Full disclosure: I am a therapist.
I am licensed in professional and addictions counseling, respectively, and work in the behavioral health field full time. I am writing this first and foremost not as a therapist, but as the therapied. I have always been a huge proponent of therapy, and I thought it important to clarify that while I have a vested interest in this field professionally, I am writing you today as a human person with emotional needs.
Okay. Now that we’re fully disclosed, I’ll begin my love letter to therapy. Then I’ll give you some of my personal tips about finding and loving a therapist yourself.
I recently walked out of my therapist’s office, feeling myself a veritable new woman, and thought something flowery about how much I love therapy. My next thought was one of alarm: WAIT. Does everyone know about this?!?
I was raised in a family that encouraged seeking counseling when it was needed and appropriate. My first trip to a mental health professional was at the tender age of 5, when I developed a sudden paralyzing fear of dogs that started making things like going outside hard. I called her the “scare doctor.” I still consider that a viable alternative to “therapist.”
Every counselor I’ve seen hasn’t been the perfect fit, though. In high school, I saw a popular therapist who several other girls from my school were seeing. Truth be told? She wasn’t great for me. She didn’t speak well to my brand of adolescent issues. But as my peers claimed breakthroughs, I stuck with her longer than I should have for shame that I wasn’t seeing the same results. No harm done – just not really any progress, either. Once in college I mustered up the courage to visit “counseling services” during a rough season and was told I’d be better suited to find a professional counselor. Just what every 19-year-old needs to hear, yes? Just a couple of examples to say – while overall I’ve been fairly fortunate in the therapist department, I’ve had my share of off-putting experiences, as well. [And I know mine don’t hold a candle to some of your painful tales!]
Most notably in my counseling history, through the better part of my 20’s I saw a wonderful therapist who basically held my hand emotionally while I became an adult. I am indebted to her forever for the healing I saw in her office; for the care she took with my story; for sticking with me even when I’m confident I was a broken record. We ended our sessions perfectly – at the right time, after many years of work together. I still hold her in the very highest regard. I am now, after a few years off, seeing another wonderful therapist whose support has been an absolute gift to me through a trying year. I genuinely couldn’t be more grateful for these positive therapy experiences, and all the benefits thereof. Their support was and is invaluable to me.
Therapy, for me, feels like taking a deep breath after I’ve held it too long. The stress of life, relationships, and parenting often has me feeling a bit breathless when I grace my therapist’s door. As I spend the hour talking, sometimes yelling, lots of times crying, often swearing, it slowly seeps out of me until I have finally let it all out. I often feel an almost physical relief when I leave. Which is why I’m concerned that everyone know about therapy. I want everyone to get this when they need it. Flash forward to now – I am a therapist. I met many of my closest friends in grad school – many of whom also work in the field in some capacity. Because we’re so insulated, attending therapy yourself is normalized and celebrated in a way I’m not sure is universal. My goal, therefore, is to normalize and celebrate it until, well, everyone knows about it.
I know a lot of people who claim therapy isn’t their thing. Listen. I’m not here to boss you around. I am, however, going to counter you with this – therapy can be ANYONE’s thing. Even if you’re confident it’s not yours – there may come a time when you need to try and make it so. And I want you to be equipped. Should you ever find yourself needing an exhale – here’s where you start.
Finding a therapist: a quick and simple where-to-start.
I’ve done well to go on a trusted recommendation – but as with my high school example, it doesn’t always work! If you know any counselors, ask them for a recommendation. If you know anyone who sees a counselor, ask them about theirs. Human Resources at your work may be able to direct you to an EAP (Employee Assistance Program). You may even have an online counseling benefit through your insurance. If it’s for your kid, start with the school counselor. Essentially, ask around.
If no recommendations are available to you [or if asking around makes your palms sweaty], head to Psychology Today’s website and start digging for yourself! Start with your zip code, and filter from there. My best advice is to do what you can to make this as comfortable for yourself as is humanly possible. Make sure the location is convenient. Decide if you’re more comfortable talking to a man or a woman. If there is a particular issue you are dealing with, look for someone with that specialty. If you need a sliding scale for payment, you can search for that as well – or check your area for graduate school clinics.
Next. Call ’em up. Chat with them for a few minutes. Give them a run down of what you’re dealing with and hoping to get out of therapy, and see if they feel it’s a good fit. Ask any questions about their methods, policies, pricing, evening hours – whatever you want to know. See if you like them on the phone. I suggest calling a few and seeing who clicks best.
Then, schedule an appointment. Go in ready to share a couple of things: why you’re there, and what you’re hoping to accomplish. If you don’t know, that’s your answer. In my estimation, if you’ve given that info upfront, you’ve given the therapist the bare minimum they need to do their job.
From there, it’s up to you to determine whether it’s truly a good fit. I say give it 3 sessions before you decide for sure. At this point, if it’s not a good fit, it’s not! That’s ok! You haven’t failed therapy. You and one other person on earth didn’t jive well. On to the next one. I beg you not to stick with someone who isn’t helping you, and I beg you not to quit altogether because of it. Feel your feelings about it, those are valid, and press on. All is not lost!
Therapy is just like anything else. It’s a bunch of idiot humans with some special training doing a job. Some work really well for some, and others work really well for others… and finding a good fit is half the battle. The other half is ahead of you – sharing your stuff with another person is not an easy ask. I get that. But I promise you, it can be so, so worth it. To have a real live person sit across from you and listen to your pain, hear your feelings, is such an immense gift. Shedding light on shame and secrets frees us from them.