We’ve all seen how therapy is portrayed in movies: you’re laying down on a big comfy couch, staring at the ceiling, while your therapist repeatedly asks, “and how does that make you feel?” While the couch sounds nice, the rest is an inaccurate portrayal of therapy. Therapy is a wonderful step in self-care, but because it’s a private experience for many people, it can be tough for the rest of us to know what to expect.
To get you ready, we’ll break down a few things starting with why go to therapy in the first place, how to find a therapist, what you can expect from your first session, and how to get the most out of it.
Why go to therapy
Asking “why go to therapy?” is like asking “why eat healthy?” or “why sleep well?” We go to therapy because it’s good for us. It helps us process emotions, thoughts, and feelings. It helps us feel connected and make a plan. It helps us manage things more easily than if we managed it alone.
Now, you might think, “but I have friends/family who do that.” The value of seeing a professional is that they are an objective source that is “not in your life.” Talking to a person who is not personally connected to you or the situation can help you get perspective. In addition, because you don’t interact with your therapist on a daily basis, it may be easier to open up to them.
Plus, there are some things that our friends and family aren’t equipped to help us with, despite their best intentions and love. Someone with a professional background is better suited to help us deal with trauma, anxiety, depression, and recovery. Even if you have the best, most accepting friends in the world, talking to a therapist is different.
How to find a therapist
We’ll break down the nitty gritty of finding a therapist in another post, but here are some things to think about.
What are you hoping to get out of therapy?
This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s an important one. It’s also a question most therapists will ask you in one form or another. It’s also OK if you’re not quite sure, but having a general idea will help. Maybe you want to go to therapy for a specific reason, like a fear of flying. Maybe you’ve been struggling with self-esteem, anxiety, trauma, or relationships. Or maybe it’s more general, like you’re just feeling down and want to talk to someone. All this information will help you connect with the right therapist for you.
Make a shortlist of therapists and therapy types you’re interested in.
Finding a therapist is a lot like shopping for clothes: you need to know where to look in order to find something you like. When looking for a therapist, you can ask friends for recommendations, reach out to a local university as they have many students at various levels of training, go the virtual route through apps like Sanvello, search through an online database like Psych Central or Psychology Today, or call your insurance for recommendations in your area.
It’s also worth investigating the different types of therapy, so you can inquire about them when speaking to a therapist. There are many different ways to receive therapy (family therapy, couples therapy, group therapy, virtual or online therapy,) and there are also many types of therapy. Here are just a few you may come across:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: CBT focuses on changing how you relate to your thoughts and how those thoughts affect your behavior.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy: DBT is a comprehensive type of cognitive behavior therapy based on teaching problem-solving techniques and learning acceptance strategies.
- Psychoanalysis: This is what most people think of when they hear the term “talk therapy.”
- EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) is a type of psychotherapy designed to treat the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other traumas.
Be open to the process.
Therapy is a service, so you want to find someone who’s right for you. You’ll want to see if you feel comfortable with them, if they cover the issues you want to work on — whatever’s important to you. And remember, it’s OK if it feels a little funny at first. That’s normal! We don’t often get a chance to freely express ourselves in our day-to-day lives the way you can with a therapist. Stick with it and see how your feelings about it evolve.
What to expect from your first few therapy sessions
Every therapeutic relationship is unique. How you and your therapist operate is up to you, but there are a few things that are relatively universal.
You’re going to feel feelings.
What we mean by this is don’t be surprised if you feel embarrassed or awkward, if you laugh or you cry. We all have different responses to therapy. It’s not uncommon to just burst into tears with relief, just having someone you can be fully honest with. Therapy is the perfect place to feel your feelings, so just go with it.
Talk about your plan.
You’ll likely use your first session to get to know each other, but also to cover the basics: how often you’ll see each other, how long you’d like to see a therapist if that’s something on your mind, what you should expect from the next session, and how payment is processed. Think of your first session as orientation to therapy.
Therapy isn’t over when the session is over.
If you plan to see your therapist again, be prepared for the next session. This doesn’t mean studying or homework, but it can be helpful to between sessions to think about what you talked about and how it applies to your life. It can also be helpful to write down things that happen or emotions you felt so you can remember them in your next session.
