So – you’ve finally plucked up the courage to book your first session with a counsellor, psychotherapist, or arts psychotherapist.* You’ve already struggled to deal with your problem by yourself. And it’s really painful to admit to yourself that none of the strategies you’ve tried so far have worked. Your problem is still there, and it hasn’t gone away on its own – in fact, if anything, it might be getting worse. And now there’s a sort of jittery feeling in your stomach as you wait for your first counselling session.
The thoughts are circling around in your mind:
‘I bet they’ll just tell me I’m making a fuss about nothing.’
‘Oh god. I hope I don’t start crying.’
‘What if I say something stupid?’
‘They’ll probably think I’m weak for not managing to sort this out by myself.’
‘Will my problem freak them out???’
‘What if they think I’m crazy?’Worried that if you go to a counsellor, they'll say you're making a fuss about nothing? Click To Tweet
Any of this sound familiar?
Relax. Take a slow, deep breath…. And take a long, long breath out. Your first therapy or counselling session is probably going to be okay!
Here’s what you need to know before your first counselling session:
1. It’s normal to feel nervous
Let’s face it: meeting a stranger, and potentially revealing stuff to them that’s personal and private – stuff you don’t entirely understand yourself – is scary!
One thing that can help in this situation is to remind yourself that anxiety and excitement feel very similar. Maybe you are just excited at the prospect of finally finding someone who actually understands! It’s also exciting to think that this, your first counselling session, is your first step on your path to overcoming the problems you’ve been struggling with. Butterflies in your stomach? Bring ’em on!It's normal to feel nervous when you first go to a therapist. Click To Tweet
2. Your counsellor won’t be judging you
Two things that nobody wants from a therapist are (1) judgement, and (2) pity. Luckily, good therapists don’t judge their clients, nor do they pity them. To your counsellor, you are someone who is courageous. Someone who has done the best they know how. Someone who has tried bravely to overcome their difficulties. Someone who is now doing the bravest thing of all: realising that there is a problem, and seeking effective help.
Also: even if your problem seems stupid or trivial to you, the fact that it’s important enough to seek help about, shows your therapist (and yourself) that actually, this stuff matters. And there’s probably a good reason, deep-down, why you can’t just ‘let it go’ without addressing it properly.
3. Your therapist won’t think you’re crazy
Depth-oriented psychotherapists and counsellors generally start from the assumption that people’s problems tend to make deep psychological sense once you really look into them. When you first come to therapy, neither you nor your therapist will know what’s driving or underlying your difficulties; but gradually both of you will begin to make sense of things.
And ‘crazy’ isn’t a helpful psychological term, anyway! Most therapists tend to be practical souls – if a label is not helpful, they won’t see any point in using it. They are interested in what’s actually going to help get you to a place where you feel more whole, real and fulfilled.
4. Crying is fine
Do you feel anxious about shedding tears? If you come from a background in which crying was somehow alarming, shameful or ‘not done’, the answer’s probably ‘yes’. Weeping in your therapist’s office might at first feel well outside your comfort zone. But you really don’t need to worry. A good, well-trained therapist knows that tears are not dangerous. When you cry, they aren’t going to feel destabilised, or anxious, or somehow superior. Your therapist wants to help you reach the point where you can cry when you need to, without feeling overwhelmed or flooded by the emotion.
5. You’re not as weak as you think
Your therapist will know that making the decision to come to therapy is a brave, strong step. You’re not being weak! Weak people try to bury their issues, or push them away, not face them. It’s so much easier to do the weaker thing of blaming everyone else, rather than to hold your hand up and say ‘I’m struggling here — and I’m going to own my part in my difficulties, and actually do something about it’.
Many, many people come to therapy feeling embarrassed and inadequate because they haven’t been able to manage their problems on their own. But humans were designed to be interdependent! That’s how our brains (and bodies) have been constructed. It’s not weakness; it’s how we’re built.
6. The therapist is on your side
Stating the obvious? If you think that this goes without saying, you’re one of the lucky ones. You’ve got a head-start on your therapy journey! If you can trust your therapist from the start, you can quickly dive in to the issues you need to work on.
But if you feel wary and less trusting, that’s quite normal. It can be a sign that you’ve suffered trauma. Remind yourself that your therapist is trying to be alongside you, because they want to help you. It’s a good idea, too, to talk with your therapist about your doubts, and see whether they respond with understanding and compassion (good signs) or gets defensive and critical of you (not good signs).
