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Seeking Therapy for Complex PTSD? Here’s What to Look For.

So many people who went through trauma when they were kids are still waiting to find real help for the trauma-related problems that continue to affect their lives. This is a tragedy.  

Are you one of those people? I was. I didn’t know any other way to DO something about the intense struggles I was having, that I now know were from dysregulation and other symptoms stemming from trauma in my childhood. 

How do you really know who to who to turn to, or what results are reasonable to expect? 

You hear people say all the time “Oh you should go to therapy! It’s so awesome, it totally changed my life!”  And and you think  I want to find something like that but where? Should I just go on Yelp, or Google it?  

(Watch the video)

How is a person supposed to find a therapist?  In my experience the process is pretty random. You go to some therapist… but what do you do if you just feel sad or awkward afterward, or like its just not going anywhere? 

When you don’t have a fruitful therapy experience, you risk internalizing two negative ideas — that therapy doesn’t work at all (which is not the case), or that you must just be too broken to benefit this thing other people all seem to think is so fabulous (and that’s probably not right either).

I don’t  think you’re too broken to heal, but I think it can be very hard to get matched with someone who really understands you, who understands trauma, and who has an approach to healing that actually gets in there and makes a difference for you. 

I know this struggle because I went through it for years.  I’m one of those people who hit a wall when I tried to get help the conventional way.  Back then, when very little was known about the effects of early trauma, no one was connecting the seemingly random set of symptoms I had, with trauma. But it turns out my problems weren’t random, they were common and normal for someone who grew up with abuse and neglect. I couldn’t get help from professionals at that time, but I was lucky enough to figure out an approach that worked for me.

Therapy is still, by and large, how our culture supports people who are struggling. It’s what insurance covers (if it covers anything). It can be hard to get an appointment, it can be expensive, and it can be hard to get to geographically. By the time you do get in, you’ve made  an enormous investment to see somebody, about whom you basically know nothing.

The people who know how to help with CPTSD are out there, but there are precious few ways to find out if they can help YOU, and it can take many meetings before you have an answer. 

But access to therapy has evolved recently, and several factors have just empowered people like you to find therapists who are a good fit. First, there’s an explosion of therapy available online (there’s an explosion of lots of things online that used to be done face to face). It’s true that something is lost without the face-to-face connection. but what’s gained is a) the cost has come down in a lot of cases, b) it’s a lot easier to set up an initial meeting than when you had to go in in person, and c) you have access to SO many people out there. They don’t have to be in your town — they don’t even have to be on your continent anymore! So you have a better chance to find a trauma informed therapist who fits you and gets you.

Second, thanks to the internet, there’s a lot of transparency now around clinical professionals. In many cases you can get online and learn about them before actually reaching out, and that’s a big step forward for you. When you do meet with them, you still have ask the right questions. 

I have a new partnership agreement with an organization that matches potential clients to online therapists, and I’ve pasted a link to this resource at the end of this post. In case you’re looking for therapy — and I know a LOT of people here are — and especially if you’re in a crisis,  please have a look at this link as soon as you can. 

And if you have CPTSD, and you want to go the therapy route, I’m going to really encourage you to find someone who is knowledgeable about CPTSD. It’s so important to find someone who doesn’t minimize or misunderstand the effects of early trauma. You want someone who  but GETS it. 

So in this post I want to talk about the qualities that make a good therapist for people with CPTSD.  These are characteristics to look for and questions you can ask in a pre-screening or initial appointment with a new therapist, to help you narrow down your choices and find someone who just might hold the key for you to a very big next step in your healing! 

Here ten things to look for when you’re choosing a therapist:

They project honesty and confidence, rather than people-pleasing or vagueness, when you ask specific questions about their approach. Some therapists, just like some people, will have a sincere desire to help anyone who asks for help. This could be for financial reasons, or because they’re new in their career and haven’t yet figured out what they do best. But the therapist you want isn’t afraid to say “This thing is my specialty, but this other thing is not.” Or, “That’s not something I’m trained in but I’ll look into it.” Someone willing to learn about an approach to healing can sometimes be more valuable than someone who thinks they already know everything there is to know. 

