By Gregg Snook M.A., NCC, LPC
So you have decided to see a therapist!
Good for you! This isn’t always an easy decision, as there is a lot that goes into seeing a mental health professional. But this decision means you have decided to see someone who was recommended or you found to help you get to your goals, gain some insight into who you are, address something that has been bugging you, or maybe you’re feeling stuck and want to “unstuck” yourself.
My name is Gregg and I am a therapist, so I am a proponent of therapy. I am sensitive to the journey that leads people to seek help, as well as any hesitation one may have in getting that help. There may be some old biases against therapy that sometimes make sense but mostly, in my opinion, are based in fear. That fear for me seems to be pretty understandable if you think about going to someone who is supposed to know something more than you, telling them all the things you wouldn’t tell anyone else, and then have this person tell you stuff that might be wrong, or hard to hear. This, to me, is the fear of someone doing something that may make you feel vulnerable in an unsafe way. If that is your image of therapy, that it’s spooky, skip it.
What is it if it’s not spooky?
I would like to offer an alternative perspective, as well as some thoughts of how you can engage with a therapist to your benefit, starting with what I tell my clients when I first meet them. I like to remind my clients of the benefit of seeing someone who technically does not exist in their life, at least not in the way that other people do. A therapist is someone you can tell almost anything to and they won’t share it with others. This is called confidentiality. This confidentiality, of course, has limits to it, such as if you were to seriously consider hurting yourself, someone else, or are harming, abusing, or neglecting someone else. Another caveat is there are certain rules about abuse that a client may be suffering that must be reported. I would encourage you to be curious about these limits when you meet with the therapist and ask questions so you can gain a clear understanding of them.
It’s all about you!
The therapy process is client-centered. This means that your therapist is not a person that is going to have expectations of you unless you make them a goal and ask for accountability with these things. We call this process goal setting. When you set goals with your therapist, it might be to be more assertive, or to stop smoking. You may ask your therapist to check in with you regarding these goals in order to make you accountable. However, if you are not accountable to them, they won’t become upset or chastise you. Instead, when my clients miss the mark, I take the opportunity to explore the goal with them and see if they wanted to change something in the process or if they really wanted to set that goal in the first place.
I like to remind my clients that my job is to be with them on their journey, to listen to them and learn about them in a way that they can share with me and I can provide them with another perspective on their lives. One of the things I find benefits clients most in therapy is practicing setting boundaries and asking for what they need. Some people struggle with not setting boundaries or having too strongly enforced ones. This can be the difference between a person who feels walked-all-over and someone who may feel that they struggle with relationships because of how assertive they can be. There are also people who want to be more independent or people who struggle with accepting help. You can say all of these things to your therapist AND TELL THEM HOW YOU WANT TO BE TREATED IN ADDRESSING THESE THINGS! HOW GREAT IS THAT!? It’s like saying, “BE NICE TO ME SO I CAN TALK WITH YOU HONESTLY” and they have to do it! They HAVE TO!
So, what is the benefit?
Why does this sound like you are paying someone to listen to you and be nice to you? Well, that is just the ground floor of therapy. Maybe, but that’s where the therapeutic relationship comes in and the real work is done. Imagine what it would mean if you had a place to go to, say all the stuff you don’t or can’t say in other places, you learned more about yourself, were able to ask for what you need (within reason…nobody is giving away money here), and learned how you can take these skills into the real-world part of your life? Think of it as practice for your real-life relationships. You can practice new skills, ask for feedback, learn about yourself, and make a change based on how you experience your relationship with the professional.
So, how do you look for a therapist? Well, this depends on a lot of things. You can look into which therapist your insurance is connected with. You can ask others, but if you’re struggling with feeling like therapy is for crazy or weak people, you may feel uncomfortable doing that. There are also a lot of directories online that you can look through that have information provided by the therapist and you can reach out to them that way.
Here is my recommendation if you are going to start therapy, mostly for first-timers.
- Take some time to identify why you are feeling like you want to attend therapy. This is both a mental thing (what you think) and an emotional thing (what you feel). It can be as simple as “I feel stuck” or “I want to work on not smoking anymore.”
- Look into the therapists in your geographic area. Look to see who might have a reputation or information that you feel will be helpful to your goal–someone you are comfortable with, as well as someone who seems like they might get you or your struggle.
- Give them a call/text/e mail. This part can be hard, but the professional should be forthcoming and quick to respond to see if your needs match what they provide.
- Schedule a session. Your first session or two might involve the therapist gathering information from you regarding your past, your future goals, and what you are experiencing presently.
- This one I feel is most important: Give the therapist three sessions for you to get a feel for them. Feel free to tell them what you need and how you would like to be treated in session. See how they respond to any fears or hesitations you may have. If you are comfortable, see if you can build off of that. If you are not comfortable and if you feel like you can’t communicate well with them, ask for a referral. A referral is when you ask a professional to give you contact information for another professional that may better suit your needs. I say this to all my clients: If you ask for a referral, you will likely get one of two answers. Either the therapist will gladly help you find someone new or they will try to get you to stay and work with them. If they try to get you to stay, you should walk away. The therapeutic relationship is about you, not them. They have a financial and ethical duty to provide you a referral if you ask for one, especially in the early stages of therapy.
It’s a big decision.
Going to therapy can be a big decision. But, like all big things, they have small beginnings. Take as much time as you want in each of the steps mentioned above. If you feel like you are not getting anywhere, go to a prior step and see if you can change anything by asking yourself “Why did I come to therapy?” or looking for the right fit. On behalf of the profession, I would like to say that we are here to help… when you are ready; not a moment sooner! Therapy is about you and no one else, unless it’s family therapy. That’s another article all together.