How important is a strong client-therapist match for effective psychotherapy treatment? Pretty important, but maybe not in the ways you would expect.
No therapist is a one-size-fits-all clinician; each provider brings their personality, worldview, cultural identities, and unique approach to therapy to the table at every session. Some clients may have a strong preference for a therapist of a particular gender due to their past experiences or presenting concerns. Some may look for a therapist with a particular specialty, like trauma work, LGBT issues, ADHD, parenting, etc. You may also consider the therapist's education and degree - what kind of specialization did they pursue in graduate school? Are they at the master's- or doctoral level?
What is even more vital, though, is how connected you feel to your provider. Research has taught us that the emotional bond within the therapeutic relationship is the biggest predictor of therapy success, regardless of therapeutic approach (Lambert & Barley, 2001). Did you leave session feeling heard and supported? Was there warmth and empathy? Do you feel more hopeful about your situation? These factors trump the therapist's education level, specialization, or gender; even if you are convinced you can only see a young female therapist who uses CBT techniques, you may end up with a better match with someone entirely different who is able to connect with you in a more authentic and meaningful way.
If you end up with a strong match from the start, wonderful! Sometimes, though, it may take a some time to feel connected and trusting. I encourage clients to give therapy a few weeks before making a decision about continuing or looking for a different provider. Be open with your provider and communicate what is working and not working in therapy. Don't worry - your therapist will not take it personally if you give them feedback about your sessions. Be an empowered consumer and use assertiveness to talk about what works for you. If it's not a good fit, let your therapist know and cancel out your appointments. A clean ending is much better than "ghosting" your therapist and never coming back -- trust me, they will appreciate it.
Have any tips of your own for finding a strong client-therapist match? Share them in the comments.
Lambert, M. J. & Barley, D. E. (2001). Research summary on the therapeutic relationship and psychotherapy outcome. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 38(4), 357-361.
Dr. Bethany Detwiler is a psychologist practicing in Allentown, PA. She specializes in mood and relationship struggles. She also is an adjunct professor of counseling at Lehigh University.