Starting therapy is hard, but it doesn’t have to be a mystery. There’s tons of research saying therapy works. Many people talk about their success with counseling. But how exactly does it help? Here is a list of things I wish I knew before starting therapy.
It will take time
Making changes in your life takes time and hard work. There are no shortcuts to personal transformation. While you may find some quick wins from starting therapy, it will usually take commitment and repetition to make real and substantial change. At the beginning, it’s hard to know exactly how long the process will take. This is a topic you are welcome to bring up and talk about with your therapist. It doesn’t have to be a mystery.
The relationship is key
One of the most important factors that can predict success in therapy is the quality of your relationship with your therapist. Studies have shown that those people with strong relationships with their therapist have better outcomes. If you’re going to open up and spill your heart and soul to another person, it’s important you feel comfortable with them.
Ask the questions you want to ask
Some people enter therapy thinking that there are topics they can’t discuss with their therapist. The good news is that you don’t have to censor yourself. While your therapist may choose not to answer certain questions, it’s always worthwhile to bring up curiosities or thoughts you may have about them. This allows you both the opportunity to learn more about each other.
If you don’t feel like it’s working, talk about it
Endings are hard. Sometimes people will decide that therapy is not working and stop showing up before talking about it with their therapist. However, that’s cheating yourself out of having a positive ending or goodbye with someone. Think about it, how often can you have a constructive conversation about breaking up with someone? Usually never. But you can have that experience with your therapist. And it can be extremely healing. Especially if you’ve had a series of bad endings in your life before.
Talk about it, in general
When in doubt, talk about it. The more you share with your therapist, the better they will know and understand you. There are certain topics like sex and money that are loaded with shame and guilt. In therapy you have the opportunity to explore those topics without the pressure of what others will think about you.
It’s ok to get angry with your therapist
Or sad. Or confused. Or any other emotion that happens to come up for you. Our job is to help you deepen your understanding of yourself. We can take anger! In fact, some of us even get excited when clients express strong emotions in session. It means they trust us enough to open up and be vulnerable. Feelings are hard and most of us were not taught very much about how to be with them. Therapy can be a great place to explore emotions of all kinds.
It’s ok to have all of your feelings
Often we think we have to manage or control our emotions. While this is certainly true in some situations, it’s not the way therapy works. In therapy, we want to learn how to be with our emotions. In life we spend lots of time and energy not having certain feelings. That can lead to anxiety, depression, substance misuse, etc. In therapy, we learn how to have our feelings and be ok with them.
There’s no magic pill that will make everything better
Unlike strep throat, there’s no pill that will heal a broken heart, anxiety or depression. Sure, medication can be very useful and even lifesaving in certain cases. But many studies show that medication in combination with psychotherapy result in better treatment outcomes.
If one type of therapy doesn’t work for you, try another
There are so many different types of therapy out there. The alphabet soup of therapy jargon includes CBT, EMDR, EFT, ACT, PACT, etc. The list goes on and on. Just because you don’t like spaghetti doesn’t mean you hate all types of pasta. The same is true for therapy. If you’re in pain, keep going until you find a therapist and type of therapy that works for you.
Sometimes it’s useful to go more than once a week
There’s so much stigma around therapy and mental healthcare. Going to therapy doesn’t mean you’re broken or damaged. And sometimes there are situations where it makes sense to go more than once a week. This can be true if there’s a big life event happening for you like a death or divorce. Of if you’re just trying to move through something with more intensity. When working through painful trauma from the past it can also be helpful sometimes to have more support. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you or that you’re weak. In fact, it takes a lot of courage to deal with your feelings in a constructive way.
You don’t have to stay in therapy forever
While saying goodbye is hard, you don’t have to stay in therapy forever. There will come a point when you’ll know you’re ready to stop. Talk about it with your therapist and plan to have a good and constructive ending. Like I mentioned above, we don’t always make space for closure in our culture. Use therapy as a way to have a good ending. And if you’re not sure about when the end is right, check in with your therapist.
You can always come back
Even if you left an unpaid balance. Even if you stormed out of that last couples therapy session and you feel shame about that. You can always come back. Some people come to therapy for a few months, take a break and return years later. Personal growth and development is a lifelong process and you get to decide how you want to make that work for you.
When in doubt, talk about it with your therapist. Pull back the curtain and ask the questions you want to ask. It’s your therapy, after all.