Despite having been one half of hundreds of therapeutic relationships over the years, I work hard to remember that for many individuals who sit down in my office, this could be the first time that they’ve entered into this experience.
I recognize that making the decision to go to therapy isn’t an easy one. It usually comes on the heels of deciding that something significant in one’s life isn’t working as she thought it should. Sometimes what isn’t working is incredibly profound, and touches nearly all aspects of her life. Or it may seem on the surface to be minor, trivial even – but hits on such valued parts of an individual’s life so as to push them into my office. Whatever the reason that someone decides to enter treatment, it’s a big decision and one that is never taken lightly.
So if you’re that person – you’ve decided to allow a trusted professional to help you make important changes in your life – you might want to know what to expect. While sitting down in a stranger’s chair is never easy, per se, being armed with an understanding of the process is key to developing the trust that is vital to the process.
Here’s what you can – and should – expect when starting therapy:
1. You’ll be asked why you’re there. It may sound obvious, but the therapist will want to get a thorough understanding of what brings you to treatment. Even if you’ve alluded to “relationship issues” on the phone, he will want to hear in your own words (and in more detail) how you think about the problem, and why you’ve chosen to get help now. Even if you think that certain parts are irrelevant, share them. It helps the therapist to help you if he has a richer context in which to understand the issue that concerns you.
2. You’ll be told about your rights as a patient. The therapist will spend some time letting you know about what you can expect from her and the process of therapy. She’ll likely explain that you can expect your information to remain confidential and secure, unless you are at risk of seriously hurting yourself or someone else. She should generally also let you know things like her fees, cancellation policy, how you can access your records, and more. The specifics will be based on the laws of your area and the specifics of her profession.
3. You’ll learn about the nature of the therapy relationship. The therapeutic relationship is quite different than other relationships that we are used to. When you think about it, it can actually seem a little strange. You’re pouring your heart out to a person who just met you recently and you know nothing about. But certain therapeutic boundaries are in place for a reason. You should be able to trust that you will not have to take care of your therapist’s needs and feelings. You’ll learn, likely quickly, what your therapist’s style is when it comes to this. Some may disclose some personal information about themselves, and you’ll need to decide what you feel comfortable with.
4. You’ll learn about the therapist’s approach. There are more styles and approaches of therapy than we could possibly discuss here, but they often fall along a continuum of directiveness. Some therapists will take a more active approach, asking you to do things like monitor and challenge thoughts and feelings and experiment with changing your behavior. Others will spend time helping you to develop insight into your patterns of functioning and work to provide a new relationship experience via the therapy itself. Others will do a bit of both. While it’s not always important to know precisely how things are working (in fact, it can sometimes steer you off course to get caught up in the details), you should check in with yourself to determine how comfortable you are with the therapist’s style.
5. You’ll be invited to ask your own questions. I encourage you to use this space to really be a savvy consumer. Questions that can be helpful to ask include: What kind of license do you have to practice? Do you have a supervisor or will you be consulting about my case? Have you worked with others who have my issue? What can I expect from therapy? Can I call you between sessions if I need to? How will I know if things are improving? If the therapist avoids these questions or doesn’t give you the answers you are looking for, I suggest proceeding cautiously.
It’s important to remember that the effectiveness of therapy is based heavily (very heavily, in fact) on the therapeutic relationship, so it’s vital to feel a good fit is in place. If you don’t initially, however, that might not mean the therapist isn’t for you; it could mean that you need to give the process time. Unless there is a significant issue, I always encourage patients to give a therapy relationship at least a few weeks for trust and rapport to develop. If these things don’t happen, I urge you to seek a therapist who will meet your needs. Remember, this is your treatment and your mental health.
If you’ve been to therapy, what has your experience been like? What would you ask a new therapist?