How Can I Learn to Open Up to My Therapist?

How do I open up to a therapist? I'm on my fourth therapist in about three years, and I have a terrible time talking to them about myself. I can't even bring up the boring, inconsequential things in my life without a lot of anxiety. It doesn't seem to matter whether the therapist is male, female, young, or old. People always tell me that therapists are not likely to judge me; they can't reject me like a friend would; I'm paying for these sessions, so I should get my money's worth by spilling my guts. I know all that is true, but I just can't get over the fact that I'm telling this stranger really intimate stuff about my past. I was with my first therapist for over two years before I started to tell him about trauma in my past, even though I knew it was a huge factor in my mental health issues. And what's strange is that I don't have a problem opening up to friends. I don't think I have trust issues, because I tend to be much more open with friends than with therapists. The problem is that my friends don't have PhDs or a license to give me advice, which is really what I need. So my friends get frustrated because they can't help, and I get frustrated because I'm not actually any closer to getting rid of anxiety and depression. How can I overcome my fears about talking to therapists so I can start working on my issues? —Going Nowhere
Dear Going Nowhere,

First, let me applaud your courage in seeking out therapy and for reaching out to GoodTherapy.org with your question. It is no small thing to acknowledge that one needs help, so bravo to you for taking those steps.

Your question of how to open up to a therapist is quite common. Many people feel overwhelmed at the possibility of sharing their deepest, darkest secrets and pain with a virtual stranger. It seems especially frustrating when you are paying for the services but still can’t seem to open up. However, this is perfectly normal, and many people find themselves in that position. There are a few things that might contribute to this: you may not have developed the level of trust you need to feel safe with the therapist you are working with, you may be fearful of being judged by the therapist, or maybe you are afraid that opening the pain of the past might be too much to handle. There are many reasons for people not opening up in therapy, so I will give you some ideas on how to get things going.

If you’ve ever heard the saying, “If something scares you, you must do it immediately,” this will sound familiar. You have to build trust with your therapist AND with yourself—with your therapist, you need to know that he or she has the capacity to hold whatever pain you might share, and you need to know that you can handle sharing your past without falling apart, losing control, or being overtaken. The best way to do this is by taking small steps. First, I suggest talking with your therapist specifically about your inability to open up. This type of honest conversation can be a bridge to building trust in other areas. Second, after having that conversation, intentionally decide to take risks and share honestly in your therapy sessions. Even if you don’t want to share the trauma of the past, you can say, “I’m really anxious because I want to share, but I’m afraid of …” Simply naming the anxiety when it appears can help clear the way through it.

Finally, many people are concerned that the therapist will judge them when they share openly. While I can’t say that there aren’t therapists who judge, they are firmly in the minority. Therapists generally hold a genuine space of empathy and high regard for the people they work with, knowing that each individual has had a unique “pain journey” and that seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather of deep strength. Your therapist is a stranger only as long as you keep him or her that way. By taking small risks and building trust, you will deepen your relationship with your therapist, which will help your therapy progress.

You can make this therapeutic experience what you want it to be by taking ownership for how it has gone and making active choices in how to handle it going forward. I believe that you want this to work, and I believe that it will because you are willing to work. Best wishes in your journey!

Sincerely,
Lisa

Lisa Vallejos
Lisa Vallejos, PhD, LPC, specializes in existential psychology. Her primary focus is helping people to be more present in their lives, more engaged with their existence, and to face the world with courage. Lisa began her career in the mental health field working in residential treatment, community mental health centers, and with adjudicated individuals before moving into private practice. She is in the process of finishing a PhD as well as advanced training in existential-humanistic psychotherapy, and provides clinical training and supervision.
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  • Jada

    Jada

    December 19th, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    Maybe you just aren’t ready for developing the level of trust that you need in order to feel comfortable enough with someone to open up to them about things like this.
    I know that the first time I saw my therapist, and really the first few times I guess, I was so nervous because I had it in my head that he was judging me for every little thing that I said.
    I had to get past that, understand that I was going for me and that he was there to help me, not shame me.
    It can be hard, I get that, but once you find that level of comfort with someone and you recognize how much good this is doing, I think that you will come to love your talks and you will start to get so much more out of them.

  • Reggie J

    Reggie J

    December 19th, 2014 at 1:12 PM

    First, you’re to be commended for your continued attempts to get involved in therapy. Maybe trying to think about how your life will be different when you find a good fit in a therapist,may be a good starting point. Using that information may help alleviate negative self talk when experiencing anxiety.

  • stella

    stella

    December 21st, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    From my point of view I am not that sure that it is about you getting to where you can open up to them or it is more about you have to become comfortable with the fact that you are in therapy period. Some people struggle with that to begin with, and so it will be hard to give it 100% if you are still worried about how others will perceive the process. Not that you should worry about them at all, you should only be thinking about you and your own process of healing but I know that that can be tough.

