Updated: Aug 8, 2022
As the mental health crisis hits an all-time high, many are turning to therapy as a resource. While therapy can be a wonderful tool, walking into a therapist’s office or speaking to a mental health professional isn’t always easy - it can feel vulnerable and uncomfortable at first. We’re here to walk you through it all, since it’s important to understand the process fully and know how to make the most of it!
Debunk the myths
While therapy is becoming more widely utilized, many of us may hear a lot of things about the process - many of which aren’t true. It’s important to talk about these misconceptions because they can often discourage people from seeking help and contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Let’s start by debunking some of the more common myths you may have already heard:
Myth: There’s no need to pay to talk to a stranger when you can just talk to friends instead!
Reality: While our loved ones have our best interests at heart, a therapist helps provide an objective, judgment-free perspective. It also allows clients space to discuss interpersonal issues without creating conflict or challenges in their other relationships. Finding that safe, confidential space with a therapist allows people to work through the necessary issues so they can take pressure off their personal relationships and enjoy friendships for what they are.
Myth: People who seek out therapy are weak or crazy.
Reality: This myth often has to do with what we fear going to therapy says about us - why can’t we solve our issues on our own? Why can’t we just “hold it together”? What will other people think of us receiving help? What many don’t realize is that seeking out professional help is far from the “easy” route to take - it requires self-awareness, strength, and a commitment to growth. Many people suffer in silence, feeling that their mental health issues are a personal failure instead of viewing them as something treatable and worth working through.
Therapy isn’t just meant to treat existing conditions, either - many go to therapy to talk about family, work, school, friends, and other common life stressors. In the process, many learn how to tackle problems head-on, learn and practice effective coping skills, and build a healthier life for themselves. When you think about what you have to gain from therapy, it’s important to consider which beliefs are rooted in real concerns and which stem from insecurities you may have about the process.
Myth: People are in therapy forever.
Reality: While therapy does require an investment of your time and shouldn’t be used as a “quick fix”, it doesn’t have to be long-term. Addressing some more extensive issues like trauma may require longer courses of treatment, however many people are in therapy for short-term and transitional periods. Note that being in therapy for longer periods isn’t a sign of failure or weakness - everyone’s timeline is different. However, if you are concerned about the length of treatment, talk to your therapist. Together, you can work to create treatment goals and make therapy a collaborative process. By deciding on these milestones, you can make the progress you need to within the timeframe that is best for your emotional health.
Myth: Therapy will be extremely costly.
Reality: Finances are an important factor when making any decision. However, therapy is not simply an expense - it's an investment in your and your family's emotional health. It's also important to look at the different price points for services and offerings. If individual therapy is out of your price range, there are often group offerings or free online resources that can provide additional information.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the common misconceptions about therapy, we can discuss what this process does entail!
What makes therapy work?
A big piece of what makes therapy work is the valuable relationship between a client and the therapist. While clinicians may have various backgrounds and utilize different techniques in their work, the effectiveness of treatment is greatly determined by the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patient. This talks about the collaborative relationship between the two - which consists of an emotional bond based on trust and respect, agreement on the goals of therapy, and collaboration on the work towards treatment.
Like any relationship, the nature of a therapeutic relationship is fluid and may change over time. However, there are 4 general phases that are key to a client’s success:
When you first start therapy, you may find it challenging to feel comfortable sharing your thoughts, feelings, and expectations. Maybe you will find yourself holding back a bit or trying to make a good first impression. That is normal and is expected at the beginning of any therapeutic relationship. To help in this initial phase, your therapist will likely want to know more about your goals and ideals for the process. In order for the therapeutic alliance to begin, both the client and therapist utilize these goals to make an agreement for a common direction to work towards. What tends to be an important factor at this stage is the client’s motivation to reach these goals, as well as the compatibility of personality/experiences between the therapist and patient.
After coming to an agreement about the goals and course of treatment, the most complex stage of the treatment and relationship begins. It’s during this point that the therapist gathers information and looks for patterns. This is where the clinician will start to uncover triggers, cycles, and consistencies in the client. This is the bulk of treatment and may be unnerving, challenging, and even scary at times - you may even temporarily find you feel worse than you did before. However, know that it is all part of making progress and taking a step toward developing a better mindset.
