What to Expect When Entering Therapy

If you are considering therapy, I’d like to dispel a few myths and offer you some ideas to consider in finding the right therapist for you. Of the myths about therapy, probably the hardest one to overcome is that to be strong means to be able to solve problems on your own. Paradoxically, however, admitting your weaknesses and seeking help from a therapist is a sign of strength.

Another myth is that mental health professionals do something to make people change. As great as this would be, individuals are ultimately responsible for making their own changes. Therapists help clients make the changes they desire.

A third myth is that therapy can be accomplished in a few sessions. While some problems are eased by short-term therapy, most people gain by having a longer therapy experience. A large survey by Consumer Reports (October, 2004) noted that overall the longer individuals stayed in therapy, the more they improved. Persons who stayed for more than six months reported greater gains than those who left earlier.

Survey respondents said that therapy helped in three major ways:
• Eased the presenting problems
• Helped them to function better
• Enhanced personal growth. This growth included better self-esteem, more confidence, and enjoyment from life.

Another part of functioning better is developing insight into unconscious thoughts and motivations. Some thoughts are automatic, and we need to slow them down in order to fully understand them. Slowing thoughts down changes brain chemistry is similar to meditation or yoga. In fact, several studies have shown that long-term therapy is as effective as medication for treating depression and anxiety.

When entering therapy, therapists should welcome questions, such as education level, experience, and type of therapy. A therapist may not answer all personal questions, but he or she should explore the meaning behind the questions. A consultation or the first session is a good time to ask questions you have.

After one or two sessions, you should feel pretty comfortable about opening up. If you don’t feel comfortable, bring it up in session. If your therapist becomes defensive, continue your search. If not, maybe the two of you just aren’t the best fit. In either case, a discussion with your therapist is a good way to look at what’s going on.

Look for certain qualities in selecting a therapist. It should be someone who:
• Considers your individual needs
• Encourages you to voice any concerns
• Is licensed and had good credentials
• Points out options and possibilities but never tells you what to do
• Is able to form a respectful, professional relationship

Over the course of therapy, the major focus should be on you. Therapists should talk very little about their personal lives, and even then it should be with an intention to be helpful. Therapists should not talk about their current problems or spend time with you outside of sessions. Even though we sometimes feel like we live in a small town, that’s no reason to be invited by your therapist to social events or for your therapist to attend yours.

Because you’re delving into very personal areas and have found a therapist who understands you, it’s not unusual to develop an attachment to your therapist. If you do, your therapist should help you sort out and understand your feelings.

He or she should never mention a reciprocal attraction – this is a red flag and you should contact another therapist for a second opinion. Also, think about asking your therapist for a referral if you cannot give up your attraction and hide personal issues in order to “look good” for your therapist. In any case, a qualified therapist remains professional at all times and you can either try to work through this on your own (as many clients do) or bring it up for discussion.

Sometimes individuals are reluctant to enter therapy because they fear it will be painful. Although there are times when it may be uncomfortable, therapy – like crying – actually helps release the pain. And releasing pain is only a slice of how a therapist can help you. As you address the issues that brought you into therapy, it presents you with the possibility for better coping skills and greater self-esteem as well as much growth and discovery.