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Why We Should Treat Going to Therapy Like Getting a Haircut

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My first experience with a therapist was after one of my high school teachers got wind that I was contemplating suicide. My teacher of course had to report me to the school psychologist, and the visit that ensued shortly thereafter incorrectly informed my beliefs about therapy for many years after.

As I entered the room for my compulsory mental health assessment, I was met by a middle-aged female psychologist. The psychologist, evidently aware of the details of my home situation, promptly asked: “Oh honey, were you hugged enough as a child?” I answered with my trademark teenage shrug, annoyed that she had reduced my present suffering to a stale and oversimplified stereotype. She then pulled me into an aggressively long hug. It was not only super awkward, but also super unhelpful, which pretty much characterizes how the rest of the session went.

It wasn’t until college when I started a robust treatment schedule I began to realize how narrow my view of therapy had been. I learned that therapy is actually a lot like getting a haircut. Getting a bad haircut doesn’t mean you will never get a haircut again. In fact, people get bad haircuts all the time – chances are you’ve had one or two in your life – but yet, the haircut hasn’t managed to go out of style.

Why is it then, that when we have a bad experience with a therapist, we usually won’t go again?

I believe that because the stigma surrounding mental illness is so real, it takes a lot of effort to even get to a therapist’s office at all. And when you have a disappointing or underwhelming experience, it can be easy to just abandon therapy all together.

But abandoning therapy can be a really terrible solution when you are struggling. Because of this, I’ve put together five tips for getting what you want out of a therapist (or a hair stylist!)

1. Be open to the process.

You don’t necessarily get along with every person you meet in life, so why would you automatically get along with any therapist you see? Remember that just as it takes time to find good friends, it will take time to find a good therapist.

2. Think about what you want.

Just like hair stylists, not every therapist is the same. Some are sarcastic, some are sweet and some are brutally honest. Think about what kind of personality traits you mesh well with. Personality traits that work for one person won’t necessarily work for another. For example, the hug that my high school therapist gave me felt awkward to me, but it very well could have worked for someone else. Some good questions to ask yourself are:

  • What gender therapist would I feel most comfortable with?
  • Do I like tough love or someone that is more empathetic?
  • Do I want my therapist to give me “homework”? (i.e. safety plans, handouts, journaling prompts)

3. Think about what kind of care would be best for you.

If you are trying to dye your hair red, white and blue ombre, don’t go to a barber. Similarly, if you are an adult struggling with schizophrenia, you might not want to go to a therapist that specializes in child psychology. While therapists receive training on many types of mental health difficulties, there is a difference between knowing information about a disorder and working closely every day with individuals who have a certain disorder.

4. Give feedback.

A good stylist wants to know if you want certain parts of your hair cut shorter, left longer, etc. Therapists have entered into their chosen profession because they want to help people. It’s totally OK to help them help you. If you like using humor to delve through hard issues, let them know. If you want them to lead the conversation with questions because you have a hard time figuring out what to talk about, let them know. A good therapist will adjust based on what you ask for. Remember, you are the patient, and therapy is patient-driven care.

5. If you’ve had three bad haircuts, get yourself a new stylist!

A good rule of thumb is to test a therapist out in three appointments. Maybe you are a person who is slow to warm up to others or the therapist doesn’t make great first impressions. Usually your first intake appointment won’t give you a great idea of what a therapist is like, so try them out a couple more times to see if you mesh well together. If you’ve gone away from therapy feeling discouraged on more than one occasion, it might be time to try out a new therapist.

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Originally published: October 25, 2016
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