For Teen Vogue, by Marissa Miller.
Just be yourself.
Going through a rough patch? Having a tough time with a friend or family member? Need some guidance in navigating a problem at school or in your home life? Then you should realize that seeing a therapist is an option for you -- and no, despite what society or otherwise might tell you, there's no required "criteria" to see one.
A therapist or counselor is as an objective, professional resource. But if you're visiting one for the first time, you may not know what to expect. According to psychologist Robert Duff, PhD, author of The Hardcore Self-Help book series, the experience you have at your first session depends on whether you're seeking treatment in a large healthcare network versus small private practice, as well as what particular theory of psychology your therapist subscribes to. But certain parameters remain similar no matter how you choose to proceed.
So if you are choosing to try therapy, congrats on taking the leap. It means you're taking control of your problems, and what's cooler and more empowering than that? If you've got the first-appointment jitters, rest easy: Here's what to expect.
1. Expect to do a lot of the talking.
The first session is a lot like an icebreaker or a meet-and-greet. Your therapist wants a well-rounded idea of the issues you're facing. They will likely ask about your family life and childhood for a holistic picture of who you are. But if you're nervous the night before and begin making a list of what you want to touch on, hold back.
"Sometimes that can be anxiety-provoking for people to think that they have to be able to say '1, 2, 3, go!' and lay all of their issues out on the table," says Duff. Think of this instead as a safe space to go wherever your mind takes you, and to speak candidly.
Remember: You are not obliged to disclose anything that makes you uncomfortable. Similarly, your therapist is legally prohibited from disclosing anything discussed during the session (unless it poses a threat to you or others). The conversation may feel one-sided, but that's the point. You'll work through each issue during subsequent sessions, and you can bring up other points as the weeks go by. Your first session sets the tone of your work together, but it doesn't set a rigid framework of what you'll talk about.
2. Make it a two-way interview.
If you're shopping around for the perfect fit, gain a broader sense of how your therapist plans to help you. For certain types of therapy, be it cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy, or family systems therapy, there are short-term or long-term approaches, says Duff. Ask your therapist what they specialize in, how that would apply to you, and how long of a time commitment you should expect. While Duff says progress is possible in as little as a few weeks, therapeutic miracles often don't happen overnight. Go in with an open mind and an expectation to do what it takes (within reason) to overcome what's plaguing you.
3. You might not jive with them at first.
Finding the right therapist is a lot like swiping your way through prospective partners. You shouldn't feel obliged to settle for or continue with the first one you see. It's your money, and essentially your life. Listen to your intuition and be honest about how comfortable they make you feel: Does their area of expertise align with what you're facing? Say they specialize in adolescent depression, and that's why you're on the couch. Great! But sometimes it's hard to put a finger -- or a credential -- on what creates chemistry between a therapist and a client. Maybe you need a few weeks to ease into the therapeutic process and develop that relationship. That said, "if your therapist has a personality that you simply dislike or they say something that offends you, you absolutely have the right to look for someone else," Duff says. "There are a wide variety of mental health providers out there, so you never need to feel stuck."
4. It might cost more than you expect.
...Or it might not. According to the American Psychological Association, 90% of Americans don't know about the parity law that covers mental health services. That's why you should check with your health insurance provider (or employee benefits plan!) before your session to determine whether they cover, or partially cover, mental health services. Have a clear idea of what your therapist is going to charge you on your way out to avoid sudden freak-outs. When it's all said and done though, mental health services shouldn't be considered a luxury, but a necessity. Your happiness and well-being is worth every penny.
5. Don't sweat the small stuff.
It's not a date or a meeting in the sense that you should feel pressured to project an appearance of "perfection." You might be feeling raw and vulnerable, and that's likely why you've booked the appointment in the first place. If you can get in a nutritious meal beforehand with plenty of sleep, that'll do wonders for your physical and mental wellbeing. But if you happen to be in a dark place and self-care just isn't feasible before your session, a therapist is there to help you. Feeling out of balance can often be a great jumping off point to help your therapist better understand what you're feeling on a given day. "If you wait for the perfect conditions to begin therapy, you never will. Just get in there. I just want people to realize that they can't fail at therapy," Duff says. "There's no right or wrong way to do it."
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