Let’s face it, most of us don’t get ourselves into therapy until we are so broken and desperate we can barely get ourselves to the office. We are in a state of extreme need and vulnerability (usually), and the last thing on our minds is interviewing our own therapist. We want answers, and we want help, and we want it now!!!
I understand; I have been there. That is why I am giving you a list you can bring with you to your first two or three sessions so that you can really make an informed decision about how well you and your therapist are a fit. If the first session, you are in total crisis, don’t worry! You can ask these questions any time. But the sooner, the better. It is awful to get into a therapy and then realize you don’t like this therapist, don’t find them helpful, or, even worse, that they don’t like or ‘get’ you.
Remember that your therapist is YOUR hire. You are paying them to render a service, and you are in charge. If you like or don’t like what they are doing, talk to them about it! Just like with hairdressers or massage therapists, monogamy is not required. It’s therapy, not marriage.
OK, then. Here are some excellent questions to ask:
1) What professional organization(s) do you belong to? A mature and successful professional will always want to be part of a professional group larger than themselves. Professional groups provide leadership, advocacy and ongoing education to their members. Really invested professional trauma therapists should belong to at least one professional trauma organization such as the International Society for the Study of Stress and Dissociation (ISSTD); the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS); the American Professional Psychology Division 56 (Division of Trauma Psychology) or one of many others. Hopefully they also belong to their local professional chapter: for social workers NASW, for psychologists, APA, the AMA if they are a psychiatrist, and so on. If they rattle off a bunch of names and letters you do not understand that is probably a good sign. They all have websites. Feel free to check them out. Many of these organizations have their own lists of providers. If they are expert presenters for these organizations, even better!
2) Do you have any special certification or training in Trauma therapy? Good answers:
Specialized supervision (regular meetings to review cases and learn from them) provided by an experienced trauma therapist or internships in trauma treatment centers. ISSTD and other organizations offer specialized courses and certifications. Also, the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress certify practitioners in a number of traumatic specialty areas including crisis response, child, etc. based on their accomplishments and years of work in the field.
No. Or I understand trauma because I had a lot of it. Or I’m a good therapist and good therapists can treat anything (run away).
Trauma therapy is an advanced practice specialty area that always requires special training to be good at. You wouldn’t go to a general family doctor for a heart attack, so don’t think that any therapist can do this work. They can’t and may do you more harm than good.
3) Do you understand and treat dissociative disorders?
A surprising number of therapists have never been taught to work with dissociative disorders, don’t recognize them when they see them, and can waste years of patients’ time (not to mention money) by this lack of understanding. Dissociative disorders and traumas go hand in hand. There is even a dissociative subtype for PTSD in the latest diagnostic manual (DSM 5). If you know you have lots of trauma, or lack a significant portion of childhood memories (dissociative amnesia) you have a higher likelihood of a false and unhelpful diagnosis if your therapist does not specialize in trauma and dissociation. Common misdiagnoses are bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia.
4) Have you completed your own course of therapy?
This is an awkward but TOTALLY FAIR question, one, quite frankly, that I wish more people would ask. In the good old days, in the heyday of amazing long term therapy, it was considered on the verge of malpractice and utter ignorance not to complete one’s own therapy before embarking on treating other people. Now it is rather the norm. Very few therapists I supervise have had much of their own treatment.
There is a misconception out there that therapists are sicker than the general population and become therapists to cure themselves. After 40 years in the field, I do not subscribe to this idea. Almost everyone in society has been exposed to trauma and mental illness in their families. Very few of those people want to understand it and go on to help others – those special few are therapists.
But being a psychotherapist working with traumatized people is an incredibly challenging calling. It’s easy to make mistakes, mostly unconscious or ignorant ones. So it is important that the therapist has had enough of their own therapy to understand how their own mind defends itself and operates unconsciously so that they can work well with other minds. This is a long and arduous task requiring many hours of training and work over a period of years.
So don’t be put off by a therapist who had a lengthy therapy themselves. Chances are good that somebody in therapy for 10 years will be a much better therapist than someone who went to treatment for six months and called it ‘good’.
5) Do you believe that people can have repressed memories of trauma that they recall later in their life?
There has been a big debate in the media about this, but in the world of professional trauma therapy the debate has been over for a while. The answer is “yes, of course”. Jennifer Freyd, cognitive psychologist at the University of Oregon, and editor of the ISSTD journal, did a great deal of work in the area of what she calls “betrayal trauma”, the trauma inflicted by a caregiver. She has showed in numerous studies that the closer the relationship of the abuser to the abused, the more likely the victim will have traumatic amnesia for the event.
If memories start to surface in your therapy, you will want to make sure that you will be believed and helped. It is extremely poor therapy to answer ‘no’ to this question, because that indicates the presence of dogma and a closed mind. You may have some very challenging and unusual things to tell your therapist, and you need to trust that they can hear those things and continue to work with you in a safe and containing way.
If you don’t feel like you can ask these questions in person, there is always email! Or go to your therapist’s website and investigate them deeply. You will save yourself some emotional distress and money by being proactive in your search for a truly helpful trauma therapist. Good luck!
Susan answers all of these questions in the affirmative and would be happy to answer more here!