Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How do I know if I need therapy or professional help rather than self-care?

therapy selfcare

I talk a lot about self-care. About the need to be self-compassionate, and the benefits of nurturing, rather than criticising, yourself.

Psychologist and psychotherapist Dr Pauline Clance defines self-care as “taking care of the whole person, attending to your wants and needs within the context of your life.”

It’s a broad definition, and for many of us, just paying more attention to our physical, mental, and emotional needs will be hugely beneficial. We can start small, and build up.

But what about the times when you need more than that?

When a hot bath, chocolate, journalling or sleep aren’t going to cut it?

When you need some outside help to support you?

How do you find that outside help even if you recognise that you need it?

Self-care versus Professional Care

I’m a huge proponent of self-care, but I’m also a Registered Psychologist, and I believe that there are times when we need to reach out to a trained professional in order to deal with our issues. In fact, this reaching out can be a form of self-care – you’re simply taking care of your needs in a different way.

But many of the people I talk to – clients, readers, even friends – have no idea where to start. So when I came across the book “How to Get What You Want Out of Therapy,’ I decided to talk to the author, Dr Anna Charbonneau to get her advice.

Everything You Need to Know About Working with a Therapist

Dr Charbonneau is a clinical therapist who has worked with patients with depression, anxiety and chronic pain.

Ellen: So, Dr Charbonneau, how do I know if I need therapy? If it’s time for me to get in outside help?

Dr C: While I think most people can benefit from therapy, there are a few obvious triggers for getting immediate professional help.

Those triggers include things like someone having thoughts that they’d rather be dead than continue on, trouble getting out of bed to function, constantly in arguments with family, or in some other way seriously struggling with their daily life.

Beyond that though, I would ask the question: how bad does it need to get? If you are struggling, why wait? If you have a sore throat that keeps going on and on how long do you wait before seeing a medical doctor?

If you’re feeling so anxious that you’re having trouble sleeping, or you’ve been on the verge of tears almost every day since your past holiday, would you think about seeking help? Many many people just choose to wait it out, but problems often just stay the same or get worse.

But mental health problems can sneak up on you.

First you feel a little bit tired, then a little bit more sad or anxious, and before you know it, you’re having trouble getting out of bed, are constantly late for work or on the verge of getting fired, or haven’t seen your friends in months. Severe problems can seem ‘normal’ if you’ve lived with them long enough.

Ellen: Does ‘just talking’ really help?

Dr C: Keeping silent about issues, ignoring them, or hoping they will go away is a lot like fearing the monster in the closet. Talking in therapy is like opening the closet door and turning on the light, with someone you can trust by your side to back you up.

Therapy also usually involves learning and practicing new skills and trying out new ways of thinking, acting and relating to other to help you begin to feel better.

Ellen: Where is the best place to seek professional help?

Dr C: Where people can most reliably find professional help really varies by country, location, and what kind of problems a person is having. Regardless of location, I strongly recommend that people seek out treatment only from people who hold a license to practice in their profession.

Odd as it sounds, people might have the best luck by using a search engine and searching for “how to get help for [the problem] in [their location].” In many countries there are crisis lines for mental  health emergencies, and professional organizations and foundations dedicated to education about and help for specific problems. Medical doctors can also be a good conduit into finding good mental health help. 

Ellen: How can we choose the right therapist or mental health professional?

Dr C: Not all therapists are the same, which I hope will come as a relief to anyone who’s had a less than ideal experience with therapy in the past. This is such an important question that I’ve dedicated three full chapters of my book to figuring out how to find a therapist who has the right training and style for your needs, and how to figure out if a therapist is a good match for you.

Therapists vary in their training, their approach to therapy, their personal style, how they run their offices, and what services they provide. I recommend that people who are seeking out therapy take some time to figure out what kind of services they are looking for and some general preferences regarding the therapist. 

Ellen: Finally, what are the benefits of therapy?

Dr C: I once read that in a restaurant kitchen, when a master chef feels overwhelmed, there are too many orders, someone calls in sick, an important ingredient is suddenly missing, the chef will pause for a few minutes and sharpen her knife.

