The thought of entering into counseling can be incredibly daunting and nerve-racking. Feeling anxious and apprehensive about what to expect from the process, many people will ultimately decide not to pursue counseling. There is an old saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” The fear of the unknown can paralyze us from taking action or creating change.
And while it’s natural for us to fear that which we don’t understand, I think that there exists a slew of misconceptions and misunderstandings about therapy that are sadly preventing people from seeking help and are also contributing to the stigma surrounding mental health issues. Here are a few important elements of the therapeutic process, at least from my own professional lens, that I hope will help to ease your fears as you contemplate taking the plunge:
“No, you are not crazy.”
You are not crazy, nutty, cuckoo, mental, stupid, psycho, or messed up. There is nothing inherently bad about anything you may be thinking, feeling, or experiencing. You are human. And part of your journey as a human includes suffering with pain, sadness, fear, anger, confusion, hopelessness, despair, and all the rest. I don’t think you’re crazy. In fact, I think you are remarkably courageous for entering into the counseling room and laying your heart out on the table, emotionally exposing the deepest, most terrifying, uncomfortable parts of your soul. Vulnerability is a risky thing, and I commend you for taking such a scary step.
“I’m not here to give you advice.”
Although there are many practicing therapists out there who do frequently offer advice to their clients (primarily because I believe it allows them to feel more important and knowledgeable), my education, training, and personal and professional experience have taught me that advice is not generally what people need. And advice giving is not psychotherapy. My job is not to tell you what to do. I believe that people have the answers within themselves, and my role as a therapist is to help guide my clients to their own best solutions.
“The therapeutic relationship is everything.”
I wholeheartedly believe that the therapeutic relationship is the most important ingredient for a successful treatment outcome. If I am unable to facilitate, grow, and maintain a healthy therapeutic connection with my clients, if they don’t believe that I have their best interests at heart, then chances are our work together will not yield a positive outcome (and they will very likely will not even return for a second session). It doesn’t matter what theoretical framework I operate from, what therapeutic techniques I utilize, or how many advanced degrees I possess. At the end of the day, it’s the relationship that matters most. I recall the words spoken to me by a supervisor during my first few weeks as a therapist, “People will not remember what you said, what you did, or what counseling theory you used…but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
“I learn just as much from you as you do from me.”
I have learned more about being a therapist from sitting with my clients than I ever have from any of my textbooks, lectures, class discussions, professional trainings, conferences, etc. My clients are unquestionably my greatest teachers and have taught me more than I could ever learn from sitting behind a desk—everything from how I facilitate sessions, to how I approach my own life and relationships, to how I view the world around me. Each day, I am reminded of the tremendous strength and resilience of the human spirit, as I work with clients who triumph in the face of incredible adversity. Every session, and every client, teaches me to be a better counselor.
“Counseling is a commitment.”
Therapy is not an overnight fix; it’s a process. One that requires considerable commitments of time, energy, money, and a willingness to do deep inner work. It requires consistent attendance at sessions, but even more importantly, a large part of the success of therapy comes down to what you do in between sessions. Are you willing to make changes to take better care of yourself? Are you stepping out of your comfort zone? Completing the assignments we discuss during sessions? I liken it to having a personal trainer. You’re not going to see results right away, but if you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make long-term, consistent changes, you’ll likely obtain the outcome you desire over time. You get out of it what you put into it.
“Most therapists have been in therapy themselves.”
The best therapists I know are the ones who have spent time in the “other chair” and have experienced firsthand how terrifying and vulnerable it can feel to sit down with a stranger and divulge the deepest, darkest parts of themselves. As part of my graduate school training, students were required to undergo a certain number of therapy sessions themselves—which I strongly believe should be the standard across all counselor education programs. In The Gift of Therapy, Irvin Yalom calls personal therapy a “tuning of the therapist’s most valuable instrument…the therapist’s own self.”
My clients will often ask if I care about them—genuinely care about them—given that they are paying me money for therapy. Every so often, I’ll hear a statement like, “You don’t care. You only pretend to care, because I pay you.” Recently, my heart was deeply touched while reading a book by Casey Truffo, as she described a parable about a kindly therapist treating a very depressed and lonely woman. Through tears, the client tells the therapist, “I don’t like that I have to pay you to love me.” And the therapist says, “You pay me for my education, my efforts, my time, and my commitment. The love is free.”
Therapy isn’t easy, but it can be a profoundly rewarding, meaningful, and deeply life-changing experience for those who choose to embark on the journey.