The best way to make progress during these challenges, as well as to maintain your therapeutic relationship, is to be honest and upfront about these fears as you experience them. If you ever feel like you’re moving through something too soon or quickly, make sure to inform your therapist immediately. The point of this stage is to work through the issues to reach your goals, and a therapist will help you work through them at your pace.
Through the challenging and rewarding work of the previous stage, the client reaches the next stage of the relationship and starts to notice changes in their life - whether that’s through a change in mindset, habits, or behaviors. You may find that this process is quite cyclical, as you will re-experience the process/change stages while working through different issues. It’s normal to find yourself in an ebb and flow as you cycle through these stages, and it’s important to remain patient with yourself as you navigate this process. When old feelings or mindsets start to re-emerge, know that it is part of the process to be able to work through any lingering feelings.
While therapy has no set timeline, and some may stay in therapy for a longer period of time, this is the stage when a client “graduates”. Some clients may decide to stop therapy and come back once they feel there’s more work to be done. Others may decide to switch therapists if they feel they’ve reached a limit with their current one. There is no right or wrong answer as to when or how to terminate therapy, it is all based on what works best for you.
Regardless, by this stage, the therapist and client reach a point where the patient feels empowered enough to move forward independently. It is normal to feel sad, scared, or nervous at the end of therapy. However, it’s important to honor these feelings - this is a normal response to parting ways with someone you’ve grown close to. Try to achieve a sense of closure and reflect on everything you’ve achieved. Remember the courage you’ve had to work through challenging feelings and mindsets!
What if I don’t feel ready to start?
It’s completely normal to have fears going into therapy. There are many reasons why people shy away from seeking treatment, such as:
1. Fear of experiencing pain
No one wants to open up old wounds and feel vulnerable. Sometimes we find that talking about painful things can make us feel worse, even though it might be temporary. Usually, avoiding discomfort helps us survive difficult times, but this temporary discomfort can be more beneficial in the long run.
2. Anticipating judgment
We may be nervous that a therapist will judge us for what we share, or that others around us will judge us for going to therapy. While there has been a decrease in the stigma surrounding mental health, there can still be fear of others’ opinions.
3. Afraid of change
Sometimes, it feels more comfortable to deal with a negative, but familiar situation than to face the unknown. It can feel safer to approach problems with the same mindsets or behaviors, especially when it’s what we’ve learned. While it can feel better in the moment to stay in our comfort zone, it’s not always the best plan - especially when we want to grow and develop as individuals.
If you still feel nervous about starting therapy, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. It’s completely normal
Since many of us keep our pain and feelings to ourselves, we often don’t realize how common our experiences are. Starting therapy is a daunting process for most clients, and it’s important to recognize that your fears are valid and more universal than you may think.
2. You can talk to your therapist about it
Part of what makes therapy work is that you should feel free to share any emotions or feelings you’re experiencing. By sharing some of your fears with your therapist, they can make sure to start at a pace you’re comfortable with.
3. Getting support now
Even if you’re not ready to dig into really big matters, you can get support for your immediate needs and get a few things off your chest in a safe space. Regardless of what you want to talk about, it can still be a nice relief to get started in therapy and just be able to talk to someone. If you want to address complex issues but aren’t ready yet, you and your therapist can make a strategy to approach those challenges slowly and safely.
Making the most of therapy
So you’ve thought about it, made some calls, and decided to go to therapy. How can you make sure it’s a worthwhile investment of your time and energy? Here are a few things you can do to make the process run smoothly while prioritizing your progress.
1. Be open to the adjustment period
It can take a bit of time to get comfortable with your therapist and determine if it’s a good fit. That first session will inevitably feel uncomfortable as the therapist will ask you several questions to better understand you, which is why we recommend giving it about three sessions to see how you feel. If you really don’t feel like you’ve connected with the therapist after the first or second session, it’s fine to look into other options - however, be open to trying out a few sessions before deciding to end treatment.
2. Prioritize therapy
Life can sometimes get in the way of our commitments and make it hard to be as consistent as we’d like. However, therapy is an investment of your time and effort - it’s important to prioritize it and set a regular schedule with your therapist. Missing appointments frequently can hinder your progress and can make it challenging to integrate what you’ve learned into your everyday life.
