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Using Your Intuition to Choose the Right Therapist
It’s easy to dismiss the role of intuition in decision-making. It’s fuzzy and hard to pin down. We don’t know why it pulls us more in one direction than another. It can be unreliable, sometimes ringing as clear as a bell and sometimes lapsing into total silence. Anxiety, personal bias, and social conditioning can all disguise themselves as intuition and lead us astray.
But intuition is something we all possess and can learn to use. And it’s important. Without it, many decisions become impossible to make. As powerful as rational thinking is, it excels only in certain areas. You can rely on reason when you set up and follow a budget, compare products, brainstorm solutions at work, or choose a route for a trip.
Intuition also plays an important role in choosing a therapist. Rational thinking is part of the process, but once you’ve got nothing left to compare but how different therapists make you feel, it’s time to turn to your intuition.
How to Use Rational Methods to Narrow Down Your Options
Reason helps you make choices based on what you can measure or map into rational categories. It's what you'll use to put together a list of therapists who meet your "must-have" criteria.
For example, you can decide how much you can pay for therapy and narrow your list to therapists who accept your insurance or offer sliding-scale fees. You can determine how far you’re willing to travel and narrow your search by distance or online availability. You may also have preferences about a therapist’s area of expertise, counseling philosophy, or the method they use.
Next, you can narrow your list based on a therapist’s gender, race, ethnic background, sexuality, and religion. It’s reasonable to assume that a therapist who is more like you will have more shared life experiences, understand you in a more personal way, and be less likely to unfairly judge you.
(Alternately, you might have personal reasons for preferring a therapist who is different from you in one or more ways.)
But once you’ve done all of that, how do you choose from the remaining therapists on your list? Even if you’ve limited your list significantly by filtering out all of the therapists who don’t meet your minimum requirements, you might still have many to choose from.
This is as far as the rational process can take you. And this is when it’s time to use your intuition.
How Choosing a Therapist Is Like Dating
It may sound strange, but choosing a therapist is a lot like dating. In both cases, you are seeking a long-term relationship with someone you hope will change your life.
You share your deepest hopes and greatest fears with your therapist. You want the same things from them that you want from a partner: for them to help you be less alone, feel more alive, and unlock the fullest potential inside of you.
The similarities don’t end there. When you search for a therapist or a romantic partner, you start with your must-haves, like the criteria we discussed above. You might have some pretty strong preferences about gender and location, for example.
But you don’t choose someone simply based on the categories you can sort them into. You might start there, but you need more. You need to know what it’s like to talk to them or be with them. You need to know how they make you feel.
How to Use Your Intuition to Choose the Right Therapist
At OpenCounseling, we believe that intuition is your primary and most important tool in finding the right therapist. Our experiences have shown us that this is where the real magic lies. Something clicks when you find the right therapist. You just know.
This part of the process may or may not feel familiar or comfortable. If you second-guess yourself a lot, you might have a hard time listening to or trusting your intuition.
How Can You Jumpstart Your Intuition?
There are ways you can tap into your intuition even if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Start by asking yourself these questions:
- How do I feel when I look at this therapist’s picture?
- How do I feel when I read their bio, their website, or their blog?
- How do I feel when I talk to them on the phone or watch them in a video?
- What kinds of memories, images, ideas, or hopes do their pictures or words trigger?
You might want to write down descriptive responses to these questions or just sit with the feelings that come up. Do you feel warm? Trusting? Curious? The feelings these questions bring up will underline what your intuition is telling you.
Of course, you can only get so far with information you find online. To fully activate and use your intuition, we suggest setting up trial sessions with the therapists in your shortlist. Think of these first sessions as job interviews.
This may seem strange, but it gives you the best possible chance to use your intuition to pick the right therapist. Obviously, it’s not reasonable to meet with dozens of therapists—even if you had the time and money, it would be easy to get lost in the process.
For More Information
For more information about how to interview a therapist, including lists of questions to ask when you do, you can read our article “The Five Steps to Background Check Your Therapist.”
So, start with a rational process of elimination, then sit with what you feel about the therapists who are still on your list. Do this until you’ve narrowed your list down to five or less—ideally three.
