Finding the Right Counselor for You

Finding the Right Counselor for You

The idea of sharing personal stories and emotions can be scary, especially if you’re still feeling hurt or vulnerable from a breakup. Delving into these difficult feelings can ultimately be one of the most helpful ways to cope and move on. That’s where counseling comes in. Talking with someone one-on-one in a safe space is a great option for anyone who may need support.

finding the right counselor for you

To learn more about the process of starting counseling, we met up with licensed clinical psychologist and motivational speaker Martha Ramos Duffer whose work is centered on trauma treatment, empowerment and personal growth. She provided us with incredibly helpful information on how to choose a counselor.

What are the differences between a counselor, therapist, psychologist and psychiatrist? Who would you suggest for someone who has left an abusive relationship?

That’s an important place to start. The words psychotherapist, therapist and counselor are all used interchangeably. These are people who have received master’s degrees in counseling, social work or psychology. Psychologists have more training because they are doctorate level therapists. Any of these professionals can do a great job providing therapy.

On the other hand, psychiatrists have a doctorate in medicine. In most states they are the only ones who can prescribe medicine and most don’t provide therapy. What most often happens is that somebody who needs medication will see a psychologist or other licensed counselor for therapy and see a psychiatrist for medication.

It’s important to make sure the professional you decide to speak with is a licensed mental health professional. Terms like “licensed professional counselor” are legally regulated, so not just anybody can call themselves that. Words like “counselor” or “coach” are not regulated, so anybody can call themselves that.

What are the steps to take in order to find the right counselor?

The first thing to think about is financial access. Will you try to use insurance to pay? If not, will you pay out of pocket and do you need sliding scale fees? Some therapists offer varying prices based on the client’s income level.

Some communities also have local mental health centers with low fees. If you’re just leaving an abusive relationship and you don’t have access to funds or insurance, see if one of these exists in your area.

If you have insurance, call and request a list of mental health care providers. After you have a list, you can begin to ask around to see which of these professionals are recommended by others. If you’re coming out of a shelter, ask the people who work there for recommendations. Ask friends and family if anybody has seen a mental health professional who has worked well for them.

If your friends and family members haven’t used mental health professionals, there are other options. Ask for recommendations from other health professionals in the community, like your physician or even other psychologists. Psychology Today is also a useful site where many mental health professionals advertise, allowing you to read doctors’ bios and research more options in your area.

Call several different therapists and talk with them before setting up an appointment. This lets you determine how comfortable you feel and how responsive they are. Ask if they have expertise working with clients who have experienced trauma and domestic violence.

What are some red flags that indicate that a therapist may not understand domestic violence or aren’t a good fit for you?

If a therapist gets defensive when you ask them if they have experience with trauma and domestic violence, then it is likely that they are not well trained in that area.

Another huge red flag is if a therapist wants to begin by looking at your role in the relationship and treats the abuse as a mutual-fault issue. That doesn’t mean that in complex ways we don’t all play a role in every dynamic but that’s not how to treat a survivor of domestic violence. If they start to discuss the situation as if it was a traditional marriage or relationship issue and try to explore your own role in triggering or participating in the abuse, this is a clear sign they don’t understand domestic violence.

If a counselor recommends couples therapy or marriage therapy, this is also a red flag. This is not recommended when there’s battering and violence in a relationship.

How do you know a counselor is a good fit for you?

A good match between therapist and client is one of the most powerful healing factors in a therapeutic relationship. Look for someone who makes you feel heard, understood, safe and comfortable.

If you don’t feel this way, it makes sense to look for someone else. However, it’s important to first ask yourself what is making you uncomfortable. Is your discomfort coming from how difficult it is to talk about this? Of course you’re going to feel badly as you start to talk about what happened. There are all kinds of things that can make a first session not feel good, and you need to discern if your discomfort is because starting the process is difficult, or because you don’t feel heard and understood by the counselor.

Check the blog on Wednesday for the second part of our interview with Martha.

Comment section

19 replies
  1. I left my abusive husband of eight years. We have a five year old daughter together. I am now living with my parents. I know I need help because im having a hard time staying in the reality of the fact that he abused me. My mind keeps playing tricks on me to keep being his enabler. I haven’t called him but I know I probably will if I dont get help. My daughter is visibly better every day and I want her to see as her strong mommy who said no to abuse but now I need to take action by getting a seperation at least and get my parents furniture from his apartment but im worried he’ll realize im not coming back and might do something to me or take my daughter away like hes threatened. And seeing that I feel that… Why do I want to call him and mommy him like I’ve always done? It’s so sick. I need help asap.

