Is therapy for me? A psychologist’s perspective on what to consider when seeking therapy.
The decision to start therapy can be a difficult one. Friends, family, or co-workers may chime in with their opinions: “You really need to see a therapist.”, “I know a great therapist, you should reach out to her!”, or even “You’re going to therapy? Why?” While some may voice their opinions, or even stigmas, it’s important to start this process by identifying what’s right for you. Here are three important questions to ask yourself when considering therapy, which may help guide your decision-making process.
1. Am I ready to look inward?
Before beginning, it’s important to assess whether you’re in a state where you feel ready to engage in an exploratory process like therapy. Psychotherapy is, by its nature, uncomfortable. Confronting and addressing our inner struggles and deeply rooted challenges is difficult and can be painful. Avoidance, control strategies, and distractions are commonly used to distance ourselves from our pain. Therapy involves the exact opposite; an open exploration of what hurts us and how to engage it more effectively. Kudos to you for taking the first step in considering therapy by reading about it!
Rushing into this process may actually scare someone away from therapy. In opening up, they may feel the acuteness of their pain and feel rattled by this. This may be particularly relevant when addressing trauma in therapy. The notion that simply pouring out all of your emotions, including details of negative past experiences, will immediately ‘cure’ you, is an inaccurate depiction of what therapy is about. As with anything, meaningful change takes time. Therapy is a process that requires commitment, patience, and self-compassion. It’s important to feel ready to engage in this process.
Sometimes, the focus of therapy might even just be preparing for therapy. If you don’t feel ready to dive right in to discussing your experiences of pain, but you do feel ready to begin the journey of opening up, therapy can be a great place to work on that process.
2. What is my goal in starting therapy?
There are various reasons you may be interested in starting therapy, such as addressing emotional pain, overcoming fears or obstacles, or needing a place to process a tough decision. Being tuned into your individual needs and goals goes a long way in the therapy process.
When exploring your goals, it’s important to be realistic about what can meaningfully be achieved in therapy. Oftentimes, unrealistic goals are established, such as, “I want to become the perfect parent”, or “I never want to feel anxiety”. Or perhaps people turn to therapy for a quick fix, establishing a goal like, “I want to fix my relationship before our vacation next month.” Unfortunately, therapists do not have a magic wand with the power to make all of our struggles disappear instantaneously.
Having unrealistic goals or expectations may set you up for frustration and disappointment with both yourself and the therapeutic process. Therefore, it is important to clarify your vision for therapy by identifying specific goals that you can work toward. This sets the stage for a therapeutic process in which you feel accomplished and confident in your journey. Whether those goals are about specific outcomes, such as, “I want to be able to get over my fear of flying”, or something more broad, such as, “I want to experience a more meaningful relationship”, it be helpful to identify both why this goal is important as well as how you might evaluate your progress towards this goal.
3. How do I find a therapist who is the right fit for me?
There are several factors that go into determining if a therapist is a good fit for a client, including: the therapist's specialty, training experience, theoretical orientation, treatment approach, and interpersonal style, among others. Therapy should be a safe space. You should feel heard, validated, and supported by your therapist. You should not feel judged, dismissed, or ignored. However, your therapist should be able to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone in order to work with you toward achieving your goals.
No therapist is perfect for everyone and it often takes some time to determine if a therapist has the right "feel". Sometimes finding the right therapist can take some trial and error before you make the right connection. Don’t get discouraged though. Being incompatible with a therapist does not mean you’re incompatible with therapy.
When looking for a therapist, it can be valuable to consider if the therapist has specific training or expertise in what you are dealing with. You may also have particular interest in working with someone who understands particular issues related to religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or culture. You may also have a preference for a more directive type of therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), or a more insight oriented or exploratory therapy, like psychodynamic or psychoanalytic psychotherapy. In many cases, strong rapport with your therapist will be the most significant factor in your therapy outcomes.
As with many experiences, one of the most important things to do when considering therapy is to be patient with yourself and to trust the process. Be open and honest with yourself and your therapist—it will go a long way!