There’s a special kind of frustration that happens when you decide to start your mental health journey: finding the right therapist for you. 

Therapists are not a plentiful commodity that are available in a variety of custom flavors at your local grocer’s. Finding the right therapist to work with is some kind of alchemy of dumb luck meeting divine timing. 

The perfectly-perfect therapist (aka a mental health unicorn) is someone who:

  • has availability

  • accepts new patients

  • takes your insurance…

  • …or works on an affordable scaling rate

  • specializes in your needs

  • has a similar background and/or is relatable

  • you like and feel comfortable around

You’d have better odds winning the powerball, or at least it can feel that way after several weeks researching and contacting potential therapists with no success. When you’ve already acknowledged your need for professional help, this additional stress and perceived rejection can be potentially draining. The risk of losing momentum increases when the help you need is nowhere in sight. 

I recently sat down with Rev. Dr. Angella Son, Ph. D., a pastoral psychotherapist at the Blanton-Peale Institute and Counseling Center to ask her what kind of stopgap measures are available for frustrated people who can’t find a therapist right away. I thought she might recommend a couple of therapy or mental health apps or suggest meditation. 

What transpired was a discovery of connection, community, and compassion for ourselves as paths to healing. Here’s our conversation with some great practical advice to get started, condensed and edited for length and clarity. 

Greetings, Earthling (GE)
I want to start off by asking: why is it important to find the right therapist?

Angella Son (AS)
I just want to clarify that I'm not a licensed therapist. I am a pastoral psychotherapist, but I have plenty of training and clinical hours. 

I think the objective of any therapy should be empowering people to find their authentic self. Different therapists have different approaches. I take the self psychologist perspective, which is a lot more growth-oriented rather than trying to look at what is wrong with you. We’re looking at what you already have, the strength and resources of resilience, and what your needs are. Not so much about how you had a horrible mom, and so on. 

People have different approaches, and it’s something the client should consider. Some clients might be drawn to popular or well-known people, but I think the criteria they need to look for is if the therapist really understands who they are, and what their needs are. Therapists will have their personal notion of what “better” is for that client. But is it really what the client needs to become stronger and more resilient?

GE
What are the major types of therapy and how do you decide which one is better for you?

AS
Geographically, different approaches have prominence in New York, California, and Chicago, where self psychology is more prominent. In terms of talk therapy, play therapy, all different types of therapy, it comes down to meeting the therapist. If you find a rapport, give yourself one to three months to see if it works. 

Eventually you might come to a point where you’ve outgrown your therapist. I want to remind clients that everyone has their own biases, their own therapeutic approach. Make certain that your needs are getting met, that no matter how helpless you might be feeling, you’re able to trust yourself, trust what you’re experiencing and make decisions based on that. 

GE
Personally, I feel like everyone should be assigned a therapist at birth, someone to help guide you. 

AS
Yeah, we used to call them mentors. It’s interesting: our societal structure doesn’t allow for these kinds of intimate mentor/mentee relationships. What we have instead are professional relationships, but those have all kinds of limitations. The meaning of mentoring has changed. It used to include aspects of nurturing, caring for family, for the community. Unfortunately, we’ve favored privacy to the detriment of community. 

GE
Can we talk about burnout and how to recognize the signs?

AS
That’s a really difficult question because everyone is experiencing different levels of stress in their lives. People with less stress may be better able to recognize the difference between how they usually feel and how intense their life has suddenly become. 

It’s the ability to say: “I can’t do this on my own.” That’s really hard to know when you’re in survival-mode and you just have to keep going until it breaks. Of course you can’t let it break. That’s not an option when the situation is dire economically, socially, or for whatever other reasons. 

For these people, even if it’s hard for them to stop, I would ask them to find even one minute a day just to take a stop-moment. It doesn’t have to be a quiet place, or alone, but find the time in the day and just stop. Stop everything. Everything. Not just physically, but mentally, emotionally. Just stop everything even for a few seconds.

GE
What are some options for people who are in the in-between moment? What can they do while also looking for a therapist?

AS
It’s great you’re asking that question and exploring that issue. It’s so important. I’m going to offer some suggestions that can help people address their anxiety. When you can’t find a therapist, your anxiety is going to shoot up. When your anxiety is up, your functioning level deteriorates. 

There are five things people can do to address escalating anxiety: receive, flow, wait, discover, and collaborate. 

Receiving is perceived as very un-American. The American message is: “if you have a problem, figure it out and find a solution and take care of it.” I’m suggesting that they try to do the opposite. 

Just think: this is how it is. Then receive it. Trying to find the problem and the cause and the solution is going to raise your anxiety levels. So if you’re getting agitated, just receive how you are right now. 

GE
Sit in the moment. 

AS
Yeah. If you’re just yelling and screaming, that’s okay. That’s how you are right now. Receive. Just receive. And move away from problem solving. That means moving away from thinking that you have a problem, or you are a problem. You are not a problem.

The second thing is flow: don't try too hard to make things happen.

Rivers and streams of water don't try to change the shape of geographical surroundings. Just by flowing, they eventually make permanent changes. That's what flow is; don't work too hard. Don't try to figure out everything when you just have to wait for gradual change. 

Let go of your “ideal self” and drop the concept of the perfect parent, person, life, whatever it is. When you embrace how things are, you’re not tormenting yourself with how they should be. 

The third thing is to wait. And simplify. If there are things or people who are creating stress, it’s okay to stay away. You don’t have to stay in contact, and it’s okay to take a little leave of absence or get some distance. Let the situation reveal what needs to be worked on. 

Wait, flow, and receive. They all work together. 

Next is discover. It’s about giving time to ourselves, to really self-define. What do I really want? What do I need fulfilled? What do I enjoy? What are things I love and appreciate? Who am I? Answering some of these questions can help reduce the amount of therapy, actually [laughs].

GE
I had a little epiphany maybe a year ago. I was looking at cut flowers and I realized no one had ever asked me for my favorite flower. Turns out I love peonies. I had never thought about it, but it got me thinking about all the other things I like. 

AS
Yes. 

GE
Books, clothes, scents, food, anything, everything. While it feels like a very small thing, it was this moment of self discovery. 

AS
It doesn’t have to be complicated to define yourself. Just look to hobbies. What music do you like? If you love flowers, what about nature? What are some things you love to do? I would ask people to focus on the joys of your life. The little things that make you feel joy. Contentment. Joy is really about self-contentment. 

Lastly is collaborate. If you can find others who might be going through similar issues, get in touch with them. It could be another person who is in a similar situation and can’t find a therapist. 

It’s a little difficult because of privacy issues, but my second suggestion is even if you don’t believe in divinity, check in with your local synagogue, church, mosque, or any number of religious institutions in your area. They may be able to give you an ear to bend, hear your complaints. Turn to some quasi or non-licensed people. They could be religious leaders; they could be neighbors.

I think it would be great if counseling centers could consider including an option on their intake form indicating that people in similar situations could have the option to connect and create support groups while looking for a therapist.

📚 Check out Spirituality of Joy by Angella Son, Ph.D.


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