  2. Anna: It takes a great deal of strength and courage to leave your abuser. I am glad to know you are in a safer place at this time. Please feel free to contact us at the NDVH, we are here 24/7 at 1-800- 799-7233, to provide you with good information and advocacy to remain safe. The feelings that you are having are not uncommon, there are many reasons to feel confused and uncertain. Contact us and we will try to provide you with good information to help you develop a plan for remaining safe.

  3. I was being abuse at home. I’m still 16 years old thats why i can’t live own my own yet even i wanted too. My dad always yell at me, and saying i’m useless, why did i bring you here in U.S, and all that kind of bad words. I still remember when i’m still in Philippines i’m still about 6-9 years old my dad wrapped the belt on my neck that i couldn’t even touch the floor. He always hit me with a belt and always get mad so easily. I manage to hide it to my friends, but when i came here in U.S (i’m 15 years old) he still did the same thing but he doesnt hit me with a belt anymore because he know his going to jail but his still yelling at me and saying he might kill me. He almost throw anything that he can see to me and sometimes i’m lucky i only get bruise on my knee when he push the chair towards me. I also almost commit suicide many times and i still manage to hide the cuts on my hands. He also slap my face one time on public but lucky only a little kid saw what happend and i got scared because i saw 2 police car on our way on the market. He always say sorry when he gets mad and say be a good girl and i will be a good dad. But he still gets mad over and over again. He always get mad on small things and he couldn’t admit to himself he was wrong. We are always wrong and his always right, thats what he always think. I also open it up with my teacher, and youth leaders and pastor at my church and they pray for me and they give me advice how to handel it. I always want to run away but i have no place to go. When i run away i dont want to see my dad face anymore but i know dad i’m still gonna see him. I need help.

  4. Janet I am very sorry to hear how difficult things are going for you right now. You are certainly brave to share what you have been going through. When it is safe to do so please give us a call here at the NDVH at 1-800-799-7233, we are available 24 hours a day. We would like to provide you with support and information to help you to be safe.

  5. I have been married for 2 years and was financially struggling eversince. I am paying for our rent every month. My husband is a plumber that is earning much more what i earn. I buy my own food and all my needs. Eversince my husband didn’t gave me even a single cent to let me feel that I am his wife. During the early stage of marriage he drove me from house to my workplace and vice versa then he always complain that he wakes up early and he bought extra gas, so to keep him happy I gave him $20 per week for the gas. He don’t help me clean the house, he just sit and keep on playing his computer games. He drink at least 4 cans of beer every night he smoke and last June 16, 2013 I found a big pack of marijuana in his night stand drawer. March 2012, I asked him why is it that our restroom smells so weird, and he told me that it’s a smell of a dope where the people that lives above us were smoking and the smell gets into our restroom, I believed him until i was so disappointed when I found the evidence.
    We always argue when it comes to financial matters…coz I also have 3 children in my country studying high school and college. I cannot even feed my own self because my salary just goes to my kids and to my bills here in america. My husband will even yell at me and told me that I am giving my money to other people. He cannot understand that I am giving my children a brighter future. I want them to finish thier education coz that is the only wealth that I can give to them but its very difficult for him to understand.
    I am no longer happy being with him, I want to live but my friend told me to just be patient because of fear that I might be deported back to my country because I am stilll having my conditional greencard.
    Please help me on what will I do. I will really appreciate for your advice.

  6. Matet,

    Thank you so much for sharing with our blog community. It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help and I am glad you have because it sounds like a lot is going on. From what you have described, it sounds like this is an emotionally and economically abusive situation. We know that abuse happens because one person wants power and control over the other. If you feel like that is what is going on here, I encourage you to contact us, the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1800-799-7233. The HOTLINE is completely anonymous and confidential and is available 24/7. An advocate is available to offer guidance and support with this issue and can talk about possible options, including getting you connected to a legal advocate that can answer your questions concerning your greencard.

    I hope you are able to contact us when you are safe to talk.


