Even if you have never sought out a professional therapist or counselor, you probably have some idea of how the process works, just from pop-cultural references. The therapist’s office is outfitted with neutral decor, and there are boxes of tissues strategically placed next to comfortable chairs. She or he asks questions that delve into the patient’s past, their upbringing, and their deepest emotions.
But is that all there is to it? Is it just…talking about how you feel? After all, you can talk to your best friend, your spouse, or even your golden retriever to get troubling issues off your mind.
Therapy is different than just a bitch session or coffee klatsch, however. Read on to learn what to expect if you’re just starting out as a therapy patient.
1 There Is a Wide Range of Therapeutic Modalities
There are dozens of different types of therapy, and it can take some experimentation before you find the one that works most effectively. In many cases, a combination of approaches is usually helpful. In addition, most therapists will specialize in using a particular modality, and they may also specialize in treating certain subsets of patients — teenagers, veterans, or members of the LGBTQ community, just to name a few.
Many therapies involve activities that are intended to deepen the therapeutic experience. Your therapist may incorporate elements of art, music, nature, neurofeedback, play, role-playing, mindfulness and so on. It’s important that you feel comfortable as you undergo the process, so do a little research into the type of therapy a particular practitioner uses before committing to a course of treatment.
- Therapy Is Confidential, and It’s Important to Be Honest
You may want your therapist to have a good impression of you, or you may feel pressured to act “crazy” or “depressed” in order to maximize your sessions. There may be certain topics or behaviors that are difficult for you to discuss. However, it’s crucial that you are honest and forthcoming with your therapist. Otherwise, it will be difficult to break down the barriers and get at the root of your problems.
Therapists are bound by confidentiality, so they cannot speak of your or your issues to anyone else. The only exception to this rule is if you express a desire or plan to hurt yourself or others, or if the therapist has reason to believe that child abuse is taking place.
Lying to your therapist or withholding important information is only going to prolong the treatment time and stand in the way of improved mental health. For everyone’s sake, come clean to your therapist.
- The Best Therapists Strike a Balance
Therapy is not advice; if you want to explain your problems and have the therapist tell you what to do or how to act, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
“It may be helpful to think of your therapist as a guide,” explains Alan Behrman, a therapist in Marietta, GA who specializes in marriage counseling. “Their purpose is to point out pitfalls in the road ahead, or help you think through a decision regarding which direction to take. But you need to take the actual steps yourself.”
They can point out patterns of behavior that may be leading you astray. They can challenge your assumptions and assertions. They may encourage you to make connections between issues you’ve discussed previously and your current actions. Most therapists will also equip you with the tools to understand your own behavior and reactions. They may suggest specific methods of coping with difficulties, such as breathwork, self-talk and affirmations, journaling, mindful meditation, or activities that help you ground yourself in the present moment.
The most effective therapists do not hand out advice, but neither do they let you flounder on your own. They work with you to understand patterns of behavior and to make informed choices about your future actions.
- You’ll Have a Unique Relationship with Your Therapist
Unless you have been in therapy before, you may struggle to grasp the nature of their role in your life. It’s a relationship that is truly unique.
People who seek therapy tend to miscategorize their therapists in one of two ways. They sometimes want to think of their counselor as a friend. After all, they know an awful lot about you. They have heard your worst secrets and still accept you.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people think of their therapist as an authority figure, someone who has all the answers and who will dole them out to the patient as a reward for good behavior. These folks look for ways to please the therapist. Again, this is understandable; good therapists do validate their patients and are pleased when the patient makes healthy choices in their life.
Yet the therapist is neither a friend nor a superior. They may genuinely care about you and your well-being, but they won’t reciprocate when it comes to being vulnerable. And if all they do is applaud your actions, like an audience watching a trained seal perform, they likely aren’t challenging you or helping you change negative behaviors.
Is Therapy Right For You?
It can be difficult and time-consuming to find a therapist whose approach is effective for you. Finding a therapist with whom you “click” is much like dating: be prepared to meet some clunkers and feel free to move on if you aren’t jibing with a particular provider.
It will probably take some time and effort to find the perfect therapist, but it is well worth it. You are well worth it!