When I was in college, one of my best friends announced out of the blue that she was going to start therapy. She said it nonchalantly, with a bright smile and hopeful eyes. Her first appointment was in just a few days, she told me. I was amazed, to say the least. Not because she was going to therapy, per se—her and her boyfriend broke up a few months earlier, and she’d been having a difficult time—but because she was so candid and flippant about it.
This isn’t always the case. Oftentimes, people feel embarrassed, nervous, anxious, uncertain about beginning therapy. But my friend went against the grain and showed me, as well as many others, that it doesn’t have to be that way. We should all be vocal and proud of our mental health journey. And it might be scary or nerve-wracking to try out something like therapy, but it’s important to go into it with an open and hopeful mind. I know—sometimes, this is easier said than done. So, me and Licensed Clinical Social Worker Karen Koenig are going to step in to help ease common fears about therapy, and in turn, hopefully help you feel better about this journey:
Fear #1: I won’t know where or how to begin.
Koenig says that clients often worry about where to begin. “They think that they need to start in a certain place so that the therapist will understand their problem,” she explains. “I tell clients that there is no right way of beginning their story and that they should begin wherever they’re comfortable. I let them know that they can skip around and circle back and that’s fine with me. And, if I’m unclear about something, I’ll ask a question.”
Oftentimes in therapy, you jump around. You talk about your past, the present, the future. You talk about your strengths and your weaknesses. You chat, you listen, you laugh, you cry. Sometimes all in one session! This makes for an effective therapeutic process, meaning that even at the beginning of your therapy journey, it’s okay to bounce around. Don’t worry about where to begin, just begin.
Fear #2: My therapist will judge me.
Another common concern is that the therapist will judge them. “I inform clients that we become therapists because we have a great deal of curiosity about what makes people tick and wish to help them resolve problems, and, therefore, that we purposely avoid being judgmental, which gets in the way of that process,” Koenig explains. “As well, I encourage clients to join me in a non-judgmental listening space as they hear themselves talk about their problems.”
A natural concern of most is what others think about them. This carries over into therapy, as many clients worry about what the therapist or counselor will think: of their thoughts, their feelings, their behaviors. It’s scary to feel vulnerable in this way, but one must realize that therapists go into this field because they care about helping people; not because they care about what you’re wearing or want to make fun of your irrationality. At the very least, your therapist or counselor will help you to enter a non-judgmental headspace too, as explained by Koenig.
Fear #3: I’ll be forced to focus on the negative.
Clients also fear that each session likens a black hole of doom where they can only talk about bad things. “They feel they should talk only about their challenges, not their strengths. They’ll start telling me about a problem then veer off topic and insist that they need to stick only to what’s not going well with them,” says Koenig. “I tell clients that I can’t get to know them and help them, unless I have a balanced assessment of them, which means inviting them to tell me about what they do well along with what they would like to do better.”
As I touched on earlier, therapy doesn’t focus on one area of your life or even just one issue; instead, you bounce around and hit it all. You might make your first appointment because you need help managing anxiety, but a year later, you’ve learned how to communicate effectively, open up to others about your feelings, and improve your self-esteem, in addition to better managing your anxiety. My point is that therapy is meant to help you live a healthier, happier life. And by no means does that demand you talk only about the negatives. You’ll be encouraged to discuss and celebrate your victories too.
Fear #4: My counselor just won’t understand.
And finally, another common fear is that the therapist or counselor just won’t understand how the patient feels or what he/she is going through. “They fear they’ll not be understood, so they explain what’s going on as if I couldn’t possibly understand,” Koenig explains. “They do this because too many people in their lives haven’t understood and have invalidated them. I advise them not to worry about being understood and that, again, if I need clarification, I’ll ask.”
Mental health professionals are trained to understand and to help you with any given issue. Some even specialize in particular matters: if you’re suffering from the loss of a loved one, you can see a grief counselor; if you’re struggling with addiction or drug abuse, you can seek out a substance abuse counselor; if your relationship is on the rocks, you and your partner can talk to a couples counselor. You don’t have to worry about your therapist or counselor’s ability (or inability) to understand and advise. Just find a professional that’s right for you and surrender yourself to the process.
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