therapy. If you feel comfortable in front of your therapist and trust the person, and if you feel confidence in them being able to offer you something helpful, you have a very good starting point for getting the right treatment.

In short:

  • There are different kinds of therapists and therapy methods, varying in educational background and philosophy about the human mind and how to treat it.

  • Be aware of what you want therapy help you to do, and how you want it to help you – what is important for you to focus on?

  • It is central for therapy to have a strong alliance between you and your therapist. If you come to have trust and confidence in them and their method, you are more likely to find the therapy helpful.

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