They are up to date on research outside of traditional therapy circles. Ask what their sources are for new information on trauma. If they mention ACEs, Bessel van der Kolk, and Pete Walker, that’s a sign they they’re paying attention to the thought leadership that’s popular. You may have certain modalities to ask about — tapping, somatic experiencing, nervous system healing — etc.  ASK! Get a feel if they know about the technique that’s been helpful to you, and what they have to say about it. 

It’s fashionable these days to call things “trauma-informed,”  but remember, this means different things to different people. And anyway, no matter how closely aligned with someone you are philosophically, the person who is going to have to step in, and decide if this is a fit, is YOU.  

Be sure to learn whether their knowledge is from professional education, personal experience, or some of both.  This is a personal question but if it’s important to you (and it is an important thing for many people in the Crappy Childhood Fairy Community) you can ask if they’ve had their own experiences of trauma. Ask also what they found helpful for their own healing, and when you’re discussing this with them, try to be open to hearing with both your head and your heart. Get a feel for whether you agree with them intellectually, but also if you feel affinity with them. 

They don’t have to be just like you. But a lot of us here  (not everyone but many of us)  feel extra comfortable with people who have experienced CPTSD and come out the other side. 

Ask how long they think it will take until you start feeling better. Now I know  this isn’t a fair question, because no one knows the answer for any one person — not even about ourselves.  But if all they have for you is platitudes about “every person is different,” or “healing is a long journey,” they may not be the one for you. 

Look for people who can address not just long-term healing, but the immediate need to get some relief from symptoms (and I don’t just mean relief through medication) There are many techniques for calming, and self-soothing, and self-regulating that, if you ask me, should always be part of treatment. Those are the things I teach and many other great teachers out there teach. I encourage you to find a therapist who understands this and supports it.

Look for common sense in their approach. Do they suggest basic things known to help with trauma like exercise, limiting alcohol and sugar, and getting sleep?  Or is everything they suggest something a professional must give you? Adding common sense strategies for self-healing is just plain smart, and you want someone who makes it part of their recommendations.

Find out if they will they encourage you to focus on your role in your problems (and how to solve them), or will they be more interested in the ways others have hurt you? There are plenty of people out there who want to talk about the hurts, and plenty of therapists who are willing to listen. But my opinion is, this needs to be kept as just part of any approach, not the whole thing. Without a focus on things you can actually change, talking about the hurts from others is just a way to delay or avoid the hard work of facing the breadth of the problem.

Find out if they have ways of working with you that don’t always require you to tell your trauma stories. This is important because, if you’re like me, talking about your traumatic memories can be severely dysregulating, to the point of ruining any potential benefit of therapy. So look for people who can suggest ways of working on things that are not all about talking, and who won’t let talk that’s about trauma, the past, and other people take over the whole hour.

Test whether they keep a visit fairly structured. Do they go along with whatever you plan to talk about, or do they have a path to help you follow? For dysregulated people, a path is particularly helpful.

Ask yourself whether you find they are tuned in and knowledgeable enough to notice when you’re dysregulated, and weather they have techniques to help you “come back’ from that. If not, it’s unlikely therapy can continue in productive way. 

Determine if they able to see you beyond any labels or diagnoses you may have, in order to see your unique interests, strengths and vulnerabilities?

Note whether they are curious and respectful, rather than invalidating or dismissive, about your opinions and ideas about what’s wrong, what you need, and what approaches seem useful. You may have learned to tolerate this kind of thought domination in the past, but for your healing, you’ll want the freedom to decide for yourself what is important and valuable.

You hear me says this a lot: You must remain sovereign over your own healing — not tossing it to chance, or blaming the system or doing whatever you’re told — but talking to people and seeking out the forms of help and learning (by trial and error sometimes) how you tick. Your job is to test what helps you re-regulate and be happy.

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