Meeting with a new therapist for the first time is a lot like what I imagine a blind date to be: you’re nervous about meeting someone new, have no idea what to expect, and hope that by the end of it, you’ve made some kind of connection and want to see each other again.
I’ve been around the block a few times when it comes to therapists. My first one was when I was sixteen and I just started seeing my current one in December. In between, there were about ten others, if I’m recalling correctly. I thought I’d share some of the therapy-related wisdom that I’ve gained over the last seventeen years.
7 Tips For Meeting with a New Therapist
1. If you can, find out about their background and specialties. Is this person a social worker, a psychologist, or a counselor? Where did they go to school? What specific issues are they experienced with? It’s a good idea to meet with someone who specializes in what you’re dealing with, whether it’s alcoholism, social anxiety, marital problems, or something else. You can ask these questions either on the phone prior to your first appointment, or when you meet your new therapist.
2. Review your own history because the first appointment is going to be a long Q&A session, and you’re the star. This is part of what makes meeting with someone new so unpleasant: I hate going over my mental health history, what medications I’ve been on, and what depression ‘feels like’ for me. But it’s important for mental health professionals to get a full picture with all the details in order for them to treat you properly. Try to come to your appointment with a list of previous medications (as well as dosages of any current prescriptions), your family history, and anything else you think might be relevant.
Here is a list of some unpleasant things I have to bring up, because they are a part of my history:
- I went through a cutting phase when I was a teenager.
- One of the symptoms of my depression as a teenager was suicidal ideation.
- I once swallowed seven of my antidepressants at a time, just ‘to see what it would feel like’.
- I had panic attacks throughout my twenties, including one that sent me to the emergency room.
- When I was 20, I was in a psychiatric outpatient program for five weeks, where they labeled me with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, but no psychiatrist since has agreed with those diagnoses.
3. Know what you’re looking to get out of therapy. Invariably, one of the first questions a therapist will ask you is What brings you here? What are you struggling with? You want to get the most out of therapy and each 45-50 minute appointment, so try to have a focus. If you don’t, you might end up rambling about your dog the whole time, only to realize Oh! I really should have brought up my fear of letting people down as you’re walking out the door.
4. Try not to compare. It’s so easy for me to compare all the therapists I’ve had. One was big on positive reinforcement, one shared more personal stories, one talked more about energetic healing than focusing on concrete strategies, one even nodded off in the middle of a session! Try to stay in the moment and get a sense of who this person is, rather than dwelling on comparisons.
5. Know that it takes time to build up a trusting relationship. It’s extremely rare to feel at ease with a therapist right away. It’s always your prerogative to decide when something isn’t working out, but try to at least meet with someone two or three times before looking elsewhere. Be patient, realize it’s okay to feel guarded, and hopefully those walls will slowly crumble.
6. It’s okay to speak up if something is making you uncomfortable. In fact, I hope you do speak up! Your therapist might broach a topic that you’re not ready to talk about yet; you need to let them know that. Something as simple as “I don’t think I can talk about that yet” is perfectly fine.
7. Remember that you are doing this to take care of yourself. Therapy is for your benefit. You only get out of it what you are willing to give, so if you’re not doing much talking, you’re probably going to walk away feeling pretty unsatisfied. Don’t blame that on the therapist. Your path to recovery is work. Showing up to your therapy appointment is great! But it’s only a start. You have to keep going, and you have to be an active participant in order to notice a change.
Do you have any tips that I left out? Which one do you think is the most important?