Going to therapy is like opening up a history book about yourself, written by you, and sharing it with a stranger.
Sometimes the chapters are easy to read and other times you feel like you may have written it in a different language. Some chapters may have wonderful and lovely pictures while others are painful and hard to look (let alone speak) about. It’s possible that your book may be locked up and you can’t find the key. It can even be incredibly difficult just to take the book off of the shelf. On the other hand, some people are quite literally, an open book — leaving theirs on the coffee table with no issue of others reading it.
No matter where you find yourself, it’s worth the time it takes to read your book, privately, with a therapist. No one should have to read their book alone. If you find yourself wanting some help getting through some of your chapters, Here are some valuable lessons I learned from my own therapy journey.
1 — Schedule well
Adding something new to your calendar can be tough. We all lead busy lives, which is why it is so important to find a consistent time once a week that you can commit to showing up for yourself. Having a weekly cadence will not only advance your own self-discovery but your relationship with your therapist, too.
Personally, I like to go to therapy every Friday afternoon. I love being able to put a period on my week just before the weekend hits. This structure works for me, and I encourage you to figure out what works for you. Is it a Monday morning to kick off the week? Thursday afternoon when you’ve got a little more headspace? Whatever works, stick with it!
2 — Your first session might be scary, and that’s ok!
Plain and simple, your first therapy session might be a bit nerve-wracking. Remind yourself why you wanted to start in the first place and be proud of the fact that you’re taking care of you! New things are scary, especially when they involve talking about yourself and your past — don’t be scared of being scared — you’ve got this!
On my first day, I remember thinking: “Uh oh, what have I done?”
You are not alone in recognizing the strange weirdness that is working with a therapist for the first time. You walk into a room with a person you’ve never met before, and you’re supposed to just…open up?!… Yep!
Now, obviously this should be done in your own time and at your own pace, but once you find a therapist that you like and are willing to work with, I encourage you to go for it!
It can be really difficult to find someone that you really like working with. I found that what helped me feel confident and secure in my choice of therapist, was to be as transparent about my past as I was with what I needed from him specifically. During sessions, we sometimes have moments where we take off our “patient/therapist” hats and just talk to each other as people. It can be strange sometimes to not interact with the person behind the therapy, and I find it’s helpful to interact in this way. Some of my most difficult sessions with my therapist are the ones where we talk about the interactions within our relationship. There have been times when our back and forth confused me or made me feel like we weren’t on the same page. I’ve learned that acknowledging discomfort or confusion as soon as possible only made it easier for me to grow.
3 — Expect (and accept) challenges, pace yourself, and be brave!
Sometimes, your therapist may ask you questions you’d prefer not to answer. I get it — there are some things we just don’t like to talk about with others. But be brave and feel empowered to share — the more you open up, the closer to yourself you’ll feel.
In the early days of working with my therapist, I remember feeling uncomfortable all the time. It was easy enough to tell the version of my story I’d told to friends or family before, but when met with challenging questions of why something happened or how it made me feel, it was challenging not to feel judged or confronted. I’d never had someone try to get me to think in these new ways, and at first, I didn’t like it at all. I was feeling feelings I didn’t want to feel, and it was very overwhelming. I realized that when my therapist was asking me questions, it wasn’t for his benefit or to be judgemental, it was for me to learn. And while sometimes that is truly terrifying, the relief that came with it was undeniable growth. When I committed to developing this relationship and trusting in the process, the more progress I could see and feel.
4 — Remain patient
Like any new undertaking in your life — you want to see and feel results instantly. It’s the same with therapy: seeing growth will take time.
You may have moments where you’re so frustrated or lost that the last thing that you want to do is show up for your appointment, and that’s ok! Listen to your body and communicate how you’re feeling with your therapist. Find out how their rescheduling and cancellation policy works and follow it. The best thing that you can do for yourself on your journey with a mental health professional is to be transparent and honest with them. Help them help you!
5 — It’s okay to keep therapy private
When I first started with my therapist, I felt guilty for sharing things with him that I hadn’t with family members or friends. It was like I was doing something wrong or untrustworthy. It took me months to realize that every time I finished a session, I didn’t have to immediately share what I learned with anyone. Those lessons were mine to sit with and share when I felt ready.
When I gave myself permission to keep my sessions private, I gave myself permission to fully invest and trust in myself. And isn’t that the point?
6 — You don’t have to wait until something is “wrong” to go to therapy
There will be times when you go into therapy and have no idea what to talk about, and that’s ok. Sometimes I don’t want to go at all. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to talk about and end up talking about something completely different! This is to say — therapy isn’t easy and isn’t always straightforward. There isn’t a right order to go through therapy. It’s not a checklist, it’s not only for people who have gone through “terrible” things, and it’s not just for people who are visibly depressed. Therapy is work. Just like going to the gym and working your muscles, therapy is going to the gym for your mind. Sometimes you can’t lift that weight because you’re so exhausted, other times you set a new personal record and discover something new about yourself.
Therapy has its ups and downs for sure, but in the end — it’s consistent hard work that everyone owes to themselves. If you’re invested in your physical health, why not invest in your mental health as well?
7 — It’s about the journey
It has always been in my nature to follow the rules and strive to succeed. I joke with my therapist sometimes about “winning” at therapy, when I feel that I’ve learned something new or shifted my perspective on something that has bettered me as a person.
Sometimes I’ve even found myself wondering, “when will I graduate?” or “where’s the finish line?” As with most things in my life, I want to finish the race, and I want to finish first! And while that lovely-perfectionist-competitive spirit that I get from my late father comes in handy on occasion, therapy hasn’t been one of them.
There’s no definition of “winning” at therapy. In fact, everyone’s “win” will look different. For me, “winning” at therapy is simply showing up for my appointment every week.