Before I begin delving into this topic, let me put this out there: going to therapy is a normal thing and it will be beneficial for everyone, one way or the other. No, going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re ‘crazy’. You’re a perfectly normal human being that’s struggling a little bit, and that’s completely okay. We all struggle from time to time, and sometimes we need a little help.
Going to your first counselling session can be intimidating and terrifying, mainly because you don’t really know what it’s going to be like. If you’re anything like me, you’d dive into the internet for as much information as you can get to ease the nerves and the unknown. You’d start to have more questions than answers, and it’s almost as if you wish you had a list containing the answers to all of your burning questions.
Well, here’s the list you’ve asked for. I have compiled the things that people said they wish they knew before going to their first session. Hopefully, this will help you navigate your way through your first session a little better.
I’ve heard people ask the seemingly simple question; when do we know that we need to go to therapy? Do I have to wait until things get really bad? I feel like my problem isn’t critical enough for me to go.
There are all valid questions to ask. Your mental health isn’t like your psychical health, where you can physically see the symptoms when something isn’t right. It’s more abstract, and sometimes it can be attributed to a number of things. Here’s a rather simple analogy; if your throat’s been sore for a couple of days, and it feels all itchy and you couldn’t stop coughing, would you go see a doctor? It could be just a cold, or it could be tonsillitis, or a strep throat, or an infection. It has now been a couple of days and it doesn’t seem to be going away- would you go, or would you be worried about wasting the doctor’s time? Yes, it might be nothing to worry about, but you might need treatment. You’d never know if you never get it checked.
I believe we should look at mental health the same way as you would your physical health, and treat it the same way, too. If we’re unsure and it isn’t getting better, we should go talk to our doctor. It needs to be highlighted that you don’t have to wait until it feels like your world is crashing down at your feet to go see someone. You don’t need a possible major diagnosis before you go in. The little things can eventually add up to a huge thing- and as you would with your physical health, prevention is always better. Treating those little things is always the way to go.
These might still sound abstract, there are possible symptoms that you can look out for to help your deciding process:
The thing with therapy is that there are numerous forms out there, and your counsellor is more than likely to have adapted one of the forms into their practice. This might not always work for you, and that’s okay. Therapy involves building a relationship with your counsellor, and connecting with them. And like any other kinds of relationships, sometimes you just don’t click. Looking around for someone that works for you is okay. It’s actually encouraged. You’d have to be really comfortable with your therapist in order to make progress. When this happens, please don’t get discouraged. You will find someone out there that’ll fit you.
In order to make progress, you’d have to be honest. Before you come in, you might want to think a little bit about what your goals are for therapy, and this should be communicated with your counsellor. Therapy can be time and cost-consuming, and knowing what you want to get out of it early on might make your sessions more effective. Honesty with your counsellor is key, it’d be best if you don’t withhold any information. Just say what’s bothering you, and try your best to not filter them.
Let’s first acknowledge that going to therapy is a terrifying experience. I’ve heard a lot of people being hesitant about going to therapy because a counsellor, is in fact, a stranger that you’re coming to and you’re about to open up parts of yourself that you have kept hidden. Trusting a stranger is a process, which brings me back to the second point, you’d have to be comfortable with your counsellor. We should remember that therapy is a judgement-free zone, and they value confidentiality above all else. Your counsellor is not going to go around gossiping about you and your problems to their colleague. And if you happen to find out that this is what your counsellor in doing then you should report them to their supervisor.
A counsellor can’t, and won’t single-handedly fix things for you; they’re not a mental health genie. It’s a dynamic relationship, and you have to WANT to get better and have to actively choose that everyday, too. They’re not going to hand you the answers to all of your problems, that’s not their job. Their job is to give you a tool kit and teach you how to use those tools, in hopes that one day you’ll know that tool kit well enough to be able to use it with confidence. This is what therapy is.
Depending on the form of therapy, the first three sessions might delve into your background. The questions that they ask you might seem irrelevant, and you currently can’t wait to get to the bottom of your issues. When this happens, be patient. There’s a purpose to these questions; and that is to understand where you’re coming from. It’s hard to understand what’s bothering you without some sort of context. Don’t get discouraged and stop seeing your counsellor. In saying that, there’s also going to be counsellors that goes straight into the root of your problem without worrying much about your background. Don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re not instantly better, though.
Not every session is going to be life changing, sometimes you’d have a great session and you’re going to make all the progress in the world and sometimes you’d have a not-so-great session and feel like you’re regressing. The funny thing about recovery, or wanting to get better, is that it’s not a linear scope. You’ll have good days, and then you’ll have bad days. But progress is progress, and you deserve a pat in the back if you’re moving forward regardless and not staying stagnant. (You’re in therapy, or considering one- THAT, is also progress. So, yay!)
When I say homework- I don’t mean like those in school. Technically, you’re not obliged to do them. There’s no deadline. During a session, your counsellor might suggest you little things- like maybe observing your thoughts and writing them down when they go back so that you can analyse them. Whatever it is that they suggest you to do, please do them to the best of your ability. Therapy is work, and if you’re not putting in the work, you’re not going to make any progress. Similar to how your doctor will prescribe you pills to make your sore throat better- but if you don’t actually take them, you won’t get better.
I know that although this list exists, sometimes it can still be vague and scary. Attached is a link to a podcast, where you get the rare opportunity to listen into a real therapy session, with a real therapist and real clients. Of course, consent from the client has been obtained and the names have been changed to protect their privacy. Other than that, this is as real as it gets. Have a listen, and maybe you’ll see that therapy shouldn’t be as scary as it is.