It’s not just talk.
It’s common to think all therapy is just about talking it out, but you’ll actually learn useful strategies, skills, and techniques to use in the real world. Don’t be afraid to ask your therapist to explain concepts again or to take notes about helpful techniques. These are things you want to be able to remember, so it’s OK to treat them as such!
It’s OK to change your mind.
If you’re uncomfortable with the direction your therapy is going, or with your therapist, it’s OK to ask questions, to share your opinion, and even to find a different therapist. Before you change therapists though, remember that therapy is often uncomfortable. Your therapist will challenge you so you can grow. If that’s what you’re experiencing, share that feeling with your therapist.
How to get the most out of therapy
Therapy takes time and effort, and your therapist will do their best work when you’re honest and open, even when that honesty feels uncomfortable. To get the most out of therapy, here are some things to keep in mind:
Be honest with yourself and your therapist.
The more honest you are, the better a therapist will be able to help you. And it’s a safe space! You can rest assured a therapist will not share your secrets. They won’t laugh at you or judge you. Their only goal is to help you.
If you feel uncomfortable being yourself or sharing everything, tell your therapist.
This information is helpful to them. Knowing how you tick can often give them the information they need to help you.
Go with the feeling.
If you feel like crying or laughing or burying your face in a pillow, therapy is a place you can do that. Like we said earlier, feel your feelings! It’s a great way to process your emotions, and your therapist will help you navigate them.
Set personal boundaries around your therapy.
If you’re the kind of person who shares a lot, it’s good to set up some boundaries around therapy. It may seem harmless to share with your partner or best friend everything you talk about in therapy, until the time comes when you talk about that person in therapy. Decide in advance how you want to address it.
Know that sometimes, therapy will be hard.
Some days you’ll leave therapy beaming, but other days, you might leave therapy feeling emotionally vulnerable, sad, or upset. That’s part of the process. Try to schedule therapy at a time when you’ll be able to decompress after your session is finished.
Focus on the session.
Get payments and scheduling out of the way first, and then don’t look at the clock. Your therapist will manage the time. All you need to do is the work.
Therapy won’t tell you the answers.
A good therapist is a guide, not a guru. It’s tempting to ask a therapist, “what should I do?” but a therapist is meant to help you come to those answers yourself, not answer the question for you. That can feel frustrating in the beginning, but in the end, it’s empowering.
Be patient. Be curious.
Therapy takes time and it takes a willingness to be open. Like playing a video game, you’ll probably reach certain levels where it takes a few tries, or it’s frustrating, or it’s not quite what you thought it would be. But sticking around helps us unlock things we didn’t even know we were looking for.
We hope these tips were helpful. Reading this far is a good sign you’re willing to do the work. Remember, every therapeutic relationship is unique, but the most important thing is that you feel safe and heard. Sometimes therapy will be challenging, sometimes it will be enlightening, but it’s always worth the effort you’re putting in to care for yourself.
By Lisa Schneider, Sanvello
Over my career, I have worked in many capacities in the service of supporting the well-being of others. I worked as a coach for over 10 years before developing training programs and helping other coaches to improve their work with clients. I have a background in neuropsychology, and have studied many different forms of coaching, as I was drawn to the idea that everyone has an innate capacity to know themselves and grow. I’ve also taught and other body-mind activities such as yoga, Pilates, Reiki and worked as a personal trainer.
Throughout my career, I’ve worked with many different populations, including dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, a variety of cognitive/intellectual/physical disabilities, as well as people recovering from eating disorders and addictions, managing stress, anxiety and depression. I’ve also worked with people working towards, weight loss, personal improvement, and those managing metabolic conditions, and personal improvement, sometimes in coordination with physical and mental health providers. I firmly believe that our physical, mental and emotional well-being are extensions of each other and are intricately connected. As social creatures, we require the help from others including support for our mental, physical and emotional health from professionals and — there is strength in recognizing and seeking that out.
I consider myself a Iifetime-learner and student of the human condition. For my own well-being, I practice mindfulness, love to travel, look for the humor in anything (including myself).