"Is there anything you might want to ask me?"
At some point during my initial consultation with someone I always ask this question. A lot of the time I'm met with a blank stare, or, very occasionally a look of panic. I can imagine the internal dialogue someone might be having - 'I didn't know I was supposed to bring my own questions!?'.
Different therapists will approach this from a multitude of different angles, but the way I see it, I'm asking you questions. Lots of them. I'm asking you to trust me enough to tell me things that might be uncomfortable or closely guarded. And I'm not sure that trust can be established without there being a mutual openness and transparency. Don't get me wrong, there are some questions I won't answer; where I live for example, or what the greatest TV show in history is (It's Firefly - and I'm not open for discussion on that one), which is mostly just safeguarding on my part. But if someone wants to know how long I've been practising for, what my qualifications are, or why I got into this profession then I don't see that there's anything to be gained from not being open with a client. I don't think I can ask a client to go somewhere I'm not willing to go myself.
I've been asked quite a few questions over the years, some you'd expect and then some which were a little more....unusual. Everyone is different, and you will have things that are important for you to know. In the interests of starting a discussion, here are the 5 questions I'd ask a therapist, or that I hope I would be asked myself.
1. What is your training and experience in the condition I'm experiencing?
Something to hold in mind, is that the terms counsellor and therapist/psychotherapist are not protected terms - that is to say that anyone can call themselves a therapist without having any qualifications or experience. This obviously leaves people open to abusing the trust of potential clients. Asking about qualifications is one way of establishing training, but I find that asking someone to talk about their training and experience in your condition gives you a better feel for someones skill set. Confidentiality should limit how much they can say about specific clients, but they can still discuss their experience in broad terms.
2. How do you maintain an ethical practice?
One of the biggest pillars of my practice is ethics. Clients are, for the most part, vulnerable people. Asking someone to share their thoughts, feelings and emotions is inherently vulnerable. How we manage a persons vulnerability, how we work to promote autonomy, and avoid anything that would cause harm is essential. Asking a therapist how they hold confidentiality, do they make notes after a session and how are they kept confidential, what are the ethical considerations they work to? These are, I think, important things to know, in order to feel safe with someone. My ethical compass comes from BACP's ethical framework, which lays out a standard of practice, values, principles and personal morals that I will adhere to in order to best serve my clients and keep them safe.
3. Have you had your own therapy?
Therapy is a journey, and for each person that journey is going to unique. For me, knowing that the path I'm walking down has already been walked by someone else is deeply reassuring. Think of the comfort we get from hearing someone else has been through, or is going through what we are - they get us. If I was climbing a mountain, I'd want to know that my guide had climbed it before.
Whilst confidentiality does play into it, I think a lot of therapists don't want to talk about their own experiences of therapy, maybe because there's a fear that it makes us look less professional (my therapist needs therapy - how can they help me if they can't help themselves?). I'd disagree with that view. A therapist in therapy is working hard on themselves, to ensure that they're as grounded and secure as possible for their clients. It demonstrates care and respect, for themselves and their clients.
And I'll happily shatter the illusion right now that therapist are "fixed people" who don't have issues. We're human too. This journey through life is like walking towards the north star - you're never going to get there, all you can do is keep heading in the right direction. That's all any of us can do, therapists included.
4. How do you self care?
I'll admit, this question was originally born out of curiosity - how do I "do" self care correctly? Surely if I just copy a therapist that'll be enough (because they must have it sorted, right?). As times gone by I realise that actually, it's more that it's important to know that a therapist is self caring rather than how. If they're taking care of themselves, they're less prone to burnout, compassion fatigue and illness. They're more likely to be present, attentive and engaged with their client. For some clients they can feel like they are burdening or "putting onto" their therapist when they talk about their issues. Knowing your therapist has a self care routine, means you can trust them to be solid and that they won't buckle under the weight of whatever you're bringing to a session.
5. Have you got any plans to move or change profession in the next year?
I remember my supervisor saying that before they took on a new client they asked themself if they had any plans to relocate in the next five years. Often clients won't be looking to stay in therapy for that length of time, but if you're looking for a therapist and they're planning on moving in the next 6 months that might mean the work already has a time limit on it before you've even begun. Starting work with someone that may have to end before you're ready to can have a big impact, and is something to think about.
The answers to these questions wouldn't necessarily mean that would choose not to work with someone, the rapport you share with a therapist is still what I would consider the most important aspect to consider, but they're important things I'd want to know about my potential therapist and would at least inform my decision about whether to work with them.
What questions would you want to ask your therapist?