The decision to seek therapeutic counseling is typically not just an overnight decision. Many people contemplate seeing a therapist for months and some years before contacting one. Therapy is a very personal and oftentimes life changing experience. It’s totally normal to be ambivalent about going to therapy, even if you know it would benefit you.
Lets face it, while therapy can positively transform lives and catapult individuals into becoming their best self, it can feel emotionally draining at times. Who wants to open old wounds and hash them out. Essentially, no one does. It takes emotional stamina, hope for a better outcome, and a competent and supportive therapist to navigate and sustain the therapeutic process.
For some, therapy brings a level of excitement. It is exciting to know you are doing something for yourself that will bring about great return on investment. The excitement can also be accompanied by feelings of anxiety, especially if it will be your first time in counseling. Not knowing what to expect creates a level of anxiety. Some therapists can spot a first-timer instantly, given the individuals’ demeanor during the initial session, which may be described as anxious or shy.
Each therapist is different and sometimes it may take more than one attempt to find your perfect fit with a therapist. However, there are a few things across the board that are similar with the therapeutic experience. Below are common things to expect when going to see a therapist.
1. Expect to Be Nervous. It is common for individuals to be nervous and even ambivalent or skeptical about therapy. This is normal and therapists are aware this is normal behavior. The idea of sharing your deepest and darkest thoughts and emotions with another human is daunting. Throughout life we are taught to be strong and avoid vulnerability, as expressing feelings can be misinterpreted as “weakness”. The therapy process will contradict what we have been taught and our mind and body are aware, therefore resulting in feelings of anxiousness.
2. Expect Tears. Our own voice is one of the most powerful tools we have. Hearing our thoughts and feelings out loud, not just in our mind, and with our own voice can feel surreal and overwhelming. Oftentimes, this is the first time individuals have said these things out loud, ever. In addition to this, the therapist is learning about you during the first session so some things you may not have thought about for years may be discussed or triggered. Every therapy office has boxes of tissue, specifically for these reasons. Crying is totally natural and does not need an apology.
3. Expect Your Therapist to Be Human. Therapists have lives filled with joy, stress, fun, sadness, and everything else the average human experiences. Therapists are not perfect individuals and do not claim to be. They are however, clinically skilled and trained to meet the needs of their clients. Each therapist brings their personality to the therapy room, which is why a particular therapist may or may not be a good fit for an individual. Some therapists insert humor with their clients and others have no problem saying a curse word or two during sessions. Therapists genuinely route for their clients and cheer for their success. Some may say “great job” when applauding a client while others may say “yaaaasssss, I see you!”. Your therapist has seen and heard more than you will know and is a non judgemental ally during the therapeutic process. Above all, your therapist wants you to get the help needed, even if it is agreed that another therapist would be a better fit. They can likely even refer you to a colleague that might better meet your needs.
4. Expect to Talk About Yourself. Therapy is all about you, and your therapist wants to learn about you. The rate at which you disclose about yourself is totally up to you. The first session typically involves the therapist completing a biopsychosocial assessment. This is gathering information about your biological, psychological, and social history, especially as it relates to current presenting issues. Many times topics are discussed that have not been thought of in years or possibly never spoken out loud. Disclose at the rate which you are comfortable. It is not expected that the therapist will learn everything about you in the first session. The therapeutic relationship is like any other, it takes time and nurturing to thrive.
5. Expect Assignments and Homework. Depending on the theoretical or treatment approach of the therapist, homework may be assigned. While one hour a week of therapy is great, reinforcement between sessions keeps the progress momentum moving. Homework might include reflecting and journaling, doing a specific skill, or contacting a specific person. The assignment will be relevant to your goals for treatment.
6. Expect to Have Multiple Sessions Before Progress is Achieved. During the first session, my clients are advised that it typically takes approximately eight sessions before significant and sustainable progress is achieved. While eight sessions may not be standard for every therapist and client, it is safe to say no one is “cured” after a couple of sessions. In addition to therapist-client fit, receiving the right treatment modality, and a few other things, progress is impacted by one’s ability to sustain during the therapeutic process. Meaning, can the client be consistent with sessions and continue through the process even though it may be difficult. As therapists we understand that everyone may not be ready to embark on the therapeutic journey, even after showing for their first one or two sessions. That is okay. If the client is not ready to commit to the therapeutic process, it is our hope that we have planted a seed within the client so that they may begin the journey when ready.
7. Expect to Feel Worse After Some Sessions. During sessions, a lot of emotions are sometimes unpacked and processed. This is emotionally draining for clients and they may even feel worse than when they arrived. This should not be the norm, but it definitely happens. As a therapist, we try to put the top back on the can of worms as best we can before ending the session, as we don’t want our clients leaving sessions feeling exposed and overly vulnerable. Processing difficult emotions doesn’t feel good at the time, however, it is a part of the healing and therapeutic process that yields sustained growth within the client.
The decision to begin therapy is not always easy, as the idea of change is uncomfortable to some. Change is not easy. There’s a quote that sums up the change experience; “people don’t change until the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing”. When you are ready to commit to therapy, keep these expectations in mind as there are many norms therapists recognize with clients during the therapeutic process.
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