It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Don’t stop and “take a break” right when there is the most demand on your time! But a sharp knife and a clear mind are way more effective in the long term. Taking time out for an hour a week to reflect and engage in the process of therapy, especially when you are busy, stressed, and overwhelmed, is much the same. 



Dr Charbonneau’s book, “How to Get What You Want Out of Therapy: A Simple Guide to Finding a Therapist Who is a Good Match for You and Getting More Value Out of Your Therapy Sessions,’ is available now from and

Say hi to her on Twitter here.

12 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Elle February 29, 2016, 1:30 pm

    Wise words Ellen.

    It seems that the challenge is to be aware that things aren’t getting better and that’s probably tough to do when you’re truly depressed: So the ‘triggers’ mentioned above seem to me to help a lot in working out when someone needs to seek a little help. And let’s face it we all need someone in our corner.

    Incredibly useful information. Thank you both.
    Elle recently posted…3 Errors That Will Crush Your Chances of SuccessMy Profile

    • Ellen March 7, 2016, 4:39 am

      Thanks Elle, and you make a great point that sometimes it can be hard to take any kind of action when we are depressed. Perhaps there is someone who all of us can share this article with today to support them in taking action when they can’t take the first step themselves.

  • Debbie Hampton February 29, 2016, 2:47 pm


    Thank you for an informative post. I did therapy for years, without much benefit. I worked it into my depressed/victim persona, if that makes any sense. I think a really important point is that the person has to be really ready to make changes and do the work therapy entails.

    When I was really ready to roll up my sleeves, therapy worked miracles.
    Debbie Hampton recently posted…How To Use Mindfulness To Prevent DepressionMy Profile

    • Ellen March 7, 2016, 4:40 am

      Yes, that’s a great point Debbie, we need to be ready to take action – we can’t be little baby birds waiting to be spoon fed, we have to realise we’re the one who has to work at it. As Elle said above this can be hard to do when we’re in the midst of depression, but perhaps this article will help a few people make that step.

  • Sandra Pawula March 1, 2016, 6:04 am

    This is such important information. Thank you both. I’m a big advocate of self-care, but I’ve found therapy very helpful as well. I appreciate your advice to take your time finding a therapist so you find one that’s right for you. I’ve had winners and losers, but it’s all been a good learning process for me.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Critical Choices on the Border of LifeMy Profile

    • Ellen March 7, 2016, 4:50 am

      Thanks Sandra, and yes, I know what you mean, I’ve seen a few people and some were a great fit, and some not so much. I hope people will be reminded that they can make their own choices and that if a therapist doesn’t feel right for them, they can change to find someone who works better for them.

  • Lynn Louise Wonders March 1, 2016, 7:46 pm

    Ellen, we are so aligned…. As a therapist myself who leads a huge movement for therapists to attend to their own self care I can appreciate this article on so many levels! Wonderful!
    Lynn Louise Wonders recently posted…10 Essential Steps to Creating Lasting Positive ChangeMy Profile

    • Ellen March 7, 2016, 4:51 am

      Thanks Lynn, and yes, you share some wonderful things around self-care, and it’s important that therapists themselves have the right kind of support and supervision. I’m sure this kind of information can be something therapists share with their clients too, as the book itself can help clients formulate their needs more clearly.

  • sherill March 4, 2016, 2:33 am

    All wise words to share with us, loved your post, it is very informative and enlightening. Thanks for sharing. really great!
    sherill recently posted…#AskNoahStJohn Show EpisodeMy Profile

    • Ellen March 7, 2016, 4:51 am

      Thanks so much for reading Sherill :-)

  • Evelyn Lim July 25, 2017, 5:21 am

    Thank you for sharing the information about the distinction between just taking self-care and knowing that the situation calls for therapy work. Great!
    Evelyn Lim recently posted…5 Top Spiritual Reasons Why Manifesting Is Not Working for YouMy Profile

  • Sandra Pawula July 27, 2017, 11:08 pm

    This is so good! I especially like the part about finding the right therapist. I have the most wonderful therapist right now, but I’ve definitely had negative experiences with therapist too. If it’s not a good match, move on! Don’t think the therapist is a God who knows better than you. I would add trauma as another important reason to seek therapy, especially from someone who specializes in trauma.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…37 Fun Activities That Will Re-Introduce You to the Power of PlayMy Profile

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