  7. i been with my abuser for 6 years back in 2009 he had sold everything in the house so i lost the house and i been renting every since dont have nothing of my own to call home. so the last part of june he had got violent with me and i had called the police on him but he is staying at the house thinking that i want to be there im terrify of him and scarced last incident he try to pawn tv but i had took all the serial number off the tv last one he had got hold of some money and he spent it all on drugs didnt bring nothing into the house hold at all he lost his phone where he was staying at but in reality its his fault that he lost his phone not my responsible to buy nobody no phone so enough is enough im going to move on with my life he has destroy me and i sick of it im tired and sick of it

  8. Rhonda,

    Your situation sounds very scary. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help you safety plan, brainstorm options, and look up local referrals for shelter, counseling, support groups, and legal advocacy. Please give us a call at 1-800-799-7233 for help. Take care.


  9. Hi.
    Me and husband had a one time bad night in which in both sides, alcohol played a part.
    My husband got arrested and was order to not come back to the house and to not be with our girls. It didn’t take me long, to realized I have done something very hurtful for our family by calling the police on him. I was angry I blacked out and also a bit drunk..

    My girls and the entire family are now struggling with this situation. I was practically left as single parent. I see a lot of different cases here, but what happens to the people in which violence is not an on going situation?? Me and my husband cry continuously because he cant come home and my girls are missing daddy tremendously!! We are one those families that often cause jealously to others because we are always happy having a good time.

    We both work full time to provide all girls with everything they need. But the child service people just don’t see that.. based on one bad night in which we both made a mistake, they are breaking our family apart, everything that we have created in almost 13 years. We have never been in police situation before and we are very scared.

    My husband is a great father, with flaws like every parent, but has never mistreated our babies, he loves them enormously, he cooks for them, he takes care of them, he washes their laundry, he picks them up after work, all of it, so I can finish school. He is a great men. And I wouldn’t change him for anything in the world. We do need help to learn how to communicate better and to how to respect each other a lot more. But, we are definitely a loving family that all is asking for is one chance.

    Where do people like us get help?

  10. Blanca,
    I’m so sorry for what’s happened and the pain and stress it has caused you’re family. While we unfortunately don’t have specific legal information, our advocates would be happy to speak with you abut what’s happened. We can certainly look up any legal resources we have for your community that might be helpful in challenging the court order that has been put in place.
    Our hotline is open 24/7, call us anytime at 1-800-799-7233.


  11. I do like that you recommend asking for referrals from other medical professional when choosing a psychologist. After all, it is very likely that your general physician knows quite a few of the local therapists in town. While you don’t have to specifically choose the therapist they suggest it is still a great way to start gathering some names.

  12. I love the suggestion you make about contacting your insurance providers if you are unsure of your options. After all, they will have a list of mental health counselors in your area who accept your insurance. Of course you don’t have to choose these counselors, but it is a great way to start looking.

  13. I like how you listed some red flags to look out for when getting a therapist. I’ll have to keep these kinds of things in mind when I get a therapist for my mental struggles and issues. Thanks for the useful information!

  14. I appreciate your comment about how you should be able to feel heard and understood and safe with your therapist. I think that if I were in need of counseling services I would want to find someone that I would be comfortable with since you need to be able to tell them personal details. Mental health is important for everyone, and you would want a therapist that can really work well with you.

  15. It really helped when you said that it is advisable to ask people you trust for any recommendations if they have hired an expert before. I think that will be a useful tip since their experience can tell a lot about the potential counselor. I will share this tip with my sister to help her hire the right person for their needs. It appears that they need their child to have a therapist because he has been hurting other children and even adults at school.

  16. I really appreciate your tip to try and find suggestions from health professionals in your community. My wife and I have been thinking of getting our child some therapy since she is so nervous about starting middle school. I will be sure to ask the health professionals in my area for their advice!

  17. I like that you suggested having a list and asking friends for recommendations to see if their service was good. I will share this tip with my best friend since she wants to save her marriage for her kids. From what I know, the issue was due to the financial crisis they had when her husband lost his job.

  18. I had no idea that insurance would actually cover things like mental health. I’ve been having a really hard time with my depression, so I’ve been thinking about seeing a counselor. Thanks for all the great tips on how to find one to help me out.

  19. I like your suggestion to call several different therapists before making an appointment to make sure we end up with someone with whom we’re comfortable. I’ve been struggling with my anxiety lately and have been considering trying out some form of therapy. I definitely want to feel comfortable during the sessions, so I think I’ll take your advice and make some phone calls before making an appointment.

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