Going to a Therapist is a ginormous step in the right direction. If I had known these things before my first appointment I could have saved a lot of time and headaches.
A good therapy experience was vital in pivoting my mental health trajectory in the last few years. However, there are some things I wish I was prepared for before I went to my therapist.
Therapy is a terrific resource and I will forever believe everybody could benefit from some form of it. Before you go, there are a few things you can do to save time, and energy. The keys to a successful therapy experience are finding a focus, accepting the therapy journey, and learning to care for yourself in in critical hours after each appointment.
The Question I Wasn’t Ready For
Before finally seeking professional help, I tried my hardest to envision what kind of questions they would ask. My over achieving, anxious self wanted to study therapy in order to study for their pop quizzes on my psyche… Needless to say, this wasn’t the right mindset to be in the first time in the big chairs.
No matter how many times I tried to envision the questions a therapist would ask, I never expected the one I finally received – from each and every different professional I tried.
What is your goal? What would you like out of this therapy?
Such a dumb question. I just want to be better, so let’s skip to that part.
Finding a Therapy Focus
At the time, I was blinded by my own ambition. I had finally asked for help, so when they asked me what my goal was… Well, I thought I had achieved it by asking for the help and making it in the door of that appointment.
What I didn’t understand then, and still struggle to remember at times, is that there’s not a magical cure for every patient. While yes, proper prescriptions and routines can help, it becomes unsustainable without targeting specific aspects of ourselves. I couldn’t go to therapy and simply expect to walk out a changed person. I had to pinpoint what was holding me back, and begin healing that.
For myself, I eventually narrowed things down to a specific sense of shame I had attached to my own well-being and work ethic. My unhealthy relationship with other people’s priorities had become a roadblock in multiple areas. Becoming a long standing proponent of my depression and anxiety. This shame had caused me to be unable to care for my happiness, and was the root of my fixation on other’s opinion of me.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find this focus until about 5 sessions in… with my 3rd therapist.
I don’t think it is necessary to know your focus before going to therapy – it’s not – but I think being aware that it will be asked of you can be a difference maker between success and failure. The question made me put my defenses up, but there is merit to it. When one focus is under control and manageable, you can tackle a second roadblock in your path and build from there.
Accepting the Therapy Journey
Not every therapist is the right one for you, and that’s okay.
The first time I actively sought out professional help was when I was about 14. This was a stage of my life that was turbulent, and I wasn’t exactly prone to trusting people. This was the clearest when I sat across from the poor woman who tried to help me. She lended me the book “Feel the Fear, and Do It Anyway”. I pretended to read the book, but I actually just wrote the title on my notebooks a few times. (I later have heard it’s great and is currently on my reading list.)
After pretending to read the book, I put up protective walls and didn’t really say much about myself other than things my 14 year old self thought she wanted to hear. After four or five weeks of this treadmill hitchhiking, it came to an end after she read my palms and told me my future was… “ok.”
Thank you, I think I Don’t need to book a follow up. I’m ‘ok’.
One Bad Apple Keeps All The Doctors Away
Unfortunately at 14 years old, I was quick to resent this woman for her assessment of my future. However I quickly forgot about her, and almost overnight a leading philosophy in psyche was that professional mental health was a sham. Fraudsters, trying to trick sad people in faux hope.
If I could go back in time, I would make sure I change my mind on this long before 22.
This toxic philosophy lead my mental health further astray, until it morphed into an even worse understanding of mental well-being. After long enough stewing in this resentment, I began to believe that depression itself wasn’t real. I made myself believe there was no merit to my suffering, which furthered the sense of loneliness.
I let this spiral continue by shunning all professional help off of one bad experience. When I finally tried getting professional help again – this time as a supposed adult – I almost let it happen again. I waited until I caught a sense of judgement, and would immediately assemble the walls I had become so proficient at erecting. Spinning in shielded circles for weeks, until I just stop asking for follow up appointments.
For reasons I couldn’t pinpoint, I just wasn’t comfortable with the first ones… or the third. My fourth professional counsellor was the first that managed to get through to me. A combination of him understanding my thinking process a little bit, as well as me being more prepared for what to expect the fourth time around made it a much smoother experience.
With experience behind me, I could go to this fourth counsellor with something that closer resembled a plan of action. I was able to work on a target, and I was even comfortable speaking to him. I look back on this whole process now, and I understand I needed this therapy journey of sorts to really get things through to me.
After The Appointment
I was simply not prepared for the toll that these appointments can take on energy levels. Once my latest therapist finally cracked my defences, each appointment was becoming increasingly emotional. I was talking about emotions and understandings that I hadn’t even known were implanted in the way I structured my life.
I was doing EMDR light therapy to diminish the stranglehold of past trauma. From that description, I can now see how that could potentially be exhausting. When I started it however, I vastly underestimated what it would do to me for the rest of the day. The rest of the day had to be spent at work, trying to get back to some form of focus.
In order to sustain this kind of therapeutic effort, I had to learn how to properly care for myself following each appointment.
I developed a routine for my work afternoons following my appointments.
- MacDonalds. Essential.
- Give Myself Permission to Move Things to ‘Tomorrow’ in my Notion Task List.
- Schedule 40 minutes upon returning for a journal entry. A mind dump can be very useful, even if wildly off topic.
- Listen to Unfamiliar Music. Nothing nostalgic. Try something new.
- Work on tasks I can finish, but nothing mindless.
By planning out this light, mindfully focused afternoon, I allowed a safe setting for the takeaway lesson of the appointment to sink in. Where possible, I lighten my work load and try to move myself through tasks that have a tangible sense of progression.
The 3 Point Plan for Going to a Therapist
Summing this up in its skeletal form, it’s a simple 3 step framework for approaching therapy.
- Have a Therapy Goal (Smaller focuses bring bigger results)
- Understand It Could Be a Turbulent Journey
- Take Care of Yourself Between, and Especially Immediately After Each Appointment
This framework helped bring success, and I wish I had known it before I went to my therapist. Though, I certainly have full intention of expanding on this and implementing it even further.