Let’s remove the mystery of therapy

You have made the decision to seek mental health therapy. This was a huge step for you, involving hours, days and weeks of self-searching. You start a google search for someone whose office is close by. Next, you look at the therapist’s education and it seems solid, so you make an appointment. After a couple of sessions, you quit. You feel therapy is not for you, however, your problem remains unresolved, and you are still hurting emotionally.

As a psychotherapist with 39 years of experience, I can tell you that you probably chose the wrong therapist. Not every therapist fits with every client.

Here are a few tips that will help you find therapist right for you.

Finding a therapist

When looking for a therapist, expect to invest some time. Dig deeper beyond their college education. What certifications does the therapist have? Is the therapist licensed? Does the therapist specialize in the area in which you need help? Do you prefer a male or a female? Do you want an older therapist with many years of experience? Do you want a therapist close to your age? Do you want a therapist in your neighborhood? Do you prefer teletherapy sessions?

There are hundreds of qualified, competent and caring therapists to choose from, but who is the best match for you? And most importantly, ask yourself, “Am I really ready to start therapy or am I only doing this because I was forced to (by a parent, spouse, partner)?” Therapy will not work if you are not ready to get help.

When you think you have found the right therapist, I recommend a phone consultation. The person may sound ideal “on paper,” but how do you feel about your initial conversation? Are you comfortable? Listen to your gut instincts. If you sense something does not feel right, you probably are right. Look for another therapist. Remember, this is the person you want to feel safe with, you want to explore personal issues with, and you want to trust completely.

What to expect when you start therapy

When you first meet with your therapist, look for the following:

  • Discusses in detail how the sessions will flow
  • Talks with you about treatment goals
  • Seems empathetic, knowledgeable and professional
  • Is non-judgmental
  • Listens attentively to you

Arrive with realistic expectations. Change does not happen overnight. Your therapist will help you set up realistic and achievable goals, and as therapy progresses, you and your therapist will review these goals and adjust them if necessary.

You should feel comfortable, at ease, and safe talking with your therapist. Building a healthy connection is the key to a successful healing process and outcome.

How therapy sessions evolve

Understand that the therapist’s role is not to fix you. You will fix you with the right tools you will learn through therapy sessions. The goal of therapy is to empower you to manage your life issues effectively and in a healthy and productive way.

Remember that not every session will make you feel better. Sometimes, breakthroughs in therapy come with a cost – there may be sessions that are extremely painful, emotionally draining and overwhelming as you dig deep into the roots of your issues and buried, unpleasant and traumatic memories begin to surface. The therapeutic journey can be rocky as you make progress, and your therapist understands this, and will guide you through it, however, it also is very important that you tell your therapist what you are feeling – are you intensely anxious? Are you having painful flashbacks? Do you need to stop talking about this particular subject for now?

A good therapist also will “check in” regularly with clients. They will ask you how you are feeling about your sessions, if you are comfortable, if there is something you would like the therapist to say or do differently. Don’t hold back because you are worried you will hurt your therapist’s feelings. These are your sessions, and the therapist needs to meet your needs. If this is not happening, speak up. Give your therapist an opportunity to adjust the sessions to work effectively for you.

Expect transference

The sessions are going great … and then they are not. Clients may begin expressing feelings toward their therapist that come from past feelings they had toward someone else – positive and negative. The concept of transference emerged from Sigmund Freud who believed that childhood experiences and internal conflicts formed the foundation for a person’s development and personality as an adult. Through therapy, these conflicts unconsciously surface, and clients begin to recognize and understand their current behaviors and emotions.

Here is an example of transference: a client’s mother was extremely judgmental when the client was a child. When the therapist makes an observation that the client perceives as judgmental, the client may lash out in anger at the therapist, just as the client wanted to with her mother. Transference also can work positively: if the client feels the therapist has great insights into an issue, this can strengthen the connection between the therapist and the client.

I see transference as a therapeutic opportunity to help clients by identifying issues from the past that caused emotional stress, acknowledging these, and resolving them. I see many clients have an “ah ha” moment. It finally all makes sense to them. We’ve reached a major breakthrough in their therapy.

This is not the time to start missing appointments. Occasionally, when clients find sessions are getting too uncomfortable, they may begin skipping appointments. This is a critical time in therapy, and keeping appointments will keep the progress moving forward. If you feel you need a break in therapy, discuss this with your therapist before just dropping out of sight. By discussing your concerns together, you can come up with a plan that may benefit you and the outcome you want to achieve.

Also remember, if you need to cancel an appointment, please give your therapist at least 48 hours’ notice. Many therapists will still charge for a session if you don’t give ample notice.

Saying goodbye

Some clients don’t know how to end their therapy sessions once they feel they no longer are needed, so they just stop scheduling appointments. I strongly encourage my clients to have a closing session to say goodbye. In the last session, we review the client’s progress and achievements, we talk about how emotionally healthy and resilient the client is feeling, and we discuss their future and what to expect. This is a time to celebrate your victory from trauma to triumph!