Whether you’re coping with a major loss, struggling with persistent anxiety, or simply hoping to get a fresh perspective on life, therapy can effectively help you find resilience and clarity. Yet despite the benefits offered by therapy, many people feel intimidated by the idea of reaching out to a stranger for help.
“We are a culture that struggles to ask for help and values independence to an extreme. As a result we have forgotten the importance of and need for elders, mentors, and just an honest opinion from a neutral party,” says Jocelyn Jenkins, MA, CYT-200, CMT, a licensed professional counselor.
Step number one for finally seeing a therapist: Recognize that a professional can help and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. When you’re ready to make the first move, a few simple strategies can help you find the right therapist who will meet your needs and hopefully, help you find happiness.
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How to Overcome Your Nerves About Seeing a Therapist
“Therapy is more an indicator of strength than an admission of weakness.”
Before you pick up the phone and schedule your first therapy session, you may have to jump over a few mental hurdles. For instance, maybe you feel uncomfortable asking for help or you’re worried that other people will judge you. Or perhaps you’re concerned about a diagnosis. Whatever your hesitations, it’s important to acknowledge and process them in order to find success with a pro.
For starters, know you’re not alone in your nervousness, says Jenkins. “It’s completely normal to feel anxious when starting therapy. And any qualified therapist understands the courage it takes to admit, ‘I need help,’” she says. “A qualified therapist has had many hours of their own therapy and understands what it is like to be a client.”
It’s not only your therapist who is likely to have compassion for where you’re coming from, either. “If you start to scratch the surface and talk to people, you will learn that probably most of your friends have seen a therapist at some time or another,” says clinical psychologist and author Laurie Helgoe. “It’s not a rare thing anymore.”
It’s also important to remind yourself that asking for help doesn’t equate to admitting to some kind of impairment or disorder, says Helgoe. Instead, she says, seeking therapy is “an indication that you have the courage to consider change and the courage to admit that you might not have the right perspective on things.” Looked at this way, therapy “is more an indicator of strength than an admission of weakness,” Helgoe says.
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5 Steps to Identifying the Right Therapist for You
Once you’ve addressed your nerves about initiating therapy, it’s time to talk. The following strategies will help you hone in on a person you can trust:
1. Be honest about your values and preferred communication style.
For example, says Helgoe, is it important that your therapist shares your faith? Do you want someone who is not tied to a specific world view? Or do you prefer to be given clear directives? Do you want someone who will allow you to guide each session? Getting clear about these preferences is a great way to start shrinking the pool of potential therapists.
2. Pick a style.
Therapeutic styles can fall loosely into two categories, says Helgoe. On one side of the spectrum, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on increasing positive behaviors and limiting negative ones. On the other end, psychoanalysis involves a long-term, reconstructive process that dives into your thoughts, feelings, attitudes and experiences. In the middle is psychodynamic psychotherapy, which combines some of both sides. Different styles call for different therapeutic tools and lengths of treatment. The right style for you depends on the reason you’re going to therapy, as well as your personal preferences.
Also, certain therapists specialize in subjects like eating disorders, addiction, grief, PTSD and so on. So consider whether you want to see someone who has expertise in these areas, Jenkins suggests.
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3. Ask for referrals from like-minded people.
“It helps to talk to people who you identify with who might like the same kind of [therapist] you would,” says Helgoe. These personal endorsements can help steer you in the right direction.
4. Call around.
Once you’ve figured out your needs and received a few referrals, it’s time to start making some calls. When you do, communicate the preferences you identified above so the agency’s representative can determine whether you’re barking up the wrong tree. “I encourage people to be as clear as they can about what helps them feel comfortable and safe,” she says. Don’t be afraid to voice concerns and be firm about what you’re looking for — it’s the best way to find someone you’ll like.
5. Ask about insurance and fees.
It’s an unfortunate truth that mental health care isn’t always financially accessible. Many of us will need to ask about fees and insurance coverage in order to determine if a given therapist is a viable fit, says Helgoe.
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Tips for a Successful First Session
The preceding tips should help you narrow in on at least one potential therapist. After that, it’s time to book a session. This first appointment will help you assess whether you’ve found the right person. And a few key questions can illuminate if you’d want to go back. For example, Jenkins and Helgoe recommend asking about the following:
- The therapist’s credentials and hours of experience
- What makes the therapist qualified to work with specific needs
- The therapist’s personal commitment to growth and development
- The therapist’s process and how long therapy generally takes
Additionally, pay close attention to your own feelings during the session. And observe the way the therapist talks to you and about your issues. “A therapist should help you strengthen your relationship with yourself and increase your capacity to navigate your own life,” says Jenkins. To determine if this is the case, Helgoe recommends noting whether the therapist is able to empathize with and listen to you in an accurate way.
Most importantly, while therapist-patient relationships take time to develop, you’ll likely get a good feeling once you’ve found the right person. “Just like you might not be completely able to describe why your best friend is your best friend or why you’re not fond of a certain coworker, there is a synergy and chemistry that is present in the right therapeutic relationship,” says Jenkins.
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On the other hand, “you know pretty quickly if it’s not a fit,” says Helgoe. “If the therapist is interrupting you, the responses seem out of left field, or you don’t feel like you’re communicating well with each other, you’ll know that pretty quickly.” It’s common not to hit it off on the first try, so don’t feel bad if you need to break it off. The key is finding what works for you.
“You won’t get everything you need from a first session,” Helgoe says. In fact, “first sessions can be a little overwhelming because you put it all out there and it’s not like you’ll get it all back right away.” What you will get is a feeling for what working with that therapist might look like and whether that’s something you can invest in so you come out feeling better about yourself and your life.