Starting therapy is the first step to a new you. But finding the right therapist can be a scary process. Not knowing what to expect or what questions to ask when looking for one can be overwhelming and stressful. Because I was once in your shoes, I will also do my best to explain the process to you so we can get you on your way.
Below are some of my insights and tips based on my experience as a licensed professional counselor who has spent thousands of hours in counseling. The entire process should be smooth, convenient, and stress-free. It shouldn’t cause more anxiety if you’re already struggling with anxiety.
Step 1. Is Therapy Right For You
So many people overlook their mental health just like they may do with their psychical health until something big happens like a panic attack or heart attack. Ever wonder why you’ve accepted that as your norm?
Maybe it’s because you prioritize everyone else’s needs before your own. Maybe it’s because you grew up thinking therapy is only for people who are struggling. Maybe it’s because you fear being seen as weak or unable to function by family, friends, and/or society.
I want you to know that you are not a burden and that whatever you feel is valid. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. It’s healthy to be grateful for all of your blessings, but it doesn’t mean that your feelings will just fade away in the distance as a result. Until you acknowledge them, they will be hiding, coming out at times as anger, sadness, feeling overwhelmed, confusion, etc.
Is therapy right for you? It’s possible to reframe what therapy means or brings for you. Therapy is a place where you can practice being your authentic self and a place free of judgment. A therapist can be someone who helps you understand what you’re feeling and help you get want you need. When you feel alone, a therapist can be that one person on your side, so you don’t feel so alone anymore.
And don’t worry; everything remains private between you and your therapist. As long as no one is at harm, therapy remains confidential. Talk about anything you want. Now that’s freedom!
And I know what you’re thinking- that sounds scary! I agree, that it can be at first, but I promise you, the experience will leave you feeling more empowered and at peace.
Step 2. Finding the Correct Therapist
There are many ways to search for a therapist. You could ask them for a recommendation if you’re currently seeing a psychiatrist. You can search online using popular directories such as Psychology Today, Thervo.com, and Yelp.com. I often compare this process to dating. You might get lucky, and the first therapist you find is an amazing fit. But, sometimes, it takes 3-4 consultations or appointments to find the best choice. Don’t feel you must pick the first person to respond to you. Remember, you are in control and can choose to pick anyone with whom you’d like to work.
To narrow down your search, it’s best to consider if you’d prefer to work with a male or female and if you have any preference in the race, age, or location. Another thing to consider is payment. Not all therapists accept insurance.
Once you’ve narrowed down your search, make sure to check out their websites, where you can find a little more information about them. You could also learn something new about therapy by reading their pages and resources. I recommend taking a few days to do this or setting up a few consultations if you are uncertain. Try not to make an impulsive decision. Pick someone who makes you feel comfortable, takes the time to answer all your questions, and meets all your needs.
Step 3. Choosing the Correct Therapy Treatment
If you have any experience with therapy, you might have a better idea of what you’re looking for, but if this is your first time looking for a therapist, don’t worry about this too much. What will help the therapist most is telling them if you are struggling with such symptoms as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, anger, mood swings, gender identity, grief, etc. At this point, the therapist will help you determine your best treatment plan. They should be able to demonstrate how the treatment best aligns with your personal goals, as well.
Do not be offended if a therapist declines your request to work with them or refers you to somebody else. Therapists specialize in certain issues and therapeutic methods. It’s up to the mental health professional to be honest with you about their skill set and their ability to provide the best care for you. This is a good sign if a therapist declines because they’re more interested in your well-being than gaining a new client.
If you start to feel overwhelmed, don’t give up. Just take a break and come back to your search in a day or two. Trust me, you will find someone.
Step 4. Setup a Free Consultation (Q and A)
Most therapists offer a 20 or 30-minute consultation free of charge. This is your opportunity to ask them all your questions and for them to ask you a few questions, as well. Some standard questions you may want to ask:
- Are you accepting new clients?
- Do you accept insurance?
- What methods of payment do you accept?
- How much do you charge per session?
- How long are your sessions?
- What issues do you specialize in?
- What demographic do you have experience working with?
- What is your availability?
If you don’t want to wait to set up a consultation, sending an email can be just as effective. Some prefer phone consultations because they give them insight into how the therapist interacts, whether they have a friendly demeanor, seem sincere, etc. This can sometimes be hard to notice in an email.
Step 5. Preparation for the Consultation
Using the outline of questions above, along with any specific questions you may have, you’ll be more than prepared for the consultation. The therapist will guide the conversation if you start to get nervous or anxious. If you find yourself in this position, don’t worry, this will be your opportunity to see if the therapist is good at establishing safety within their clients. This may be something you need.
If not, then the consultation will just be an easy way for you to get your questions answered quickly. Consultations are helpful but not always necessary. You can skip this step completely and immediately book an appointment with the therapist if so desired. Most therapists have the option to book online by using a safe and secure client portal. It takes only minutes to do. Some other options usually offered are calling, texting, or emailing the therapist directly.
Step 6. Choosing and Working with the Therapist
I recommend committing to at least two sessions with someone you feel safe and comfortable with. You will probably be nervous if this is your first time seeing a counselor. It will get easier after that. If you still don’t feel safe and comfortable by your second session, I suggest searching for somebody new. But before you do, make sure to reflect on what you liked and didn’t like about the last therapist. This may help you determine what you’re looking for in a therapist.
If you don’t feel safe, I highly recommend seeking someone else. Safety is number one. But, keep in mind, that building a trusted rapport with a therapist will take some time. For those dealing with such things as trauma, PTSD, and/or attachment issues, the trust may take even longer to obtain. This is part of the process. Once trust is present, you will feel more comfortable tackling difficult topics and working on privacy issues.
Consider these things when working with a therapist and trying to establish security in the counselor-client relationship:
- Establish short-term and long-term goals.
- Establish clear boundaries.
- Respect each other’s time.
- Be transparent with feelings.
- Allow for human mistakes.
- Don’t form a dependent relationship.
- Limit communication outside of therapy unless part of a safety plan and approved by both the therapist and client.
- Be open to change.
- Trust the process.
Step 7. Exit Strategy
Therapy is meant to be supplemental help. In other words, you should be encouraged to find help and support in other areas such as your community, family, friends, pets, hobbies, work, life coaches, gyms, and religious affiliations. The therapist should encourage personal growth, independence, healing, and competency. Some may attend therapy weekly for years, and that’s ok, but it’s important that the client not become dependent on the therapist.
When you start to feel stronger, I suggest discussing the frequency of your visits with your therapist. It’s best not to avoid certain topics because they scare you. The therapeutic setting is exactly where you should be practicing these skills. Of course, if you feel unsafe with your therapist or too overwhelmed with life, you do not have to have a well-planned exit strategy. Sometimes, people just stop going, and this is ok, too, but I recommend that you reflect on why you decided to avoid the conversation with your therapist. There’s usually something to work through if you struggle with an exit plan.
Remember, you can always come back to therapy. Life has a way of throwing curveballs at you when you least expect it. Use therapy to continue building your skillset and toolbox. We continue to change as people, and having the proper support set in place to help you understand these changes, is extremely important.
If you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation, refer to another therapist for assistance. Just like teachers, coaches, and people, there are good ones, and there are bad ones. Trust your intuition if something feels wrong. You are not obligated to stay, nor should you be fearful of the therapist’s reaction.