Most therapists will be completely comfortable with you coming in to see if they are a match for you. If it helps, you can explain your purpose when you call: “I’m searching for the right therapist and want to see if we’re a good fit. Can I make a first appointment to meet you?” On the rare occasion a therapist says no, it’s a good sign they weren’t right for you—and that you just saved yourself a lot of time.
Questions to Ask Yourself After You Interview a Therapist
After your initial phone, online, or in-person sessions with the therapists you’re considering, ask yourself these questions about each of them:
- Do I like them?
- Do I feel like they liked me?
- Did I feel hopeful when I talked to them?
- Did I feel comfortable, at home, and at ease?
- Did I feel like they understood me and what I was struggling with?
- Did the therapist remind me of anyone I already trust and feel safe with?
- Did something about their tone of voice or mannerisms soothe or inspire me?
- Did being with them trigger any hopeful or happy memories or remind me of my dreams?
- Did the therapist’s office feel cozy, inviting, and like a safe haven? Do I feel like I want to go back?
Next, give your insides room to answer these questions. As before, note what feelings come up. These will help you key in to what your intuition is telling you.
Most people who do this find that one therapist stands out as the right one. Once you get to that point, your decision is easy. It’s like when you date—you know you’ve found the one when you can’t wait to see them again, tell them your secrets, and simply be in the same room with them. While this might seem touchy-feely, there’s more to it than you think.
How Intuition Works
One of the ways to understand intuition is to see it as a spiritual function that connects you to a higher power or greater reality. It can be powerful to connect with intuition as part of a spiritual practice or religion. If you pray or meditate, those practices can help you hone your intuition.
Your brain keeps much of the work it does secret from you. All day long, in countless ways, your brain is processing information below the threshold of your awareness.
This is why you can do complicated activities in a state of total distraction or zone out when you drive and still get to your destination safely. It’s also how you can know something without knowing how you know.
Left Brain vs. Right Brain
While neuroscientists no longer neatly divide brain functions into “right brain” and “left brain,” it can still be helpful to categorize them that way to understand how reason differs from intuition.
The “left brain” is associated with step-by-step conscious processes like thinking your way to a conclusion.
The “right brain” is linked with holistic, intuitive processes and sudden connections that express themselves just as easily through feelings or images as they do through words.
We need both of these brain functions to successfully navigate life and make important life decisions.
When your intuition kicks in, it’s as if your brain went from the beginning to the end of a thought process in a single step. Beneath the threshold of your awareness, your brain added up all you’ve learned from all of your past experiences and gave you an answer based on the sum total of that knowledge.
How to Recognize Intuition
It takes practice to learn how to distinguish intuition from anxiety or bias. One way to tell the difference is that intuition comes through “clear.”
Intuition won’t spike your anxiety, even if it’s not giving you the answer you wanted. It’s steady and consistent, unlike anxiety, which makes your mind waver and jump between feared outcomes. Intuition also tends to be “quieter” than anxiety.
While anxiety keeps you doubting and worrying, intuition makes you feel centered and calm. It helps you focus on the choice you know is the right one. Doubt might make you question your intuitive choice or decision, but over time, you’ll keep coming back to what your intuition knows is right for you.
It’s worth practicing until you learn how to recognize your intuition. You might be surprised by how much more effective your decisions become once you’ve got the hang of it.
There’s no reason you have to pick between intuition and logic when you make a decision. You can, and should, use both.
While you can make some decisions using reason alone, most require intuition, too. This is especially true for decisions that affect your life in a holistic or emotional way—like choosing a therapist.
By sitting with how your different options make you feel, you can draw from past positive relationship experiences to pick the therapist you’re most likely to hit it off with. This can keep you from spending months trying to work with a therapist who isn’t a good match.
It takes a lot of care and effort to curate a list of therapists, visit several of them, and wait until your intuition clearly points to one specific person—but it’s worth it. No other factor is going to influence the outcome of therapy more than the quality of the relationship you have with your therapist.
At OpenCounseling, we believe that having the right information can help you get more out of therapy, and this includes the information you can only access with your intuition. Let it help you find a therapist and you’ll already be well on your way to making therapy work for you.
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.