There have been two times in my life when I’ve seen a therapist:
After I came back from a 6-month mission trip to Haiti
Half way through my seminary program
My first experience wasn’t great. I didn’t really know what I wanted, I was one of the first clients my therapist had, and I couldn’t really connect with him at a deep level.
My second experience was incredibly profound. It was a year-long and everything I needed at that time. He was kind, compassionate, gentle, perceptive, and reliable. I was able to process and heal with him in a way that I didn’t even know I needed.
TLDR; not everyone will have a good experience with therapy and finding a good one can take time. Here are 7 things you should consider before you see and commit to a therapist.
Finding a therapist is similar to dating. It’s okay to feel each other out and see if you’ll be a good fit with one another then move on if you’re not.
Sometimes when people get referred to see a therapist, they view it as if they’re stuck with that specific person. This isn’t true. If you’re not feeling it for whatever reason, just ask for a referral for another therapist because the relationship you have with them is important. It’s the foundation for your therapeutic relationship. If you don’t like them, trust them, or simply just can’t connect with them, it’s okay to try someone else.
Also, there are a variety reasons for why this might happen. Maybe their approach to counseling just doesn’t work for you. Maybe the therapist isn’t a good therapist. Maybe they don’t incorporate your cultural background. Whatever the reason is, don’t force yourself to stick with someone if it isn’t working.
That being said, make sure you give it a genuine shot before moving on.
Things Can Get Harder Before They Get Better
Often times when you’re in therapy, it may feel like your mental health isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse. But sometimes this is actually one of the paths you have to take in order to heal. Why?
Human beings tend to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms in order to get through life. Rather than deal with what’s bothering them, they ignore it or mask it. This is actually how Emotional Debt is created.
Now when someone copes, it may seem like life is getting better temporarily. But really what’s happening is that they’re putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound. It’s a short-term fix that only kicks the bucket further down the road.
One of the goals of therapy is to break down unhealthy coping mechanisms so that the underlying issue can be properly addressed. This is why it can feel like things are getting worse, because it requires you to explore the depths of your junk in order to create better tools to help you thrive.
You Might Be Recorded
Many beginning therapists record sessions with their clients. There are a couple reasons for this. First, it helps them catch anything they missed during the session. Second, it’s reviewed for supervision where your therapist can gain insight and advice from someone with more experience.
Although it may be a little nerve-racking to be recorded, know that everything you say and do is protected by confidentiality.
Confidentiality is the legal duty of the therapist to protect your privacy. Breaking it is considered a severe violation and has serious consequences in the world of mental health. The offending therapist could get placed on probation or even have their license revoked. You also have the option of suing them.
So rest assured that the recording will only be viewed by your therapist and relevant mental health professionals. However, keep in mind that there are certain situations where information must be shared with relevant authorities because therapists are also mandated reporters.
Cultural Appreciation is Important
Having a therapist who respects and appreciates your cultural background is important. A therapist who comes from the same background as you can also be really helpful. They’re less likely to misunderstand you. They are more likely to share the same values. They could perhaps even help you navigate cultural tensions based off of their own experience. But they don’t have to be like you in order to help you.
For example I’ve always felt conflicted about my identity. Am I Korean? Am I American? To be honest, I never really felt like I belonged in either culture.
Now even though my therapist was Caucasian, he was really good at asking questions being curious, being open, and not imposing his values as we were exploring the topic of culture. In fact because he wasn’t familiar with an Asian American background, I had to explain a lot of cultural tensions that I faced and it was this process that actually helped me make my identity more concrete.
Whoever you decide to see, make sure they respect and appropriately factor your cultural background.
Figure Out What You Want to Work On
One of the reasons why my first experience with my therapist didn’t go well is because I didn’t know what I wanted to work on. This made our sessions erratic and feel like a bit of a waste of time because I didn’t know where to drive the conversation.
When you see a therapist, I recommend going in with something you want to work on. Now the reality is that this might change as you continue with therapy. That’s totally fine. But coming in with a goal will at least give you and your therapist a starting point to get the ball rolling.
Here are some examples:
I want to process the death of my grandmother.
I feel anxious and I don’t know why.
I don’t feel happy right now and want to feel better.
I’m really scared of spiders and don’t want to be anymore.
I feel really pessimistic about the future because of the pandemic.
Notice how these goals can be both specific and general. Don’t worry too much about the details. Just make sure you have something in mind to start the conversation.
Therapists Aren’t Perfect
Don’t expect your therapist to be perfect. My last therapist was super compassionate but frankly, a bit awkward. There were a few times where we sat in silence because we were waiting on one another to guide the conversation. There were other times where I felt like he had hurt me and it was really painful because I had placed a ton of trust in him. But what’s helpful to keep in mind is therapists make mistakes too.
That means sessions can be awkward. They may forget a detail that you shared before. They may say something that hurts you. They may even recommend an intervention that may not work.
Just know that the person sitting across from you isn’t perfect. They’re not a god. They’re human.
You Drive the Sessions
The last tip I have is to let you know that you drive the sessions. The person that determines how much you get out of therapy is you.
How willing are you to dive into your junk? If your therapist assigns “homework”, do you actually follow through? Are you fully bought in or are you just going through the motions? Are you hiding during your session? If so, why?
The times when I’ve walked out of a session thinking that it wasn’t very productive was when I wasn’t fully bought in. It was the times when I didn’t honestly answer my therapist’s questions. It was when I kept things superficial and avoided the topics that were really bothering me.
Have you ever seen a therapist? What other tips would you give to others?
Do you have an example of when things needed to get harder before they got better?
How important is it that your therapist share the same cultural background as you?