Twelve Tips for People Considering Therapy

man-deep-in-thoughtTherapists dedicate many years of education and countless hours in training to learn how how therapy works. People in treatment have to learn from scratch and may become so frustrated with our odd language and customs that they leave before getting the help they need. Here are a few tips to help clients acclimate to the world of therapy.

  • Choose wisely: Many studies show that the quality of the therapeutic relationship is the most important factor for successful therapy, but some people spend more time deliberating their morning coffee selection than choosing their therapist. Take the time to read about a few potential therapists, looking for people who treat your particular concern and who have personal statements you can appreciate. Then “test drive” a few therapists to see who you feel most comfortable opening up to. Don’t worry about the therapists you don’t choose; we just want you to find your best match.
  • Make it an hour: A typical therapy hour is only 45 or 50 minutes. Show up 10 minutes early to relax and think about what you need from the session.
  • First business: Address fees and scheduling questions at the beginning of the session. You can then devote the rest of your session to your issues without business hanging over your head.
  • Then relationship: The quality of the relationship is essential, so this deserves special attention. If you didn’t understand something from the last session, if you’re feeling resentment, or if you’re thinking about ending therapy, it’s best to mention this at the beginning so you’ll have time to talk about it.
  • Food for thought: What did I notice about myself this week? What do I want? How am I feeling? Sometimes people draw a blank in therapy. You can always come back to these three questions to find plenty of session-worthy material.
  • Just ask: The enigmatic professional-yet-personal nature of therapy makes some clients reluctant to ask questions. Rather than spending energy trying to be polite, it’s best to just ask your questions to your therapist and let him or her respond or explain why he or she won’t.
  • Clarify jargon: Some therapists have their own language and assume you’re fluent. If you find yourself lost in a sea of psychobabble—“Your introjected self-object validates an undifferentiated attunement”—please ask your therapist to translate. You don’t gain insight from language that makes no sense.
  • Give feedback: Comment on your progress any time during your therapy. Do you feel safe in therapy? Is your therapist listening to you? Do you have an understanding of your issues and goals? What one thing would you change about therapy? You can evaluate your relationship at any time.
  • Advise yourself: Some people believe therapy is a place where you are told how to live your life. More often, it’s a place where you clarify your thoughts and feelings, explore possibilities and outcomes, and ultimately make your own decisions. That’s empowerment.
  • Share your thoughts freely: Therapy is one place where you don’t need to censor yourself. In fact, some of the most enlightening material comes from the thoughts, memories, and feelings that arise in therapy—the ones you’d probably brush aside in any other conversation.
  • Accept growing pains: If you’re coming to therapy to change something in your life, be prepared for some discomfort. We say, “Things get worse before they get better” because it’s often true—introspection isn’t easy. If you do feel like therapy is becoming too challenging, talk to your therapist about it and let him or her help you with it.
  • Plan a good ending: Therapy is one place in life where you can have a positive ending. Talk with your therapist about when you’ll be ready to end therapy and what that ending will look like. A thoughtful ending to your therapy can show you how to have satisfying closure in other areas of life.

Therapy is like a college course where the topic is you. The more you invest in understanding yourself and collaborating with the therapist, the more you’ll gain from the process. Enjoy!

Ryan Howes is the founder of The Psychotherapy Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental health and supporting underfunded mental health providers. GoodTherapy.org is proud to sponsor The Psychotherapy Foundation and commemorate the first annual National Psychotherapy Day on September 25, 2012. For more information on how to support The Psychotherapy Foundation and National Psychotherapy Day, please visit www.NationalPsychotherapyDay.com.

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, therapist in Pasadena, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ron

    September 17th, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    Planning for the end is an excellent idea!

    This is the part of therapy that I have found sometimes goes unnoticed and not talked about, what does the end look like to you and how you will be able to maintain the momentum of your recovery once you no longer ahve the therapist on speed dial. A good therapist will allow for you to plan for that time and will even encourage you and help you develop the necessary recources so that you can cope with all of life’s little crazinesses once you have left therapy.

  • merritt

    September 17th, 2012 at 3:18 PM

    I have something to add as well-
    I wish that more people would come into therapy with realistic expectations.
    You will not change overnight,
    Your situation will not change overnight.
    this is something that will likely take much hard work and dedication.
    I think that many times we get disappointed and give up far too soon because we think that the changes we need to make are taking too long.
    We must remember that we have to give these things some time to heal.

  • SilverBullet

    September 17th, 2012 at 4:22 PM

    Good tips for anyone planning to see a therapist. Just as with anything else, communication is of utmost importance. If you see the list of tips here, many of them involve communicating and clarifying things with your therapist. Having been to therapy before, I cannot stress the importance of communication enough. I had a great therapist who encouraged me to talk and communicate anything that I might have and it was a very good experience.

