What You Need to Know About Seeing a Therapist

I have been thinking about writing this for quite a while. As a person who has been both a client/consumer and a mental health professional, I often think about how much my perspective about therapy has changed since I entered the field.

There are so many misconceptions about therapy and the therapeutic relationship that I’d like to address, but I can only do that as myself. I cannot speak on behalf of the entire mental health field. Here are some things I have learned about therapy and therapists that I hope will be helpful for you.

1. Starting therapy can be hard work, but it doesn’t have to be.

After you get past the hurdles of how your treatment is going to be paid for, people are often at a loss regarding how to choose a therapist. They are often looking at a list of names or profiles with basic information full of lingo they are not familiar with. Here’s what you do — call them. I know that can feel really difficult when you are struggling, but it’s so important. Leave them a message that you are looking for a therapist and have some questions, as well as your name and number. Hang up. That’s it. Let them take it from there. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t call back right away. They are likely in session most of the day and will call back when they can.

2. It’s OK to ask questions and “feel them out.”

When they call you back, listen to their voice and their delivery.  Do they sound kind and interested in you? Ask them what they specialize in and how they approach therapy, then let them tell you. Trained and licensed professionals are prepared and happy to answer these questions and this information is important for you to know. You want to know if they will be a good fit for you because…

3. All therapists are different.

They are people, just like you. They all have different personalities which may or may not be a good fit for you. Licensed professionals can also have different types of training and specialties which can help them focus on certain populations/issues. If you are seeking treatment to address trauma, for example, there are therapists out there who have gone through extra training and have more experience in treating that specific issue. Therapists are not supposed to practice outside of their scope of training and experience, so they may refer you to someone better suited for your specific needs. Don’t be hurt or offended. This is a good thing to get you the best care.

4. Your therapist only knows what you tell and show them.

Once you begin therapy, your therapist will be working with you to build trust and get to know what issues you would like to work on. They only know what you share with them, though. If you are holding back, you are only stunting the process. If you are concerned about confidentiality, ask your therapist about it. They should tell you about the limits of confidentiality. From there, please tell them the truth. They don’t want to judge you. They need all the information in order to give you the best care. What seems insignificant or unrelated to you could actually be a really important thing for your therapist to know. Please be honest with them. You should feel safe in this process. It may not always be comfortable, as change is often uncomfortable, but it should always feel safe. If at any time you do not feel safe, tell your therapist, because…

5. You are the boss of your treatment.

Your therapist is there to assist you, not to boss you around or tell you what to do. You will need to advocate for yourself, so keep in mind — you are in the driver’s seat. Therapy is a partnership, but ultimately you are in charge of you. If you don’t like what is happening, it is up to you to express that. Therapists are often intuitive and insightful, but they are not mind readers. Your therapist would much rather you tell them what’s going on than have you shut down or quit showing up. One of the worst things for a therapist is having a client disappear and not know what happened.

6. Your therapist is not your friend.

I mean this in a good way. Your friends and loved ones cannot help but be emotionally involved in what is happening in your life because they love you. A therapist cares for you, but they can remain objective in helping you address your concerns without a personal agenda or emotional involvement. This allows them to keep a clear focus on what’s most important: You and only you.

Your therapist is always on your team. Try to remember that because…

7. You may not always like your therapist.

Sometimes we come to a place where we have to confront difficult truths in therapy in order to grow, and sometimes we don’t like our therapists in those moments. That’s OK.  Your therapist is trained to deal with it. That’s one of the beautiful things about therapy and the therapeutic relationship. A good therapist would choose to see you healthy and peaceful over being “liked.” We can take it. That’s different from feeling unsafe or unheard. If that’s happening, find someone else, because…

8. There are “good” and “bad” therapists.

Just like there are good and bad mechanics and dentists. Like I mentioned before, they are people, just like you. Not everyone is great at their job, but therapy works when it’s done well. It can change your life. It certainly changed mine. Please don’t let a bad experience ruin your take on therapy. There are thousands of wonderful men and women out there who have dedicated their lives to helping others get well and succeed.  There is someone out there who can help you. Please don’t give up.

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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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