I want to see a therapist. Now what?

We’ve heard it a million times in the past six months—we’re living in unprecedented times. While that phrase is now the bane of my existence, it’s true. Our lives collectively changed in March and even the most stable, mentally healthy people are having a hard time. This stuff isn’t normal. It’s OK to be scared and stressed and at the end of your rope. It’s OK if you’re looking for a little help with managing the stress of COVID (or just the problems you already had before this all started).

I see a therapist once a week—and I have for a year. When I first started seeing a therapist, I went into the whole situation blind. I had no idea how to go about finding a provider, or what to expect, so I decided to take all my lessons learned and pass them onto you, the reader, who may be interested in therapy but unsure of where to start.

Let’s walk through some common questions and concerns that people have when they want the help of a therapist, but don’t know what to do or what to expect.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I NEED A THERAPIST?

The American Psychological Association suggests considering therapy when something causes distress and interferes with some part of life, particularly when:

  • Thinking about or coping with the issue takes up at least an hour each day
  • The issue causes embarrassment or makes you want to avoid others
  • The issue has caused your quality of life to decrease
  • The issue has negatively affected school, work, or relationships
  • You’ve made changes in your life or developed habits to cope with the issue

The more honest answer is: there is no magic ticket for therapy. Whether you’re going through something difficult, or searching for better ways to cope with the stressors of everyday life, therapy is for everyone and anyone. Here’s the deal: there’s nothing wrong with needing help—or with admitting that you need help. Honestly, recognizing that you need support is one of the biggest hurdles. So if you’ve already done that then, kudos. You’re well on your way to taking better care of yourself.

I FEEL EMBARRASSED

Spoiler alert: no one has to know that you’re seeing a therapist because it’s no one else’s business but your own. Seriously. When I first started going to therapy, there were maybe like 3-4 that I shared that with. It simply wasn’t something that I felt people needed to know. I wasn’t necessarily embarrassed about it, per se, but I wasn’t wanting to shout it from the rooftops, either. Now, I talk very openly about seeing a therapist, including routinely uttering the phrase “my therapist said…” LOL

If you’re feeling embarrassed, I get it. There have been huge strides toward normalizing mental health care, thanks in part to hilarious tweets like these, but unfortunately there is still a stigma attached to it—despite the fact that half of us will have a serious psychological problem at some point in our lives.

If you’re feeling embarrassed at the thought of sharing your struggles and issues with a therapist, don’t be. I found it really difficult to open up to my therapist at first, but she was patient with me and made my experience worthwhile. A (good) therapist will never make your problems feel small or insignificant. They might not be able to solve all your problems, but they’ll help you to think more objectively and (hopefully) see the cause and effect behind your behavior, actions and feelings.

HOW DO I FIND A THERAPIST?

Once you’ve decided that you want to see a therapist, you’ll need to find someone to actually see. This part can be really daunting and was one of the biggest hurdles that I faced. If you feel comfortable, you can reach out to friends or family members who may be able to recommend someone to you. If that isn’t something that you want to do (no judgement) or that isn’t an option, you can find providers on the Psychology Today website. All you have to do is type in either the city name or zip code of where you want to see a provider and choose an option from the drop down, and you’ll be given an aggregate list of providers in your area.

HOW DO I CHOOSE A THERAPIST THAT’S RIGHT FOR ME?

There are a lot of things to consider when you start looking for a therapist. Do they accept your insurance (if you have it)? If you don’t have insurance, do they charge on a sliding scale based on what you can afford? Would you feel more comfortable with a male or female provider? Are you looking for someone faith-based? (I specifically was looking for someone who was not faith-based.) You want someone who is going to meet your needs and make you feel comfortable, so these are things to take into consideration.

My first therapist was not a good fit for me. She spent most of our sessions talking about herself, her children or her online boyfriend who lives in India. She gave me very bad advice, violated HIPAA on more than one occasion, and just overall was not helpful to me. Despite the fact that I didn’t know anything about therapy, I knew it was not a good fit.

My current therapist let me know right away that she had worked with many clients who were dealing with the same issues that I was. She talked to me about her credentials, her training and what I could expect. Most importantly, she let me be myself. I swear all the time in therapy. I make constant pop culture references, i.e., “I just feel like Rachel Green when she said…” and I feel comfortable. That’s the biggest goal: to be able to be comfortable, honest and authentic with your provider so that they can help you!

