The first time I went to therapy was my senior year at UC Berkeley. I was suffering from major insomnia and having a hard time concentrating on my classes. I figured, hey, it’s free through my university health center, I will try it and see how it goes.
I’ll be honest, I was nervous and a bit scared to start therapy but it was extremely helpful since I got to understand the root of my insomnia.
It’s been over a decade and I can proudly say that my experiences being in therapy inspired me to become a therapist…specifically an LCSW (licensed clinical social worker). I am proud to be an LCSW because my training is rooted in understanding human behavior and identifying the strengths individuals innately carry to help them through whatever obstacles they are faced with.
I’ve worked with different types of therapists including a psychologist, a marriage family therapist, a psychiatrist as well as interns who weren’t licensed yet but were getting hours towards licensure. I’ve had both good and bad therapists which have helped me gain a better appreciation of the therapeutic process.
You may feel uncertain or maybe even a little scared about starting therapy. Don’t worry, it’s normal to have mixed emotions.
In this article, I will discuss my own experiences of being a client as well as being a therapist. I will also share an insider perspective and provide some tips that will make the process simple and easy for you to start therapy the right way.
4 questions to ask yourself before you start therapy
1. Do I need therapy?
If you’re reading this article, then the chances are that you’re contemplating starting therapy.
Congratulations! That’s a big step.
But how do you know if you really need therapy?
As an LCSW working at a hospital, my role is slightly different than a traditional therapist. When I meet with a client, I conduct an assessment and determine if the individual and/or family would benefit from therapy and then I refer them.
You can take this free quiz from Psych Central which also will help you answer this question.
Other questions that you may want to consider are the following:
Are you experiencing a significant stressor in your life that is impacting your overall functioning?
For example, a breakup, divorce, job loss, death of a loved one. If the answer is yes, then you need to consider therapy.
Are you concerned about a behavior, feeling, or something you are doing?
Perhaps you are chronically anxious or worried which is making it hard for you to sleep, concentrate or get your work done. Or you’re noticing that you’re drinking a lot or using recreational drugs.
Are you having more difficulty coping with things?
We all experience stress in our life, that’s normal. However, if you’re having a harder time than usual coping with challenges then it’s a good time to go to therapy.
2. Can I make the commitment to attend therapy sessions?
This is a very important question to ask yourself.
So often people want a quick fix to the problems they’re facing in their life but real results require time and commitment.
Participating in therapy is not a “get quick results” sort of thing. You have to commit to attending and participating in sessions regularly and doing the work.
In addition, for therapy to work you need to be consistent.
Show up on time, make therapy a priority, and engage in the process. Ultimately you’re the one that wants help so ask yourself if you’re ready for the commitment before you start the process.
3. Will I be able to afford therapy?
This is a tricky question to answer and depends on your insurance coverage. Some insurances have excellent coverage for mental health, others do not.
Contact your insurance and find out how much they will cover for each therapy session and how much your out of pocket expenses will be.
If you’re not using insurance, you will pay anywhere from $100-$300/session to meet with a licensed mental health professional. Yes, it’s expensive and can add up quickly.
Affordable options for therapy are now offered virtually and you can check out this link to look at options.
If you’re uninsured, do a google search for “low cost or free counseling agencies.” Look at local universities who may offer low-cost counseling via graduate social work and psychology students who are getting their clinical hours.
When I was getting my MSW, I was a social work intern at Jewish Family Service and offered therapy sessions for $25/session. I had a large caseload and my youngest client was 5 years old and my oldest was 92. I loved my time with my clients who taught me a great deal during my clinical internship.
4. Am I willing to be 100% honest?
Therapy is a rare opportunity to be 100% honest without the prospect of being judged.
You’re paying for therapy, so lying is pointless.
You don’t have to delve into all your deepest darkest secrets right away, but over time, it’s going to help you immensely if you’re transparent and forthcoming with your therapist.
Tell your therapist if you’re having health problems, using drugs, having difficulty with your finances, thoughts about harming yourself, or persistent fears.
As a therapist, we are well trained on how to address almost any presenting problem and we’re on your side and will do everything in our power to better understand and work with you to improve your life.
5 steps to find a good therapist
My worst experience with therapy was in 2004 when I was having severe panic attacks.
After going to urgent care, the physician referred me to a same-day appointment with the therapist on their staff. The guy took 15 minutes to ask me what was bothering me. I told him that I was worried about my upcoming GRE test, really stressed out and worried.
His response, “Oh I just took a shot of whiskey before my test and it was smooth sailing.”
Needless to say, I never went back to him and my panic attacks worsened. There were a few instances when I felt like I was going to die. If you’ve ever had a panic attack you can probably relate.
The most important part of finding a good therapist is that you feel safe and comfortable with them.
It doesn’t matter if the therapist is a student intern with limited experience or a seasoned clinician with over 20 years of experience. Research has shown that therapeutic rapport (relationship) is the most important part of healing and recovery.
