Steps to a Successful Experience with a New Therapist

If you’ve read my About Me page, you know that I have had my fair share of therapists. I went to them in different stages of life, for various reasons, and for different duration’s. I’ve seen both male and female therapists of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. However, they all share some commonalities. If you’re new to therapy, never been, or feel the need for a change, I’ve listed below some things to consider and prepare for in that transition.

Choosing a Therapist/Types of Therapy

It can be overwhelming to choose a therapist when all you have is a long list of names in front of you. A little research online, through friends, and by phone, can help you narrow it down to potential fits. Here are some key things to consider:

  • Insurance or Out of Pocket Payment: If you have health insurance, a great place to start looking for potential therapists is on your insurance agencies mental health website. Therapy can range anywhere from $75-$200 per hour out of pocket. If you don’t have insurance and are on a tight budget, some therapists offer a sliding scale fee, which means they will charge you based on your financial status. In certain instances, therapy can be free of charge if it’s through a college or a victim services center. I chose to pay out of pocket for a specific therapist once because she had been recommended by a friend and I enjoyed her unique therapeutic approach.
  • Office Climate: Think if you would prefer a therapist in an established group or someone that has their own private practice. A group setting tends to have more consistent/flexible hours and convenient locations. A private practice can feel more personal and provide more alternative methods.
  • Therapeutics Approach: The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes 5 broad categories of therapeutic approaches: Cognitive (change you thoughts), Behavioral (change your behavior, desensitization), Psychoanalysis (exploring the unconscious), Humanistic (making rational choices), and Holistic (also known as Integrative – a blending of approaches). Don’t worry. You don’t have to be an expert in what all this means (that’s the therapist’s job!). But it is helpful to think about how you process feelings and experiences. Do you find it more helpful to have specific, concrete steps to complete, or do you prefer to examine your life and relationships on a broader scale? Find a therapist that is strong in an approach that works for you.
  • Specialties: If you’re wanting to go to therapy to address a specific issue (divorce, drug-abuse, trauma, LGBTQ), look for a therapist that lists that topic as one of their specialties. You can usually find this through your insurance website or on the therapist’s website.
  • Group, Family, Couples, Individual: Therapy doesn’t have to be individual. It can also be as part of a group, with family members, or with your significant other. Many times you can start off in individual counseling and a therapist will recommend another type depending on the issues you are working on. I’ve participated in group, family, couples, and individual counseling at different times in my life. All were helpful in their own, unique way.
  • Demographics (sex, race, languages, religion): Although it can be wonderful for a therapist to provide a unique perspective on things, you might be more comfortable with someone that you feel more familiar with. A woman may prefer a female therapist if they’re dealing with a miscarriage, and a devout Christian may prefer a therapist that has a Christian focus in their therapy approach.

What to Expect at Your First Therapy Visit

So now that’s you’ve done a little research and scheduled your first visit, what can you expect during your first visit?

  • Paperwork: There’s always paperwork. Some therapists might send you forms to complete at home and bring back, others might ask you to come a few minutes early to the office to complete. These tend to be typical forms that will ask for billing information, contact information, your consent for services, and HIPPA statements.
  • They will ask for your reasons for coming and your expectations: During your session, they will most likely ask you why you came to see them that what you’re hoping to get out of therapy. You may go into any past experience with therapy or medications as well. My expectations might include: pushing me out of my comfort zone (it’s easy to fall back onto easier subjects). They will ask questions along the way and might take notes as well.
  • They will explain their process and expectations: They will share their experience and training, how they like to structure sessions, their therapeutic approach, and might go over payment procedures (if that’s not done by front desk staff). You should feel free to ask them questions as well.
  • Family and medical history: They will also want to get a sense of the important people in your life, your living situation, and major medical history.

This is a lot of information and you will probably find the hour goes by quickly! Most likely, you won’t have touched on many things. That’s okay. Make a note of anything you don’t want to forget to mention the next time you meet.

Don’t be surprised if they give you homework (although this might be further down the road). These might include:

  • tracking behaviors
  • trying a certain technique
  • recommended reading
  • encouraging you to have a conversation with someone
  • thinking about a topic further – journaling

Important Things to Remember About Seeing a Therapist

  • You are not there to please them – answering the way you think they want you to answer doesn’t help you.
  • Be honest.
  • You will need a specialist for medication – most likely, your therapist will be unable to prescribe medications. If that is something that you explore, you may need to see a specialist or your family doctor for a prescription.
  • They’re not there to give you answers, but help you with strategies.
  • The length of therapy depends on both of you – How often and how long you go to therapy will need to be determined by you and your therapist. Even if they say the typically see clients for x amount of weeks, you need to feel comfortable with the time frame as well.
  • Keep track of topics to discuss – it’s helpful to jot down notes from your session or what you would like to discuss the next time you meet
  • Not every session will be mind blowing – some times you will walk out of therapy and feel transformed. Other times, you might feel like it was a waste of time. Don’t worry. It’s hardly ever a waste of time. However, question it’s usefulness if you feel the latter more times than not.
  • It’s okay to shop around if its not a good fit – I’ve seen 9 therapists. Some were ended due to insurance, or timing, or relocation. But some were due to lack of chemistry or approach. That’s normal. It’s a bummer to start the process of finding a therapist again, but I’d rather spend my time doing that then sticking with someone that I don’t feel like is helping me move forward.

How Do You Know if Your Client/Therapist Relationship is a Good Fit (or not)?

Not a Good Fit if:

  • Most sessions are not thought provoking (staying too much in the comfort zone) – there will be many times when they’re not, but most should at least getting you thinking about things differently
  • The therapist imposes their views/values on you
  • They are continuously distracted during session – I had an experience with a therapist who was not only late most of the time, but kept her phone next to her and checked it whenever it dinged. Not a way to build a client/therapist relationship!

Good Fit:

  • They challenge you
  • You feel like you have an advocate – They don’t always agree with you, but can understand and support you along the way
  • Your conversations makes you think between sessions – therapy isn’t limited to your scheduled appointments. They should be opening your eyes and mind to issues in your life
  • Therapy has you moving towards a goal

I know this was a lot of information. I hope it was helpful and not too overwhelming. Going to therapy for the first time (or second, or fifth) can be scary. There can be a lot of hit or miss. But with these tips, ideas and things to remember, I hope I have at least prepared you for what to expect and get you thinking about what you want to get out of the experience.