For a long time now, the word “therapy” has been surrounded by a cloud of shameful silence. As a child, I remember believing it was not something “normal people” did. As I grew up and realized how prevalent mental illness is, I had to make adjustments to my definition of “normal people.”
Even as attitudes on mental health are changing, there seems to be a lingering sense of skepticism towards therapy, but it’s crucial for us to believe in the solution just as much as we believe in the problem.
Based on my own experience, I’ve assembled a few tips I’ve found useful when seeing a new therapist - whether it’s for the first time in your life or with a different person. Although I’ll use the term “therapist”, most of this advice can be applied to a wide range of mental health-related professionals you’re planning to see on a regular basis. Their specific background doesn’t really matter; the key point is that they’re there to help you. And I hope that these tips can make it easier for you to help them help you.
Figure out your goal
Before going into your first session with a new therapist, it’s good to define a clear goal for yourself. Mental health professionals will often ask you what you hope to get out of therapy - whether you’re working through a trauma, going through a transition in your life, or just want to feel happier and healthier. Your answer will allow them to design a treatment program suited to your needs.
Take a moment to gather your thoughts; take notes if it helps you. Keep it simple - you don’t need to walk into their office with a thesis statement. Think back to what prompted the idea of seeking help in the first place.
If you find yourself unable to formulate a clear-cut goal, that’s perfectly okay too, and you can tell your therapist that. Your answer can be as simple as “I’ve noticed that this, this, and this have been happening to me, and it sucks, and I want to get rid of it. Can you help me?”
As you move past the introductory stages of therapy and get into the nitty gritty of it all, keep your goals in mind. A lot of people find journaling helpful because it allows them to monitor their progress. If, like me, you have trouble committing to keeping a daily journal, it’s still a good idea to jot down a few notes before each session. Just write down the thoughts that have been taking up a lot of space in your head over the past week. If you notice that one particular thought seems to come up repeatedly, it’s probably a sign that you haven’t been able to process it properly.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat down in my therapist’s office and heard her ask me “so what’s been going on with you?”, only to have my brain draw a complete blank. Writing it down beforehand will allow you to skip past the stage where you struggle to put your feelings into intelligible words. Instead, you’ll go into the session already having an idea of what you want to talk about, which will allow you to make good use of your precious time.
Many people have a fixed idea of the relationship between a medical expert and their patient. Anyone who is considered “an expert in their field” is imbued with a sense of authority. Meanwhile, the patient is expected to trust the expert and follow their advice, even if they have little to no understanding of their treatment plan. This often leads to patients being afraid to add any input of their own because they feel like they lack the authority to speak about their own problems.
Obviously, years of professional training can’t be acquired overnight. But you should never have to feel completely clueless; if there’s anything you’re unsure of or don’t understand about your therapy, simply ask your therapist. You may feel like you’re being nosy when asking about their background, areas of expertise, or preferred treatment methods, but you’re entitled to know. After all, you’ll be letting this person into the most private, intimate parts of your mind; it’s only natural that you’d want to know what they’re going to do in there.
You should feel comfortable with your therapist, which includes asking them questions or letting them know if you disagree with anything they're saying. Open communication will lead to a stronger relationship, which can improve your outcome in the long run.
There’s a plethora of different therapeutic approaches out there with bizarre, clinical-sounding acronyms. Psychological lingo can sound confusing to a first-time patient, but therapists will usually give a general explanation of the relevant terms and theories. If you’re curious and want to learn more, you can always ask your therapist for suggestions of books, articles, or websites.
Once you’re confident that you understand your treatment plan, you’ll feel like the gap between your therapist and yourself has gotten a little smaller. Your therapist may look all professional with their cool notepad (and their PhDs, depending on their title), but make no mistake: you’re in the driver’s seat.
Don’t be afraid to disagree
In my personal life, I’ve had plenty of friends and family members tell me stories of their less-than-satisfying therapy sessions. One common complaint was that they felt like they were being talked at, rather than talked to. Their therapists would make strong assumptions that they felt were wildly inaccurate, or go off on interminable and seemingly irrelevant tangents. When I asked one of my friends how she’d expressed her discontent to her therapist, she told me that she hadn’t because she didn’t want to be rude.
This kind of feeling is very understandable and probably goes a long way in explaining why so many people report unsatisfying experiences with therapy. Once again, the therapist’s authority plays a strong role here: the patient may disagree with them, yet resign themselves to the thought that they don’t have the authority to voice their opinion. Therapists often know better, but they don’t know everything. No matter how good they are, they can’t see the bigger picture without your contribution.
You may feel like your therapist has misinterpreted something you said, that they’re neglecting an important piece of information you gave them, or, conversely, that they’re focusing way too much attention on an insignificant tidbit. Whatever the case, it’s important that you speak up.
In therapy, disagreement is rarely about who’s wrong and who’s right: the fact that you disagree with each other is not as interesting as the reason why you disagree. By discussing that together, there’s a good chance you’ll uncover some new insights into your problems.
No matter what you learn from it, honest communication with your therapist will always yield valuable results. If nothing else, you’ll have learned that it’s perfectly alright to share your opinions. In fact, studies have shown that the relationship between a patient and therapist actually gets stronger if they’ve had 'breaks' along the way; each skirmish allows you to learn that one disagreement isn’t the end of the world - or even the relationship.
Remember that your therapist wants you to make progress, so let them know if you feel like you’re not moving forward.
Be patient and hope for the best
When starting therapy for the first time, it’s crucial to go in with an open mind. During the first few sessions, you may find that your therapist is asking a lot of questions about your past. That can be frustrating and seem somewhat irrelevant if you’re seeking help for a problem you’re facing in the present. Try to stay patient and remember that any relationship must go through an introductory period; your therapist needs to get to know you, your mental health history, and/or previous experiences with therapy.
You may feel frustrated that your therapist doesn’t “get” you. Again, don’t walk out too soon. It’s incredibly important to click with your therapist, but that click isn’t supposed to happen instantaneously; it takes time to build compatibility.
If you ever run into a dead-end, don’t get discouraged too fast; there’s bound to be a couple of bumps in the road. Therapy isn’t always supposed to be easy. Sometimes you’re going to have to be upset or uncomfortable in order to grow. But personally, the lessons I’ve learned from my years of therapy have been priceless.
“Lessons” might not be the right word. Therapy doesn’t really give you a fixed set of inner truths about yourself; it gives you a new way of thinking about and approaching the issues you’ll face in your life. Think of yourself as a wanderer lost in a desert: instead of giving you a ready home and plentiful food source so you never have to work a day in your life, therapy teaches you how to navigate and live in this unfamiliar territory.
Starting something new can be scary, but seeking help is well worth it. If you've been considering seeing a new therapist, keep in mind that your therapist's main goal is to help you, and that the best way you can help them do that is by being open, patient, and communicative.