January 16, 2024

How to Be An Exceptional Therapist

by | Jan 16, 2024 | Healthcare Workers

Exceptional therapists are dedicated to their crafts and put significant time, effort, and practice into their work. They know both their strengths and weaknesses, and they aim to grow throughout their professional careers. Exceptional therapists come from all backgrounds and work with all types of populations. No matter how long you have been in this field, there is room for improvement- here are some of the most important considerations to keep in mind.

Master The Basics 

Research shows that exceptional therapists consistently build strong therapeutic alliances with a large scope of clients. They tend to have higher retention rates, and their clients progress faster and more substantially than average or worse-than-average therapists.

Research also consistently shows that the therapeutic relationship is one of the most important predictors of treatment success. Therefore, it’s important to note that exceptional therapists don’t just acknowledge the significance of this alliance. They infuse it in everything they do. They use it as a compass for how they orient treatment, conceptualize a case, and plan interventions.

While advanced skills undoubtedly matter in shaping expertise, no therapist can overlook mastering the basics. These basics set the stage for effective work.

Warmth: The importance of warmth can’t be overstated. Clients want to feel comfortable talking to their therapist about their innermost feelings. They need a sense that the other person is safe, and warmth is the soft skill that provides that security. 

Authenticity: Exceptional therapists tend to be honest and open with their clients. They do not people-please, but they also do not inappropriately talk about themselves or derail conversations off-topic. However, they recognize their humanness and lean into that within their treatment.

Unconditional positive regard: Carl Rogers first came up with this concept, and it’s worth reinforcing (1). Unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a demonstrated empathy and compassion for a client’s story. Nobody wants to feel judged about their emotions or needs. When a therapist can convey UPR, they exhibit genuine care for their clients.

Curiosity: Exceptional therapists rely on curiosity over assuming, and they ask thoughtful questions that honor this curiosity. They may draw attention to patterns, but there’s really this sense that they’re an expert on someone’s life. Instead, they remain collaborative. There’s an ongoing effort to truly understand their client’s rich story. 

Corrective emotional experiences: A corrective emotional experience can be defined as a reparative moment when a therapist responds in a way that’s different from how the client anticipates or has been met with in the past (2). These moments may be transformative, as they demonstrate that the client is deserving of empathy and grace. 

Focus On Strengthening Your Scope

Exceptional therapists strive to continuously refine their scope. Even if they are sometimes eclectic in their approach, they have a sharp sense of their ideal clientele. They know who they work best with, and they can clearly articulate the types of clients they feel most confident treating.

Strengthening scope often comes down to feeling grounded in a theoretical orientation. It’s no secret that there are many, many approaches to choose from. While many therapists hold strong opinions about their favorite methods, research continuously indicates that no one approach is significantly more effective than the rest (3).

In other words, it’s not so much about which theory you choose, but more about how much you dive into it and integrate its principles into your work. While many therapists weave in elements of numerous theories into treatment, it can certainly be helpful to have a concrete roadmap for conceptualizing care and planning sessions.

Seek Ongoing Feedback 

It is an unfortunate reality that therapists often lack clear direction at various points throughout their careers. Many work in isolation and do not receive constructive advice about how to best support their clients. Many also have limited to no experience of actually being critiqued about how they practice. To make matters more complicated, it’s not uncommon to move through this field without much exposure to watching others conduct therapy. 

Supervision is the obvious choice for growing as a professional. Exceptional therapists are aware that they are lifelong students- they regularly seek to obtain education from people who are more knowledgeable and skilled than they are. If you don’t already have a supervisor, consider working with one who aligns with your theoretical orientation and preferred population. The right supervisor will help you strengthen your deficits and sharpen your clinical skills. 

Peer consultation can also be invaluable. Peer groups allow you to consult about cases with other professionals, build meaningful relationships, and problem-solve collectively. These experiences can reveal blindspots in your career, but they also shed light on your existing strengths and attributes.

Finally, exceptional therapists also regularly seek feedback from their clients. They assess how treatment is progressing, whether that’s through review forms or informal discussions. Most importantly, they aim to integrate both the positive and negative feedback. This is important for assessing the quality of the relationship and the effectiveness of the treatment provided.

Stay Active In Your Own Therapy 

It’s fairly known that many of the best therapists often cite some of their successes to their own experiences in therapy. This work is intimate, emotional, and demanding- all at the same time. Personal therapy offers a safe environment to process the material that inevitably arises in this field. It also provides support for therapists navigating their own mental health issues or adversities.

With that said, it’s important to also focus on finding the right fit for yourself. Ideally, your therapist should help you feel challenged and inspired. You should have a sense that you’re being understood and supported throughout your journey.