    Another thing I would like to add is look for comfort levels with your therapist. You are more likely to talk honestly with and engage in useful conversations with someone you feel comfortable with compared to someone you feel like an authoritarian figure or are just not comfortable with. This can even make or break things for you.

  • Carlos

    September 17th, 2012 at 9:24 PM

    I’ve been having trouble with the long work hours,the demands that a family brings and the need to have some me time.I spoke to a close friend about this and although he did listen to everything and made a few suggestions,I am now contemplating seeking the services of a professional.Would that be a good idea?I don’t really have anything in particular but its just the whole thing of being occupied with everything that is I think stressing me out.

  • thomas l

    September 18th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    These tips are good, especially for someone like me who has thought a lot about sitting down and talking with someone but not really knowing how to start the process. When I looked at the list I realized that I had considered a few of these questions but had never really given very much thought to what I wanted to achieve from the therapeutic relationship. I had thought about that very vaguely I suppose but never really about what I wanted and needed to happen. Thank you for pointing out that This is something that is very important and that shouldn’t be overlooked.

  • HH

    September 18th, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    Great tips here! I am looking at going in for therapy and was looking for something like this. These tips are hard to come by from a friend or colleague because hey, how many people actually say they went to therapy and really not many people know these. Good to see that these are coming from a professional and am sure to apply these when i do start my therapy sessions. Kudos!

  • les v

    September 18th, 2012 at 1:17 PM

    one thing many people go wrong with is that they will want solutions to all their life problems from the therapist ready made.its like they are paying for the therapy and expect a magic pill that solves their issues.they do not even fully put themselves into the middle of things and talk openly.they expect the therapist to do all the work.please be responsible and responsive when you go to a therapist,he is a professional who can handle such issues better than most people but not a magician!

  • Hart

    September 18th, 2012 at 3:44 PM

    I made the mistake once of going to a therapist just because it was a big name and I thought that if he was so well known theat I couldn’t go wrong. But we never did make that connection that I felt that I needed to be able to feel comfortable w ith him. I let the name and the prestige intimidate me too much so really all I got out of that experience was the opportunity to say that I talked to him a few times and gave him a little more money to pay his rent for the next few months. When I left that ‘relationship” I sought anoother lesser known therapist with a smaller office and fee, and he helped me far more in just a few visits than I think I would have ever accomplished with the first guy. Funny how we let the words of others lead us one way when clearly it is not the right path for us.

  • kory

    September 19th, 2012 at 5:56 AM

    agreed with hart here.i have had a similar experience and its never necessary that a therapist is right for you just because he is famous or was good for your friend.each person’s need and way of connection is different and although the therapist in front of you may be great at what he does,he may just not be right for you!

  • LaShun

    September 20th, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    What if I am scared? How do I know that this person that I am sitting down with isn’t just laughing their tail off at the things that I am saying?

  • Ryan Howes

    Ryan Howes

    September 20th, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    LaShun – if they’re laughing their tail off, they’re in the wrong profession. You’d soon find they aren’t helpful and quit. Fortunately, the chances of someone spending time and money to train to become a therapist just so they can laugh at people are slim.

    But if you’re scared, and most clients are in their first session, it often helps to talk about it. That’s some of the best therapy, really, discussing your thoughts and feelings as you have them. Any therapist worth their salt would hear you without judgment and try to help you understand or cope with the anxiety.

  • Jenny

    September 20th, 2012 at 8:03 PM

    I had my first therapy session this week and these tips seem very helpful. I was super nervous when I got there but I relayed my hesitant feelings to my therapist and she understood and made me feel at ease. I completely agree with the statement that you MUST openly communicate with your therapist, otherwise it will just get you nowhere. Even though it brought up some sensitive, uncomfortable topics- you have to remember that the only way they can help you is if you are honest with the way you are feeling and what you’re going through. Thank you for this great list of tips! I’m going to write about each of my sessions and what I learned/gained from them and what my goals are….

  • Kathryn Hopson

    October 13th, 2013 at 12:55 AM

    Hi @Jenny, Good to know that you had a successful session in the end. There are certain things which you may not want to tell anyone but you must tell those to the therapist if needed. Because your information will play the biggest role to have a successful session.

  • Ling

    February 2nd, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Should I seek for therapy if I feel that things r falling apart and I don’t feel happiness for a very long time? I’m not sure what that feeling is like anymore. I’m not sure about a lot of things I used to be sure about.

  • Laura

    February 16th, 2014 at 4:51 PM

    I’m afraid of connecting too much with my therapist. I mean I am comfortable with her to a degree and really feel like we are connected but I am afraid of admitting to missing her during the week and wanting to call her when I’m down or lonely.

