What a great question! It is a particularly poignant question if you have never been to therapy or you have not had such a great experience with counseling services in the past. The decision to seek therapy can be daunting because you have likely heard all sorts of things about therapy. You may have heard that therapy saved someone’s life, that all therapists are wackadoodles, that you should be able to solve problems on your own or “keep it in the family,” or that it just feels good to have that one person to talk to and let it all out. Realistically, the only person who can determine if it is right for you is YOU.
Who goes to therapy and why?
All sorts of people go to therapy, many whom you would never expect because they may not mention it. The counseling doors have no limits on who can or cannot enter the room. People seek therapy for many reasons. Some people are just seeking an outside opinion from someone who is detached from a person’s everyday life or people within their lives. Others are seeking to work on identified concerns such as heightened anxiety or relationship difficulties. And then there are those who go, but don’t know exactly know what they should work on, but they know that something is amiss and/or someone in their life told them they should or have to go. The commonality between those who seek therapy is that they are hoping someone will give them support to help them move forward in life with “forward” looking different for each person.
What should I expect with therapy?
At this point is worth mentioning that the term “therapy” is often interchangeable with “counseling.” In many situations, they are one in the same. However, “counseling” often insinuates general guidance or advisement, while therapy typically delves in to how a problem came to be with the purpose of providing relief to that problem. For example, a “Career Counselor” has the objective to provide guidance on deciding a specific career path perhaps through doing a strengths and interests inventory. The focus is specific to career. Whereas, if a client who seeks career advice in therapy, a therapist is often going to explore the persons strengths and interests, but might also explore the client’s life circumstance that influence career choice or anxieties that arise when exploring career interests. The exploration is multilayered and ideally a collaboration between the therapist and the client.
The first thing to expect is that the therapist is a trained professional. There are many different types of professionals who have the appropriate training with the most common being Licensed Professional Counselors, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists, Licensed Social Workers, and Licensed Clinical Psychologists. The commonality is that they are licensed which means that they have met the state licensure boards’ experience and educational requirements. There are also those who are “therapists in training” which means that they are in the middle of their educational and/or experience process. They will have the title of Intern, Associate, or Doctoral Candidate. While they are in training, they are supervised on a regular basis by an approved licensed professional. While there are many people who are skilled at listening, empathizing, or providing advice, it is important that if you are seeking professional help, you receive it from someone who has a verified professional background.
Generally, the therapeutic process will include:
- Problem formation: Identifying what the core concerns are for the client and what do those problems look like in everyday life.
- Diagnosis: If using health insurance, the therapist will have to assess for the presence of a diagnosable mental illness. This is because insurance companies require that the therapist prove that the client meets “medical necessity” for the service. In other words, is there an illness that needs medical (in this case, therapeutic) intervention and will likely be unresolved without the service? (Note: If paying out of pocket or using most EAP services, a diagnosis is not required but is often best practice if there is, in fact, a mental illness present.)
- Treatment Planning: Collaboratively determining the goals for treatment.
- Discharge Planning: Determining how to know when the problem(s) is resolved and therefore no longer needing treatment.
As far as what happens in the actual therapy sessions, honestly, it will look different from therapist to therapist based on their specializations and personal style. Therapists use “interventions” in the sessions which are planned techniques to assist a client to reach their goal. For example, if a client struggles with anxiety, a therapist may focus on teaching a client calming techniques. Therapists generally choose to specialize in different areas and therefore seek additional training to further their skills. For example, a therapist may choose to specialize in “trauma” therefore may have sought specific training in Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Or another therapist may like to use art in therapy, therefore, may have attended art specific trainings or even become a Board Certified Registered Art Therapist (ATR-BC). This may be confusing and overwhelming, so it is not so important that you know what they are additionally trained in. However, it is always your right to ask what specialties a therapist has and what type of therapy models or interventions they use. They should be able to explain it to you, and hopefully in a way that makes sense to you!
So, what should I look for in a therapist?
Point blank: You deserve to have a therapist with whom you connect and feel you can truly be yourself. A therapist may come with all sorts of letters behind their name and all sorts of certificates to identify that they have been “trained” to treat you, but MOST IMPORTANT is that you feel comfortable with that therapist. Therefore, you are going to want to look for these qualities in a therapist:
- They accept you as you are without judgment. It is not fair for you to walk out of that appointment feeling as though this professional, whom you hired, looks down on you. While it is healthy for some people to not necessarily agree with your choices or preferences, it is not going to be safe for you to open up and really solve your problem if you are feeling judged.
- They show empathy for you. In other words, they try to step in to your shoes and see your world through your eyes. They do not feel sorry for you, but they instead try to understand where you are coming from.
- They show genuine concern for your well-being and growth. The key here is genuine, meaning they really mean that they care.
All of this leads to trust…trust to be who you are, trust to show both your strengths and imperfections and trust that they are going to treat you with care. This will likely lead to growth and you feeling as though services are worth your time and energy.
All that being said, it is fair to warn you that therapy may be uncomfortable or downright hard at times. That is because sometimes in order to make progress, pain may need to be confronted. A good therapist, however, assists you through this process gently and compassionately.
So now what?
If you are feeling like you want to give therapy a shot, here are some thing you will want to do:
And last, but not least, make another appointment if and only if you felt respected and safe! You are the expert in your own life, and you deserve a cheerleader on your side! Good luck and enjoy your journey!