Being a client can offer a humbling experience- being on the other side of the couch can show you just how difficult it is to be vulnerable with another person. It also showcases what the process of therapy actually feels like when you’re on the receiving end.

It’s worth noting that exceptional therapists do not always come from the best circumstances. Many have histories of mental illnesses, traumas, and other hardships. These personal histories can, at times, be difficult to manage, particularly when clients activate them. However, exceptional therapists use their experiences as a springboard for being the kind of provider the world needs. They also value their own introspection and remain invested in personal growth.

Keep Building Your Technical Expertise 

Research consistently shows that exceptional therapists use particular techniques competently and consistently throughout their practice. This competence is defined as delivering interventions at an appropriate skill level (5).

It’s important to note that experience alone does not correlate with competence. Many therapists practice without deliberately trying to better themselves. This may explain why some studies show that therapist efficacy actually reduces over time.

Building technical expertise starts with applied training. The reality is that the average graduate school program offers a foundation for learning how to be a therapist. However, it’s important to seek advanced education in your specific area of focus. This is where certification, structured supervision, and ongoing continuing education come into play. 

Like any skill, technical expertise takes time to develop. It’s not enough to read a book and practice the interventions. They require thoughtful planning, execution, and analysis. In other words, it’s important to be deliberate in how you apply new skills and assess your performance. 

Treat Burnout Proactively 

Burnout can happen insidiously, and it can surprise even the most passionate therapists. Burnout refers to a state of emotional exhaustion that coincides with irritability, apathy, and a general sense of cynicism about work. Therapists struggling with burnout may find it harder to connect with their clients or feel invested in their growth. They might also experience physical issues like poor sleep or appetite changes.

Burnout is not a moral failure. Any therapist is prone to this phenomenon, but it’s important to be aware of the initial signs and treat them accordingly. If you wait until it’s too late, you may feel completely depleted.

Burnout is a multifaceted issue, and it’s not realistic to fix your symptoms overnight. However, you can take precautions for yourself by:

  • Prioritizing routine self-care
  • Setting healthy work-life boundaries 
  • Recognizing when you’re trying to do “too much” for clients
  • Scheduling regular breaks throughout your day
  • Investing more into your hobbies and personal relationships
  • Reconnecting with mindfulness

Cultivate Passionate Energy

Being a therapist can, at times, feel draining. Sometimes, it can seem like you’re running on auto-pilot. If you have a high caseload or feel overly busy with sessions, work may feel like a never-ending to-do list.

Passion naturally waxes and wanes. However, exceptional therapists prioritize infusing passion into their work as much as they can. They seek opportunities to be inspired. They read, listen, and absorb therapeutic material that interests them. They attend workshops and conferences that leave them feeling refreshed. They mentor other therapists and seek to give back to the profession.

You don’t have to have to “do it all” to be an exceptional therapist. But passionate therapists come to work eager to learn and make the most of their work. This energy undoubtedly affects their clients in many profound ways. 

Create Concrete Goals For Yourself

Exceptional therapists remain oriented toward growth in their professions. Although perfectionism isn’t attainable, they do strive for clinical excellence, and they hold themselves accountable for achieving success.

Having goals can help you become more effective in your work. For instance, if you want to improve your ability to set boundaries with clients, you might focus on ending every session this week on time. Or, if you want to improve your consultation calls, you could start tracking how many consults lead to conversions, which can help you measure your own success rate.

Sharing goals with a supportive peer can also keep you on track toward success. Exceptional therapists tend to associate with other exceptional therapists, and that shared energy of ambition maintains an aura of motivation.

Keep Learning From Your Mistakes

Therapy, at its core, consists of a relationship, and all relationships have the potential to be messy and complicated. Mistakes will happen. You will make an assumption that offends a client, or you will suggest an intervention that fails spectacularly. You will experience clients ghosting you, cursing you out, or telling you that you haven’t helped at all.

Mistakes are normal, and exceptional therapists make them all the time. What sets them apart is that they are willing to examine these mistakes deeply. They reflect on what went well and what didn’t after their sessions. They think about their weaknesses and take steps to actively improve deficits. They apologize profusely when they hurt clients.

Mistakes will happen, but it’s what you do with them that can truly make all the difference. 

Final Thoughts

Exceptional therapists are not born. Even though natural talent and privilege help shape effective therapists, it’s important to note that the best of the best are deliberate and intentional in how they work. They put in significant effort and strive to grow and learn as much as they can. The more you can embrace this mindset in your professional pursuits, the more successful you will be. 


  1. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-20423-012 
  2. https://psychotherapy.psychiatryonline.org/doi/pdf/10.1176/appi.psychotherapy.2005.59.1.30 
  3. https://counseling.education.wm.edu/blog/counseling-theories-and-approaches
  4. https://www.apa.org/education-career/ce/therapist-expertise.pdf  
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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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