How can I determine whether or not a counselor or therapist is competent?

Ideally, you will have been referred by someone you know and trust to the person or people you are interviewing as your potential counselor or therapist. If this is the case, and in particular if the person who referred you has been in therapy with the potential counselor or therapist, then you have some indication that they are probably competent. However, even with such trusted referrals there are far too many horror stories of one kind or another.

Competence is a much debated topic, particularly with respect to whether or not it can be measured. Most states have licensing laws for all therapists, but just because a counselor or therapist has passed a test is no guarantee that they are competent or ethical. Such tests, however, are all we have at the moment, in addition to the therapist or counselor’s reputation within the community where he or she practices.

When choosing a therapist, you may choose to call your local or state licensing board and ask if the prospective counselor or therapist has had any complaints lodged against them. Depending on the state, you may or may not be given the information. There are also local counseling referral resources in many communities, usually staffed by volunteer therapists of the local counseling or psychological association. Often, these local organizations or societies attempt to police themselves and steer referrals away from therapists who have developed a reputation of incompetence.

One last word about competence: Just because you have been referred to someone who has the reputation in your community as being the “therapist’s therapist” doesn’t necessarily mean you will be happy with that individual. Don’t be afraid to follow your instincts.

Finally, while it’s true that certain degrees must be achieved and internships completed as part of the numerous hurdles a therapist must scale on his or her way to becoming a competent professional, one other element of experience is a must: the therapist’s own psychotherapy! In my opinion, if an individual has not participated in his or her medium to long term intensive psychotherapy or psychoanalysis, their ability to practice has been compromised.

Even if they are not going to practice that type of therapy that they received, I believe they should have some type of therapy anyway. There is no question that we all have blind spots — for example, trouble distinguishing our own pathology from someone else’s — and these will never be completely eliminated. However, with our own psychotherapy these blind spots can be reduced, or at least coped with in a healthy manner.

This may seem difficult to believe, but more than one therapist believes in therapy for everyone else … but not for himself or herself. If for no other reason than to feel the feelings on both sides of couch, all therapists need to have had or be currently involved in their own personal psychotherapy. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Contact Dr. Hutt

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