As mentioned in previous posts, I attended therapy for a period of several years and it marked a major turning point in my life. I had a positive experience as a direct result of those sessions, which were largely focused on learning about the autism spectrum and managing depression. (You can see samples of our discussion in this post about social data, and this post about depression).
What I haven’t mentioned: those sessions were with the second psychologist I spoke with. The first psychologist I went to? Complete disaster.
What makes a good therapist? What makes a bad one? What are some red flags to look for?
Between the two doctors I spoke with, a few traits stand out in relation to these questions.
Let’s compare and contrast.
The most prominent feature of Psychologist #1, the bad one: he had all the answers. He was never anything less than certain about his approach. I went in describing a life of sensory issues and struggles with social pragmatics. I was very confused about how to make sense of my experiences. But he discarded my statements and strongly urged me to embrace Jungian theory. I needed to set
aside my preoccupation with both sensory and social data all together. He gave me books and videos about the grand mythological struggles that shape our personalities. Everything I said in response: ignored. His solutions were the only way to gain control over my life.
Most prominent feature of Psychologist #2: she did not have all of the answers. She was very forthcoming about the fact that treatment of adults with Aspergers was not well researched or understood. She related her training and theoretical background…but never pressured me to conform to a specific approach or school of thought. When I described my sensory/social issues…she listened. When I insisted that she explain what, exactly, therapy would look like…she said, “Let’s figure that out together.” At no point in time did she claim to have all the answers…and it was a relief. It created space to just converse, understand, move forward.
Psychologist #1 had many years of experience and many therapeutic successes. I know this because he told me. Repeatedly. I was left with the impression that he wanted to be viewed as an expert.
Psychologist #2 never discussed herself, never described therapy in terms of a win/loss record. Her style was that she would ask questions; once I answered, she would repeat that answer back to me, then ask “Am I getting that right?” I was left with the impression that she wanted to understand what I was saying.
The first psychologist had a very large and ornate office. One wall was taken up by an enormous bookshelf. He would frequently take a book down, read a passage. Given my fondness for reading, you’d think this
would be great. But the quotes he chose often seemed unrelated to the discussion. The more he did this, the more I realized…his readings and the office itself were just theater…just another attempt to be viewed as an “expert”. The book thing quickly went from off-topic to annoying.
Second psychologist: her office was the size of a shoebox. The walls were bright pink and orange. Toys filled the shelves. However, she did have a lot of books. Dr. Seuss, mostly. About the room, she said, “I set it up this way for the kids…so I really, really apologize. We can meet in another room if you prefer. I just love being in rooms that kids love. They get energized in colorful environments… and I think there’s something to that. And to be honest, a typical therapists office: boring.”
I visited with the first psychologist for 6 sessions. I left there feeling more depressed than ever, at the end of my rope.
I visited with the second psychologist for 4 and a half years. Those sessions ended when I moved away to begin a new and better life.
The last thing Psychologist #1 ever said to me: “Watch those videos. Jung is a genius.”
Last thing Psychologist #2 ever said to me: “I knew you could do it.”