3. Have positive but realistic expectations
While therapy can be very helpful, a therapist won’t be able to tell you exactly how to better your life in two sessions. It’s important to remember that they won’t make decisions for you and “fix” the problems, but rather help you reach your own conclusions and empower you to act for yourself. Come in with a curious mentality and be ready to take a deeper look at how you behave, think, and feel - it will help your progress tremendously!
4. Do your homework
Some therapists may give “assignments” or reflective activities for you to engage in between sessions - this could be journaling or reflecting on certain aspects of your life, noting something discussed in therapy that came up for you, or practicing a certain skill. But even if you aren’t given a task outside of the room, it can be helpful to note and journal what plays out in your life to bring up during your next session.
5. Set goals
While it may seem like the main goal of therapy is to “get better”, it’s important to reflect on what that means for you. What does feeling or doing better look like? What will be different? It’s important to reflect on attainable goals with your therapist if you feel like you’re not sure what to work towards next. This can be important for someone looking to do shorter-term treatment - while your length of treatment will depend on different factors, you can speak to your clinician about working towards specific goals to optimize your time together.
6. Be honest
Because therapy is meant to be a safe, judgment-free space, it’s important to be honest with your therapist. Keep in mind that the clinician’s ability to help is limited by how much you choose to share. There is no pressure to share everything during the first few sessions, but know that you will benefit greatly from therapy if your therapist has more context to understand and help you.
7. Prioritize self-care between sessions
Therapy can often be difficult and bring up a lot of challenging emotions, leaving you feeling drained and tired. For that reason, it’s important to make sure your appointment isn’t scheduled immediately before or after important work or personal events. In the 30-60 minutes following, take time to give your mind and body rest. It’s important to give yourself time to mentally recover so that you can fully process what came up for you during the session.
8. Take what you learn outside the room
It’s often beneficial to try out the strategies you learn in therapy in the real world - you can see what works and what doesn’t, reflect on which feelings come up, and change the way you react to certain situations. Just like anything else, learning new strategies requires practice to properly integrate them into your daily life. It's useful to talk about how to set boundaries in therapy, but you will truly benefit by taking those lessons and trying them out in your everyday life. It even helps when things don’t work, either - if a strategy causes you more anxiety or feels challenging, that’s very useful information for your therapist to have.
Ultimately, therapy is a tool - and just like any other tool, it’s all about how you use it. By coming in with a willingness to reflect and think deeply about how you navigate your world, you are already more than ready to take on whatever comes up in session. As you continue with therapy, be sure to stay connected to your goals and what you hope to get out of it. With patience, effort, and a commitment to the process, you can create a new life for yourself that puts your mental and emotional health first!
“5 Tips for Getting the Most out of Therapy.” Great Lakes Psychology Group, 31 Jan. 2022, https://www.greatlakespsychologygroup.com/telehealth/5-tips-for-getting-the-most-out-of-therapy/.
Bassett, Abigail. “What to Expect When Going to Therapy for the First Time.” Shondaland, 2 Nov. 2021, https://www.shondaland.com/live/body/a33824158/what-to-expect-when-going-to-therapy-for-the-first-time/#:~:text=During%20your%20first%20session%2C%20your,they%20have%20been%20showing%20up.
Benton, Emilia. “13 Tips for Getting the Absolute Most out of Therapy.” SELF, 5 Oct. 2021, https://www.self.com/story/maximize-therapy-tips.
Davis, Shirley J. “The 4 Necessary Components and 5 Stages of Successful Psychotherapy.” Medium, Medium, 30 Apr. 2020, https://shirleydavis-23968.medium.com/the-4-necessary-components-and-5-stages-of-successful-psychotherapy-13085361d5bf.
Ertel, Ashley, et al. “The Importance of Therapy, Even If You're Not Ready.” Talkspace, 2 Mar. 2021, https://www.talkspace.com/blog/therapist-therapy-start-not-ready/.
“Myths of Therapy.” Myths, Misconceptions, and Facts of Therapy, https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-myths-and-facts.html.
Rauch, Joseph, et al. “The 4 Phases You Will Encounter When Making Progress in Therapy.” Talkspace, 26 May 2021, https://www.talkspace.com/blog/4-phases-will-encounter-making-progress-therapy/.