You’ll know when therapy feels “right” because you will feel comfortable and safe talking with your therapist. You will feel like you can say anything to them because you trust them, and you know that you will not be judged.
Here are the steps that you can take to find a good therapist.
1. Get a list of mental health providers
First, contact your insurance and get a list of mental health providers that they are in-network with. This will help you save money and time.
2. Do some homework
Check out psychologytoday.com and cross-reference the providers that accept your insurance. You can learn more about the therapist’s background and experience.
If the therapist has a website, peruse the site and see what they’re all about.
Just keep in mind that there are many good, well-qualified therapists that are not on the web. Not finding them on the internet is not a reason to rule them out.
3. Ask for recommendations
You can always ask your physician, trusted colleagues, friends, or your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for recommendations of therapists. If you have children, ask the school counselor, nurse, or pediatrician.
I always give my patients a list of at least 5 therapists that I recommend. That way you have some choice and can find someone who is a good match for you.
4. Don’t limit yourself
Don’t set limits on yourself unnecessarily by title or by logistics. I refer my patients to other social workers, psychologists, and marriage family therapists. Even some psychiatrists provide psychotherapy along with medication management.
Studies show that once core requirements are met in education and certification, the effectiveness of a therapist is not dictated by what letters they have after their name but the therapeutic relationship they have with their client.
5. Interview the therapist
This step might sound silly, why should you interview a therapist? Well, you can usually gauge a lot from having a phone conversation with a potential therapist.
A therapist should offer a free 10-15 phone consultation before you commit to seeing them for your first session. If they don’t, then it’s not a good sign and you should look elsewhere.
Once you talk with them, tell them a little bit about why you’re wanting therapy and then find out a little bit about them. You can ask about their education and training, their background as well as any special certifications they may have.
Trust your gut feeling and if you don’t feel comfortable talking to them on the phone, then odds are you won’t in person. You have a right, even a responsibility to yourself, to be picky.
How you know therapy is helping you
This is my most favorite question because I can answer it from both perspectives of being a client as well as the therapist.
Let’s start with being a client.
I know that therapy is helping when I recognize changes in my relationships, behavior, thoughts, attitude, and mood.
My most recent experience of being in therapy was with my husband Daniel. It’s normal to have disagreements in marriage but unfortunately, we were arguing more frequently than usual.
So we attended a few sessions with my therapist who helped us recognize some of the barriers we were facing. Since she’s a neutral person outside of our marriage, she pointed out the pattern in our communication that was causing contention.
In addition, she helped us understand one another better and gave us tools to use in the future.
Therapy has helped me become a better person on so many levels. It has been a valuable investment in my self-care, mental health, and overall wellness.
On the other hand, how do I know therapy is helping my client?
I have numerous success stories that reinforce my belief in the value of psychotherapy.
I know that therapy is helping my clients when I notice that they’re no longer engaging in destructive behaviors and moving towards healthy adaptive coping skills.
In addition, I know therapy is working when a client’s mood improves and they’re no longer feeling severely depressed or anxious. They are able to weather the storms in their life in a more productive manner.
Lastly, I know therapy is helping when a client tells me that they are more optimistic about their future because they have tools to help them.
When do you know it’s time to end therapy?
It’s something you might be thinking of or your therapist may bring up. Usually, this happens when you’ve met your treatment goals.
Whatever you do, don’t abruptly stop therapy without talking to your therapist. Like any relationship, it’s important to have closure.
The value of ending therapy is that you can celebrate what you have accomplished and discuss where to go from there. Having time to acknowledge your growth, hard work, and time spent together is part of the therapeutic process.
You may have a myriad of emotions when it comes to saying good-bye to your therapist.
Perhaps you feel relieved that you now have more time for yourself. Or you may feel a bit sad and concerned about how you’re going to deal with challenges in your life without your regular appointments.
Whatever feelings come up, it’s normal to have them since this has been an important relationship in your life.
I remember my 5-year-old client clung to my legs during our last session at Jewish Family Service and I had to try my hardest to not cry since it was the last time I would see him.
Just remember that closure is important for both of you and your therapist. And remember, you can always return to therapy in the future if you need to.
Taking the time to evaluate whether therapy is right for you is a big investment in your self-care and wellness. It’s important to do some research, find a few good options, and then interview your potential therapist before attending your first appointment.
As someone who has been in therapy as well as being a psychotherapist, I truly believe in the profound and remarkable ways in which psychotherapy works.
Take the time to consider if you’re able to make the commitment to the process as it will require you to work hard and delve into your innermost thoughts and feelings.
Going to therapy isn’t always easy but it’s worth it. You will come out of the experience a better, more emotionally aware, and understanding person. In addition, you’ll cope better with the stressors and challenges in your life.
What other questions do you have about going to therapy that you’ve always wanted to know but afraid to ask? Have you had positive or negative experiences in therapy? Please share your stories and comments below.