“What Kind of Counsellor Do I Need?”

Two months ago I published the New Therapist Checklist—a little cheat sheet that I got a tad overexcited about. But, as a self-identified counselling nerd, my excitement almost made sense to me: if you’re from Vancouver, you know how hard it is to find a therapist in a city flooded with counsellors. And whether it’s a big-city glut, or a small town-counsellor dearth, other places share in this too; it’s not unique to Vancouver.

January is a cool time to be a counsellor—it’s exciting how many people approach me to lay out their goals for the New Year and it’s great to meet with folks committed to quality self-reflection.

Many of us want to proceed with making personal changes and have researched how to find a therapist, the importance of therapeutic fit, and perhaps have even looked into counselling credentials and what they mean. Yet, we may feel stumped wondering “what kind of counsellor do I need?”

This article is meant to shine some light on this common question, because figuring out counselling or counsellor “type” is often not as straightforward as it would initially seem.

And of course, not everyone has this question. If you’re crystal clear, wonderful. Please proceed independently. Jumping right in and starting with a counsellor is totally valid and more often than not, can yield excellent results.

This article is not a one-size fits all. For some of us, all of the factors below will be important; for others, the decision may be based on a general feeling rather than more specific factors. All good.

Your Concerns

Perhaps one of the biggest most common questions I receive when meeting with folks for preliminary counselling consultations is “Do you have experience with….?” or “I took a look at your website and I see that you have experience with….” Understandably, many counselling-seekers want to know that the therapist has training, experience or sometimes even lived experience helping with their identified issue or issues.

While it is not incumbent on therapists to personally disclose their experiences, such client questions may not necessarily be related to curiosity but rather, does this counsellor have cred? Case in point: early in my counselling career, before I became a parent, I gave plenty of unrealistic parenting advice. I was naive and ignorant and coming from a purely theoretical point of view. Ugh.

Your Scope

For years I have defined myself as a passionate generalist, a counsellor who helps with select key issues but also refuses to pigeon-hole myself into helping with just one main thing. Diversity is deeply important to me.

This approach may be most relevant for clients who are seeking a counsellor who can work laterally with them on various core issues, without the counsellor necessarily needing to refer them to someone else to help with issues the therapist is inexperienced in. In many circumstances, although not exclusively, a generalist therapist is sometimes thought of as a ‘one stop shop.’

For others, however, finding a counsellor that specializes in one particular area is key. Such clients may find reassurance in knowing that their counsellor has dedicated almost all of their education and counselling experience to helping with one particular area; potential counselling clients will frequently reflect this in online searches for a counsellor (for example, “depression counselling”; “anxiety counsellor”; “couples counsellor” “addictions counselling” etc.)

Counselling Methods (Therapies)

For some of us, finding a counsellor who uses a particular method of therapy is important. This typically starts when researching an issue of concern, learning about common therapies used to treat or help with it, and then finding out who in your geographical area might use it. It is not uncommon for me to receive requests for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT),—both of which I offer—but also other therapies that I don’t, such as EMDR (I’m not trained in it).

Therapy Environment

The setting in which want to meet with a counsellor may also be a consideration for you. The most common and default option is in-person at the counsellor’s office, however you may be seeking a remote option like phone or online//Skype counselling, for practical, geographical or personal reasons.

Therapy Goals

What are your goals when it comes to your therapy? Some folks come to counselling with a list of things to drill down on, while others are more fuzzy: “I know I need counselling but I don’t know what’s wrong/where to start”. Do you want things to be more free-flowing or focused? There can also be a fine line between goals, expectations and assumptions which can be good to be clear abut before starting counselling.


Some counsellors articulate their counselling values on their website, helping potential counselling clients reflect on whether they feel that a values alliance is possible. Counselling values is a wide subject and could include aspects such as: how the counsellor approaches or views a particular issue, lifestyle, identity or orientation. Or, it could relate to political values, shared life experiences, a general life outlook and more. Free initial counselling consultations can be a great opportunity to ask questions about values and how such values may take shape or be expressed in counselling.

Counselling Style

When it comes to counselling style, I hear a range of needs expressed by counselling clients:

  • “I need a gentle touch…it’s hard enough as it is for me to come for counselling.”
  • “I need a therapist who will really challenge me.”
  • “I need a counsellor who will call me on my stuff.”
  • “I am a caregiver in so many aspects of my life. I need support from a counsellor.”
  • “I just need someone to talk to—a counsellor who will really listen.

What seems to make the most sense to you? Which counsellor best exemplifies that for you?

Counsellor Qualities

There may be, for you, essential qualities that a counsellor must possess in order for you to feel comfortable working with them. This could include things like gender identity, biological sex, ethnicity, age, race, experience working with particular populations/cultures/communities, lived experience in an area important to you, education and more.

The X Factor

For many who seek counselling, the decision to move forward with a counsellor may be more about intuition than anything else. In deciding to hire a therapist, such comments often include: “it just felt right,” “I had a good feeling about the counsellor,” “I felt welcome in their space,” “I felt at ease,” “they were easy to talk to,” etc.

Tips To Find Your Person

  1. Review the above factors: which are most important to you? It might be helpful to prioritize in order of importance. Follow up to see if can find a therapist who reflects your identified priorities.
  2. Consider the “Dodo Bird Verdict”: While this is an area of academic debate, there is research to indicate that all forms of therapy are equally effective and that it is therapeutic “common factors” that account for the most therapeutic progress (especially the alliance between client and therapist); the implications of this are that it may not be absolutely essential to be participating in a specific type of therapy. That being said, however, if there is a therapy that you have determined is important for you to pursue, that in itself is a reason to try it.
  3. Be clear about your expectations (and possibly assumptions) for counselling; start a conversation with your counsellor if you believe that these expectations are not being met. Dialogue about the discrepancy and what positive changes could be implemented.
  4. Take advantage of free counselling consultations. What is your overall impression of each therapist you meet? How do they compare?
  5. If you are open about your counselling journey with loved ones, and your people have received counselling and are willing to talk about it, it may be helpful to ask what they found most useful about counselling, understanding of course that each person’s needs are individual.
  6. Trust your guts. I’m a big believer in the X Factor; we can’t always name why we want to pursue counselling with a particular therapist other than it just feels right. Conversely, if anything feels wrong, no matter how illogical, it is important to step back and re-evaluate.