Life is filled with endless reasons why seeking the help of a therapist may be beneficial: the ever-growing demands of work, household responsibilities, family and relationship issues or mental health conditions.
But experts will be the first to tell you that there are a handful of things that you should know before signing up for the process. For starters, where do you find a good therapist? What will a session entail? And how much pre-appointment prep do you need to do?
Below are just a few things that you should know or do before finding a mental health professional:
1. Shop around
“Shop for a therapist like you would for a good hairdresser,” said Jill Howell, therapist and author of Color, Draw, Collage: Create Your Way to a Less Stressful Life. “If you went to a hairdresser that ignored your requests or messed up your hair, then you would never go back. It is the same for therapy. If you don’t feel like this person will be able to offer you concrete help then don’t go back.”
You might want to start out by asking your friends and medical providers for therapist referrals, then setting up appointments or phone calls for a trial run. “Most therapists will offer a free 10 to 15-minute consult,” said Gwendolyn Nelson-Terry, a licensed marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
2. Find the expert for your issue
“All patients should have an idea of what their needs are when looking for a therapist,” said Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS. If you’re having relationship issues, for instance, you’ll want help from a marriage and family therapist.
“A good therapist has probably established a niche and is most effective when serving clients who fit that niche,” explained Zainab Delawalla, a licensed clinical psychologist in Decatur, Georgia. “Look through a therapist’s website or Psychology Today profile where they describe their typical client and see if you fit this description. A therapist who says she treats depression but advertises that she typically helps men struggling with self-esteem issues might not be the best fit for a woman who is struggling with postpartum depression.”
3. Figure out the style that works best for you
It’s important to align yourself with a treatment style that best meets your needs.
“Analytic therapists will engage in a much more detached way and focus on interpretation and psychodynamics,” explained Jude Treder-Wolff, a licensed clinical social worker. “Action-oriented therapists might creatively explore different roles one might take in the same situation to bring out different perspectives on the problem and provide techniques one can put to use right away. Cognitive-behavioral therapists will encourage homework between sessions.”
This primer on some of the different therapy types further explains how each one works so you can look into one that’s suitable for you.
4. Figure out your budget and how you’re going to pay
Some mental health professionals accept insurance, while others don’t and may operate on a sliding scale payment system (in other words, deciding on a rate with your therapist).
“Do a search of in-network therapists. You can also request a quote from the therapist before the appointment to get an idea of what your copayment responsibility would be, based on your insurance plan,” said Sarah Farris, founder of Chicago Mind and Body.
Looking for a few ways to make therapy more affordable? This guide breaks down how you can manage your costs.
5. Go local
Mia Rosenberg, a New York City-based psychotherapist, suggested finding a therapist close to your home so that traveling to the office does not create additional stress.
“Location is everything,” Rosenberg said. “Making a weekly commitment to a therapist who is not conveniently located could create a wedge in the way the client views the sessions and in the relationship between them and their therapist.”
6. Don’t make a game plan
“Don’t worry if you don’t have a complete idea of what it is that you need help with. The therapist is there to help you figure all that out,” said Tanisha M. Ranger, a licensed psychologist and owner of Insight to Action LLC.
Tiffany Towers, a psychologist in Beverly Hills, added that it can be beneficial to come to a session with a list of topics and goals. But once you sit down, if the topic shifts, it’s best to let the conversation flow organically.
“Sometimes, when we try to control too much of the situation, it hinders our authenticity and gets in the way,” Towers said.
The conversation doesn’t always have to be heavy, either, according to Jaime Gleicher, a psychotherapist based in New York City. Therapy is there to help you sort through the tough stuff but also helps you analyze the good or even mundane circumstances in life, too.
“Therapy does not need to be crisis-based, and some of the best therapeutic work can come from a seemingly random conversation about the weather, or a movie that you saw,” Gleicher said.
7. Stay honest
There is absolutely no point in sugarcoating what you’re saying in your sessions. It’s only going to hurt you later on.
“It’s not in your best interest to lie to your therapist. That often leads to wasted time and money,” Ranger said. “We understand that spilling your guts to a stranger is strange. It’s not comfortable at first, and it’s perfectly natural to feel reluctant to tell it all within the first few sessions. However, keeping secrets tends to breed shame, and shame becomes a wall between you and your therapist that often prevents true progress.”
8. Know your sessions will take effort
“Counselors, therapists and psychologists are not in the business of changing clients, giving them quick advice or solving problems. Instead, counselors facilitate healing through a process of genuine discussion,” said Robert R. Martinez Jr., an assistant school counseling professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It’s also important to keep in mind that you need to invest in the process for it to truly pay off.
“Therapy is an active, ongoing relationship that you enter into with yourself and your therapist that requires a commitment and an investment of time, energy and resources,” said Kathleen Dahlen deVos, founder of Kathleen Dahlen deVos Psychotherapy in San Francisco.
9. Understand that your therapist should be trustworthy
The number one indicator of positive therapeutic outcomes is a trusting relationship between the therapist and client.
“It’s kind of a ‘woo-woo’ thing to say, but sometimes, the most important factor is vibe or energy. Psychotherapy is about connecting your heart, your mind, and your body. So listen to your gut when you’re looking for a therapist,” said Shanna Donhauser, a child and family therapist in Seattle.
10. Expect the structure to be pretty straightforward
In a typical therapy session, you will most likely be meeting one-on-one (unless it’s couple’s therapy or family therapy or a group) in the therapist’s office, which will be private and should be a comfortable space. Sessions average around 50 minutes.
“Some people need to have the whole time to vent and like to talk in one long monologue, while other people prefer a conversation, where the therapist will ask you questions about something you brought up, or sharing observations or interpretations,” Towers said. “Therapy will hopefully help you to better understand yourself, the people in your life, and how to cope with life’s stressors in a healthy and resilient way. It is a time and space that is set aside for personal reflection and is judgment-free.”
11. Accept that you may initially feel worse
Therapy may make you feel worse before you feel better, and there will be times where you feel uncomfortable.
“Part of your therapist’s job is to point out behavior and relationship patterns and to help you see ways that you may be contributing to some of your relationship problems,” Nelson-Terry said. “Also, coming to therapy means talking about feelings and past or current events that can sometimes bring up strong and uncomfortable feelings.”
12. Know it’s OK to move on if it isn’t working
Don’t be afraid to fire your therapist if it doesn’t feel like a good fit. This is your process and you should work with someone you trust. Otherwise, there’s no point.
“This is about your journey and a therapist that is comfortable in their own skin and their own practice will not take this personally,” said clinical therapist DeAnne Joy. She added that this is not a time to be a people-pleaser or to worry about hurting feelings. “This is about you and your journey of healing and transformation.”