    There are just somethings I feel kind of awkward telling her.

  • Sam

    June 3rd, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    Perfect tips! Thank you! I’ve been considering psychotherapy for a while now but was always a bit nervous, this has really helped though, thank you again!

  • emily b

    June 20th, 2016 at 6:51 PM

    I like what you said about how you should share your thoughts freely. That does seem like it would be helpful to know and take to heart when you are going into therapy. That way, you can get the most out of your sessions.

  • Deedee L.

    December 16th, 2016 at 7:05 PM

    I like your point about growing pains in therapy and how it’s all a part of the changes you are trying to make in your life. Changes are always hard, especially when they are ones happening within yourself. I can imagine that adding therapy into the equation makes your weaknesses seem even bigger than they are, but we all have to face them at some point otherwise, those changes will never occur. Writing down the changes you see occurring in yourself could be helpful, as well, that way when you are getting discouraged you are able to have more proof of the effort you are making.

  • Mary S

    December 25th, 2016 at 9:15 PM

    “it’s best to just ask your questions to your therapist and let him or her respond or explain why he or she won’t”
    And if the therapists responds by saying things like, “I have my reasons,” “Are you sure you’re not trying to second guess me?”, “Do you realize you’re asking me to give up my control?”,”Consider me to be something like a computer: what you say goes in, mixes around with what you say, and out comes a response,” or “Because that’s what you need,” or if they change the subject and don’t address the question at all: That’s a sign that you should not go back to them.
    (The responses I’ve listed above are actual responses I’ve gotten from therapists when I’ve asked questions.)

  • Danni B

    December 29th, 2016 at 11:16 AM

    I really like your tip about sharing your thoughts freely when it comes to counseling. My husband and I have been thinking about seeing a counselor since we lost our little girl to a brain tumor a few months ago. I think that it would be really helpful for us, we will have to keep this information in mind, thank you for sharing.

  • Elsa A.

    January 23rd, 2017 at 12:53 PM

    Technically I don’t have a mental illness, but I think I would benefit going to counseling to help me work through some of my issues. I like how you give the suggestion to ask questions during counseling. Because going to counseling is supposed to make you feel better, you can’t do that unless you feel comfortable enough to ask questions you have. Thanks for sharing!

  • Annika L.

    January 26th, 2017 at 3:54 PM

    My husband and I have been debating on doing some family therapy. We love eachother, but we are just having a hard time keeping that same passion we used to have. These tips will really help us to have the best experience with counseling. I realize that it will take some work, as you put it, we must accept growing pains, and we will both need to make that decision to really try, but I’m hoping that it will work.

  • Johnny

    February 13th, 2017 at 3:43 PM

    I love your advice to choose wisely when you are looking for a good therapist. It only makes sense that you would want to find the idea therapist for your family’s situation. However, many people just go with the first therapist that they see. Do you have any other tips about finding a good therapist?

  • Ryan

    Ryan

    February 18th, 2017 at 9:58 PM

    You bet! You can start by making sure they’re listed on GoodTherapy.org! I’ve written plenty on this topic on different websites. Google my name and finding a therapist and you’ll find articles and interviews.

  • Pam L

    February 21st, 2017 at 5:17 AM

    I am thinking about seeing a therapist but I wasn’t sure yet. Sometimes I think that my issues aren’t real and it’s just me overreacting. But other times I really think I should seek professional help. I guess I don’t know what to expect when I see a therapist.

  • Rachel L

    February 27th, 2017 at 9:59 AM

    Thank you for the insightful advice. I particularly liked what you said about making sure that you should up early to your therapy session, and take some time to relax and think about what you need from the session. I was wondering how people made the most of therapy sessions, as maintaining good emotional and mental health is very important. Giving yourself that time could really make you get the most out of your session, and see the improvements you had in mind initially.

  • Annika

    March 27th, 2017 at 4:44 PM

    My sister is really struggling in her marriage, and we are trying to help her go to counseling. As you said, it’s important that we choose a counselor carefully. I agree that looking at their personal statements can help you determine if they are right for you. Thanks for sharing!

  • Olivia

    May 2nd, 2017 at 3:04 PM

    I agree that you want to find a therapist that lets you share your thoughts freely. It would make sense that you would want to find someone who is open to this input because it wold helps your process. My brother is looking for a counseling service so he’ll have to find one that lets him be open.

  • Braden B

    May 31st, 2017 at 9:36 AM

    I’ve been having a hard time with life recently, so I’m considering going to therapy. It makes sense that I would want to choose wisely. I’ll be sure to find someone who is particularly good at dealing with what I’m going through.

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