  • jeri

    jeri

    December 21st, 2014 at 8:15 PM

    been in therapy and what helped me open up with my issues-which was social anxiety-is that the therapist himself opened up about the social anxiety that he had himself!maybe not all therapists can put themselves in your shoes and speak from experience but they have treated other clients with similar problems.maybe a forthcoming therapist who will talk to you a little more at the initial stages is what you need…?

  • Xavier

    Xavier

    December 22nd, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    Have you ever tried online therapy? I like face to face too, but I just thought that doing something like that for a while might help you ease into the process a little better.

  • EVAN S

    EVAN S

    December 22nd, 2014 at 6:10 AM

    @Going nowhere: If you want to heal, if you want therapy to work for you, then you have to open up, you have to speak out and you have to make that effort to be able to do so.

    Being cured of an illness may need you to take medicines you may not enjoy. It is much the same here. But if you do get accustomed to opening up that could not just help your healing process and therapy but could well make you a stronger person who is not afraid to speak about their problems to someone. To me there is no courage greater than talking about things that may portray you as something abnormal to others. Its your life and you’re trying to get better, so don’t let anyone tell you you cannot do it!

  • Jill

    Jill

    December 23rd, 2014 at 11:07 AM

    I kind of think that it is as much up to the therapist to find a way to help you open up and feel comfortable with that as it is about you doing that.

  • NELson

    NELson

    December 25th, 2014 at 11:19 AM

    Sounds like there continues to be something holding you back that prevents you from laying it all out there. Just know that this is okay, everyone does this in their own time. But you also have to know that the longer it takes for you to open up then the further that you will have to go in your journey. Again, all of this is fine, we work at our own pace, and no two people will ever be the same.

  • nelly

    nelly

    January 10th, 2015 at 12:29 PM

    Your so right there I agree so good and so troo

  • nelly

    nelly

    January 10th, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    So right there feels like something is holding you back to so troo

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    December 26th, 2014 at 6:18 PM

    We all need therapy at some point input lives. My teenage daughter has anxiety and depression. I send her to therapy sessions because it is for her own good to open up about her emotions. She doesn’t like talking about (reliving) her past, especially with a “complete stranger,” and so she minimizes her conversations. After discovering her self-harm tendencies and the potential of suicidal and homicidal ideations, there is no doubt she needs professional help.
    Your friends are great at being friends, but it is not fair to them for YOU to not commit to your therapy 100% only to keep dumping the same issues onto them. The past cannot harm you in the present unless you give it the power over your mental state to do so. You owe it to yourself, your family, your friends to fully commit to mental/emotional recovery.
    I’m a mentally tough and realistic person with an extroverted demeanor who has lived through horrific tragedy as well. I have also found therapy to be quite a developmental opportunity for my personal growth, so I don’t fully understand the reluctancy to let go of what hurts you and embrace your future.
    God loves you unconditionally and so do I. I pray you find your solace and healing soon, friend.

  • Les

    Les

    December 30th, 2014 at 2:35 PM

    Maybe your instincts are right not to trust a therapist. I wouldn’t. They are as untrustworthy as anyone else, and as judgemental.

  • Mary M

    Mary M

    January 1st, 2015 at 4:22 AM

    Maybe you need a therapist with more of a relational approach… I mean someone who is more “real”, let’s you get to know them better… not so distant and witholding but more active on a interpersonal level. I don’t mean that the therapist should be your friend and tell everything about you, but there are therapists that are not so keen on being blank an unreactive. Especially if you have significant trauma in your past it is common you need a therpist who is more enganing and real. Maybe even someone who is specialized in trauma work?

    I spent 3 years with a great therapist but as it ended and I needed more work the thing I knew (that didn’t know when looking for the first one was) that I really needed someone who is not so introverted and private on an interpersonal style. There are huge differeneces on this issue and it was such a relief to find out that there are therpists that are active and open… The first one wasn’t a psychoanlyst or didn’t think she needed to be witholding but still was keeping herself so far away, so not brining anything up about her process if I didn’t ask. And this new one (trauma therapist with a humanistic background), she tells me very clearly and without asking what emotions she experiences and is not afraid to let me get to know her! I don’t know about her history or family that is not what I mean… but if I talk about a movie she’ll say (without asking)if she has seen it too. She is not afraid to touch me and is not so rigid in a therapist role. If I comment on her beautiful sweater she’ll tell me she bought it last week.

    We talk many sessions only about my issues and never about hers. But at times, she’ll say she things that normal people would say, she wears her wedding ring out in the open, she laughs a lot, and is really real – not distant, not a stranger! And this has made a huge difference! She told me that people with complex trauma often need more engaging and active approach and can be hurt if the therapist is too witholding, avoiding and simply just an introverted person.

    So maybe you need to find a therapist that is not so set on keeping her distance?

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