8 Things To Know Before Seeing A Therapist For the First Time

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Seeing a therapist for the first time can be a scary experience. I should know — I put off doing it for years. It wasn't that I was against therapy, in fact I merrily recommended it to friends going through a rough time, but for some reason I just wasn't ready to take the leap. After my dad died and a few other things went wrong in quick succession many of my friends and family members (rightly) suggested I go to therapy. But I put up a fight and became avoidant until they stopped trying. Then, a year later, I merrily walked into to a therapist office for the first time, of my own accord. It was so, so useful.

"Talking to a qualified mental health professional is an experience like no other," clinical psychologist Dr. Josh Klapow, host of The Web Radio Show, tells Bustle. "It is a time for you to be vulnerable, be expressive, explore your inner challenges and deal with problems that many of us keep to ourselves. All with a trained professional guiding you through. If you are suffering you need to talk to a qualified mental health professional. It could change your life."

But that being said, it's not a process you can rush — and if you go before you're ready, then you might not get much out of it. But if you want to go or think you need to, then there's no harm in trying to find a therapist as soon as possible.

For me, it was very much like pulling off a band-aid. But if you've never done it before, it can feel like the therapy is shrouded in secrecy and you might be nervous about what to expect. So, here's what you should know before seeing a therapist for the first time, because it doesn't have to be terrifying.

1There Are A Lot Of Different Options

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If you're looking for some guidance, there are a lot of different options out there. Therapists, coaches, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc. — do a little research before you know what's right for you. There are some overlaps in the different types, but also important differences.

"What is their degree in? What is there training like?" Klapow says. "The term 'therapist' can apply to everything from a licensed clinical psychologist who has a Ph.D. in psychology, is licensed to practice psychotherapy, has thousands of hours of training and experience to a self- proclaimed 'healer' with little to no training. The term 'therapist' actually tells you very little about the qualifications of this person you are about to talk to. So look them up. And find out:

  1. What is their education? Do they have an advanced degree in some area of mental health?
  2. Are the licensed to practice in your state?
  3. How long have they been practicing?
  4. Where did they train? What certifications from accredited institutions do they have?"

Klapow says that if you can't find this out online you should ask them. "If they won’t tell you cancel your appointment and find a qualified individual," he says. Doing some research can make a big difference in letting you know you're in safe hands.

2The First Person You See Might Not Actually Be The Right Fit

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This was something I wish I had understood more before I saw my first therapist — you really don't need to stick with that initial person. If you don't like their style or their method or you just don't feel like you click, that's OK.

"It is totally OK to meet with a couple of different therapists to get a feel for them before choosing someone to work with long term," Nicole Richardson, Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, tells Bustle. "The single most important factor in therapy is if you feel like you can trust your therapist and if you feel like they are kind and respectful towards you. If you don't feel connected to them and supported by them, you are unlikely to get anything out of the work you do together." It's completely fine to shop around a little, so if the first session doesn't feel right, that's OK.

You can also do an often do a phone interview to get a better sense of a person. "I routinely offer a prospective client a free 15-minute phone consultation to help them see if I am a good fit for what they are needing," Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent therapist in Los Angeles who works with individuals and couples, tells Bustle. "This helps them get a sense if we have a good rapport and if I have experience in the area that is concerning them — e.g. relationship counseling, dating, anxiety, depression, and crisis intervention to name a few." It's a good way to feel out if it's the right fit.

3It May Be A More Temporary Or A More Permanent Arrangement

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Different people want different things out of therapy — and that's OK. If you're dealing with a specific issue, you may want to go for a certain amount of sessions — 10 session, six months, etc. Some people like to stay in therapy for maintenance, and that's OK too. Remember that you can adjust the experience to find something that works for you.

4You Might Feel Emotional During Your First Session

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Here's a confession: During my first therapy session I bawled like a baby for about 90 percent of it. I'm not a crier. Most of my best friends have never seen me cry. But I bawled like a baby during the first session — and then it never happened again. Another friend of mine had a similar experience.

Your first session can feel really overwhelming, so don't be shocked if that happens — just make sure to be gentle to yourself afterward.

5They Won't Have All The Answers

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If you're looking for a therapist to just tell you what you should do, you're probably going to be disappointed. Your therapist is there to be a consultant, not an oracle. "Think of your therapist as a sounding board, not a magical seer who can tell you what to do," Richardson says. "They may be able to help you figure out how you want to handle things but they can't tell you how to handle life."

6You'll Still Have To Do Your Homework

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When you start to see a therapist, be prepared for a lot of work outside of the office. "Most people want to do 90 percent of the work in their therapy session but the truth is, you're lucky if you can get 10 percent done with your therapist," Richardson says. "Ninety percent of the work is typically done on your own." Just know that it may take up a fair bit of your energy, but it can be so worth it.

7You Need To Be Honest

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If you want therapy to really make a difference, it helps if you're prepared to bare all. "This is NOT the time to pull it all together, act like you have no problem and nothing is wrong," Klapow says. "This is a safe place. It is a place that should be physically comfortable and the person there has heard many difficult situations. You can trust them, you need to work to trust them and you need to talk about what is bothering you. Think about it like physical health. When did the problem start? What are the 'symptoms like'? What make them better or worse? Don’t be your best self — let them know how this problem is affecting you."

It may take a few sessions, but you should be open to the idea of getting very candid.

8Ask Questions

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Just because you might feel like the therapist is "in charge" doesn't mean you can't ask a lot of questions about what's about to happen. "Know going in that it is important not only for the therapist to be asking you questions, but for you to ask them questions as well," Brown says. "In addition to their areas of specialization there are other questions to ask."

One surprising question Brown suggests is asking the therapist if they have had their own therapy. "Ask your potential therapist if they themselves have had their own therapy. If not, I would see that as a red flag."

Seeing a therapist for the first time can be a smooth experience or a trying one, but if it's what you need, then you should feel confident in exploring it. Do your research, go in with an open mind, and don't be afraid to question the therapist and whether it's the right fit.