WHAT SHOULD I EXPECT FOR MY FIRST APPOINTMENT?

I remember my first therapy appointment clear as day because it coincided with one of the hardest, saddest days of my life. I walked into her room, sat on her couch and burst into tears. Not only was I having a terrible day, I was scared shitless. I had willing signed up to sit on a strangers couch and tell them my life problems while they took notes. I calmed down (a little) and told her between sobs what was happening and why I was so profoundly sad.

The first few therapy sessions are mainly just to gather history. It starts out pretty general and will get much more in-the-weeds as time goes on. You’ll talk a lot about yourself, your family, friends and close relationships. You’ll talk about whatever is bothering you, or whatever the specific issue that brought you into therapy in the first place is. You’ll talk about your feelings, your thoughts and your behaviors, but you’re mainly just getting to know each other for the first few sessions.

IT MIGHT GET WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

One thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I started going to therapy was how exhausted it made me feel. I would feel so incredibly tired after each session, all I wanted to do was go home and crawl into bed.

Another thing I wasn’t prepared for was how sad I would feel afterward—and sometimes I still do. I always thought that going to therapy would make me feel better—and overall, it does—but it’s hard work and it requires an intense amount of vulnerability. Sometimes when you’re doing the hard work and digging deep, you’ll tap into emotions that you may not even realized are there.

When I started seeing my therapist it was because I was going through something extremely difficult and having a very hard time processing it. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with her during our second session. She asked me if I had noticed anything different that week.

“Yes, I did,” I told her. “I can’t stop crying.”

“Do you know why that is?” she asked me.

“I have no idea,” I said through tears.

“Emily, it’s because you’re sad.”

It sounds so dumb. I knew that I was sad. That’s why I went to therapy in the first place. But it wasn’t until I started talking to her and really exploring those feelings that I allowed myself to feel as devastatingly sad as I truly was.

If the idea of feeling worse before you can feel better is slightly freaking you out, please don’t take that as a deterrent. If you’re tapping into those things, it’s a sign that you’re doing the hard work required to feel better and it’s actually a really good thing (believe it or not, those tough emotions are likely already popping up in your life in other ways, whether you realize it or not). As you continue to talk to your therapist, you’ll eventually start to feel better.

YOU’RE NOT THERE TO GET ADVICE

For a long time, I was operating under the belief that going to therapy was like paying someone to either a) tell you what you should do or b) tell you what you want to hear. Turns out, neither of those things are true!

Basically each therapy session is an exercise in problem solving. You’ll tell your therapist what’s bothering you and how it makes you feel, and they’ll use their expertise to help you reach a solution. They won’t say “oh, you should definitely choose A instead of B.” If that’s what you’re looking for, a therapist might be able to help you unpack why you someone to tell you what to do/validate your choice in the first place.

IS IT WEIRD TO GO TO THERAPY ONLINE?

Because of COVID, many appointments have shifted to online (although some therapists are seeing patients in person again at this point). I was a little concerned about the switch from an in office visit to a video chat, but I realized that there isn’t much difference. However, at the end of the day whether or not this is a good fit for you will depend on your personality and preferences.

TL;DR

The only reason that I ever sought the help of a therapist was because I had people in my life who saw therapists and talked openly and honestly about it. There’s nothing wrong with going to therapy and you should never feel awkward, embarrassed or ashamed. If you ever have any questions about therapy, please feel free to reach out!

If you’d like to find a therapist, search Psychology Today for providers in your area. If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8522 or by visiting their website.

3 thoughts on “I want to see a therapist. Now what?

  1. Angela Robertson says:

    Thank you for this, Emily. Therapy is work, and because it works in a time-based appointment situation, I’ve often left feeling worse. But eventually, working through my shit storm of emotions is the best and healthiest way to process them. Avoidance, pretending you’re not bothered by something – that all manifests itself in other unhealthy ways in your life. You hit the nail on the head and more people talking about therapy is vital to making it feel less embarrassing and more normal (which IT IS).

    Liked by 1 person

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