7. Therapy isn’t something that’s ‘done to you’
For your brain to be in a state where it can change for the better, you need to feel relatively safe and fairly calm. And you need to feel that you are choosing to be doing this work on yourself. If you feel forced or coerced in any way, positive changes won’t happen.
Counselling and psychotherapy will only work with your permission. No one can make you reveal anything (or do anything) in counselling that is against your will. Similarly, no-one can expect to be passive in therapy and achieve good results. Therapy can feel like really hard work at times. You will need to have the courage to face things that may be hard to face, and you will need to persist and keep on coming back when the going feels tough. Hard work — but SO worth it!
8. You need to have a reasonably good feeling about your therapist by the end of your first counselling session
You’re probably looking for a therapist who you feel is wise, as well as being calm, empathic and clear-thinking. Does your therapist or counsellor meet these criteria? And are there any other attributes that are important to you, such as age, race or gender?
Counselling and psychotherapy work in the context of a relationship. It’s really important that you feel your therapist ‘gets you’, at least to some extent. If you leave your first counselling session feeling that this is someone you dislike and are unlikely to trust, you should probably look for another therapist. If you can, shop around until you find someone who you sense is a good ‘fit’. They don’t have to have the same background as you, but there needs to be something about them that gives you hope that you’ll be understood and helped.
9. The therapist has ‘heard it all before’
Think your problem is so weird that the therapist will be appalled or confused by it? Think again. If she’s been in business for any length of time, the chances are that she’s already come across someone who’s been troubled by something similar. And even if she hasn’t, she’s probably read about this kind of thing in a book.
Yes, you are unique. But most problems are more common than you might think. Just because none of your friends and acquaintances seem to be afflicted with whatever you are struggling with, does not mean that you are the only one in the world.
10. Counselling or therapy is very different from talking to a friend
Often, family members or friends can help you through rough times. But sometimes a professional guide is needed, who:
- doesn’t feel overwhelmed by your issues
- is separate from the main players in your personal drama, so can provide a more objective viewpoint
- has years of training and experience in listening in an entirely different way
- can support you when support is needed, but (and this bit’s really important) who isn’t afraid to challenge you when necessary
- puts you at the centre, and doesn’t get distracted by having their own history with you
- understands what trauma does to a person, and how to help
11. Change might take a while.
It depends on the nature of your problem, of course. If your difficulty feels like a very recent thing, not linked to more deep-seated issues in your personality, then a few sessions might be enough to give you some much-needed perspective on what’s going on, and practical tips on what to do.
But it’s quite likely that the particular issue that brought you to seek help may be linked to other ways you trip yourself up. If you have a sense that ‘this kind of thing keeps happening to me’ (even if you feel quite confused about what’s really going on) then you’ve already made a good start on getting to the root of things in therapy.
Through psychotherapy you can become a deeper, calmer, more grounded, more authentic version of yourself. But not instantly; deep and properly lasting change usually takes longer-term work.
12. This is a place where your feelings get taken seriously
At first this may feel quite odd, but it will probably also feel like a relief. You’ll probably feel some sense that a load you’ve been carrying has shifted somewhat, or become slightly lighter.
And this is very important: As you leave any counselling or psychotherapy session – and this includes your first session – you should have the feeling that something true about you has been felt, heard, said and seen.
Your first counselling or psychotherapy session marks the start of a journey
A journey that ultimately will lead you to yourself — to a deeper, richer, more secure, more grounded relationship with yourself. And in case that sounds very self-centred, be reassured: once you feel more solid and peaceful within yourself, you are in a far, far better position to enrich and enhance the lives of the people around you.
What have I missed out? If you have been in therapy or counselling for a while, what else do you wish you’d known before you first went? I’d love to read your comments below!
I see clients online. Email me espcameron[at]protonmail[dot]com, telling me a bit about yourself and what you’d like help with, and if I have availability we may be able to arrange a free 15-minute phone consultation.
*I use the terms ‘counsellor’ ‘therapist’ and ‘psychotherapist’ interchangeably in this article. I also use these terms to include Arts Therapists and Integrative Arts Psychotherapists, like myself. This article is intended to refer to those therapists who work in a relational, depth-oriented way; however it may not apply to all therapists, particularly those who have a purely cognitive behavioural focus.
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