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What is it like to start therapy?

After graduating college I found myself reflecting on my life, as most people do- things I’d done, things I hadn’t done, and things I was hoping to do. As I started reflecting on my future I found myself repeatedly getting stuck. “I’m not good enough for this. I’m not dedicated enough to make it through that.” It was a stressful and upsetting circle that I was walking through my own mind and it was fueled by my anxieties and self-doubt.

Despite the fact that I was in a graduate program getting my masters in counseling, I had never been to a single therapy session. About a year into my program, I decided to find a therapist, but probably not for the reason you’d think. I had upcoming clinical hours with my own clients and was starting to feel anxious about having no idea what I was doing. So I decided to find a therapist, not to learn about myself, but to watch and learn from how they interacted with me. Although I figured I might learn a thing or two along the way that might help me in my relationships, I wasn’t necessarily expecting the exploration and growth that lay ahead.

The process of finding a therapist was kind of like online dating- scrolling through online profiles, looking at pictures, reading bios, and searching for a connection. For me, being a student, my biggest requirement was that I found someone affordable. Online sites, like Psychology Today, make it easy to apply filters to help you find a therapist who meets your needs based on insurance requirements, mental health needs, their specialty or modality, and more. Once I found someone who met my needs, I sent an email and set up a phone call. When my prospective therapist called we spent a few minutes getting to know each other. She asked me about myself and my mental health and then she told me a little bit about herself as well. We decided that it felt like a good fit and I scheduled an appointment. For me this part of the process moved pretty quickly and easily, but it’s also ok to talk to a few different people and to take your time finding someone who makes you feel comfortable.

As an individual with some anxiety about meeting new people and wanting to appear calm, cool and collected all the time, of course there was some apprehension about my first therapy session. I would be meeting a new person and sharing intimate details about my personal life. I knew from my own studies that the therapeutic relationship is supposed to be built on respect and a lack of judgement, but, of course, I’m human. It takes more than one hour on a Monday afternoon to build a new relationship and learn to trust a person I’d never even met face to face (thanks Covid).

Your first therapy session will likely feel kind of like the first day of school. There are likely some nerves, maybe some excitement, and not a whole lot of “work” that happens in that first session. The intake process is usually about letting the therapist get to know you and what brought you in, helping you feel comfortable with the process, signing all the paperwork, and setting some goals for the work you’ll do together.

A therapeutic relationship is different than a friendship in that the give and take nature of conversations and expectations is much more one-sided. When I get together with my friends, usually we have a dialogue (and likely a few snacks) in which we’re both expected to ask questions and share about ourselves. With my therapist, though, all that was expected of me was to show up and be as honest and authentic as I could be without the reciprocal expectation of friendships. As someone who worries constantly about taking too much, this challenged me to leave the comfort of the polite, superficial exchanges of everyday conversations and gave me space to actually explore my deeper thoughts and feelings.

I had already been asked to reflect on many aspects of myself throughout my counseling program, but therapy was different. There was another person there listening, validating, and helping me see things in a way I hadn’t been able to before. For me, this process started with identifying situations that caused me to react in unhelpful ways, thus creating stress for me and in my relationships. Next, it was about identifying the underlying emotions or thoughts that were driving my unhelpful reactions. It may sound surprising, but many people, myself included, aren’t actually great at identifying their true emotions. For example, while you may outwardly be expressing annoyance or anger at someone, the driving emotion may actually be the fear. The fear that you’re unlovable and that you’ll end up alone. The goal of therapy is to help you uncover these patterns and thoughts so that you can confront them and replace them with healthier and more effective coping strategies, reactions and, eventually, beliefs.

The last, and possibly the most important, thing you need to know when starting therapy is that it’s only as effective as you make it. You have to be willing to do the work and you have to be open to the change it can bring.

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