[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Virginia Duan. I really wished I had read it before I searched for my first therapist. And my second… and I may just bookmark it in case I ever need to find another one! -Jenna]
It can be incredibly overwhelming and expensive to find a therapist. It might even be worse than online dating. Then after finding one, we are not sure what to do with them, how to know if they are a good fit for us, or how long counseling should last.
After all, how do you explain all of who you are and what you need in 50 initial minutes?
After years of therapy with three different doctors, I think I’m finally getting the hang of it. Here then, are some of my tips for getting the most out of your therapist.
1. Decide what you want to get out of therapy beforehand.
Now, this may seem surprising since it seems the whole purpose of therapy is to figure things out. But like all things, I have found that the clearer I am about what I want, the more likely I am to get it.
Your goal can be as general or as specific as you want.
It can be as simple as: Help me. I’m overwhelmed. Help me get whelmed.
With my current therapist, I wanted to work on my anger and uncontrollable screaming with the kids. It had come to the point where my five year old son’s hair actually moved from the force of my yelling. Yes. Like in the cartoons.
2. It’s okay to just choose the first therapist who is available.
Often, because we know therapy is such an intimate thing and such a big deal in terms of money, time, and effort, we want to find that “perfect” therapist. But the truth is, there is no such unicorn. All it does is unnecessarily keep us from getting the help that we so desperately need.
The first two times, I wanted someone who was just like me: Asian American, Christian, and a woman. Unfortunately, when I needed a counselor the third time, I had moved and had three kids, five and under. I still wanted an Asian American Christian woman but this time, I knew that given my town demographics, limited time windows, and childcare needs, I conceded to location and ease.
I asked my local therapist friend for recommendations. I checked them out and went with the first one who emailed me back.
3. Tell your therapist your objective(s). Ask for discrete and concrete skills and suggestions. Follow them.
Okay. Technically, that’s three tips all in one.
But seriously, even though everyone can benefit from just talking to a neutral and supportive person, remember you are taking time and resources away from your family. It sounds so cold and transactional, but it is far more effective to state upfront what you want out of the relationship (and it is a relationship), and request specific actions you can take. That way, both of you have the same expectations. [Read also: 8 Types of Psychotherapy for Postpartum Depression Treatment.]
4. Go into each session with a specific topic/situation that you want to discuss.
I don’t know about you, but my personal issues often seem so vast and impossible. I often refer to it as “eating an elephant.” Unfortunately, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Going into the weekly sessions with a specific incident or topic in mind is your “one bite at a time.” Of course, there are weeks when I have no idea what to discuss, and that’s okay too. I usually just tell my therapist and ask her to ask me a question. That usually gets the ball rolling.
5. Give yourself at least a year.
I know. That sounds awful. After all, what if you commit yourself to a year with this person and it turns out to be wasted?
Truthfully, my first thoughts of my current therapist were that she was into some seriously weird hippy dippy woo woo stuff. But I stuck with her because I figured if thinking similarly to me had worked, WHY WAS I STILL HAVING THESE PROBLEMS? I’m so grateful I stuck it out. I have seen that a lot of what she said in the initial sessions where I thought she was way off-base were actually spot on.
Also, you will be tempted to stop after a few months because you will get better. That’s just the initial “bounce” from actually talking to someone about your problems. Many professionals say it takes at least a year of counseling before you should even think about stopping. [Read also: Six Things That Can Affect How Quickly You’ll Recover from Postpartum Depression]
It took time to get the way you are. It will take time to heal, too.
6. Be truthful.
Don’t lie. I mean, what’s the point in investing all this time and money with someone if you’re just going to deceive them? Just don’t do it.
7. It’s okay for your goals to change.
Just because you started therapy with one objective doesn’t mean it has to stay the same until you’re done. You are constantly evolving as a person and you’ll find that as you resolve and work through particular issues, new ones will crop up. It only makes sense that your goals will change, too.
8. Commit. Make counseling a priority.
In this over-committed world, not to mention being a busy mom, it is incredibly easy to blow off counseling and cancel when things get hard schedule-wise. Don’t do it. Short of emergencies, commit to going weekly and go.
You are important. You are enough of a reason to get well.
Virginia Duan is a Taiwanese American lifestyle blogger at MandarinMama.com. She focuses on identity, social justice, religion, homeschooling, Chinese/English bilingual education, parenting, and raising multi-ethnic kids. She is known for her unflinching honesty, fury-tinged humor, and using ten words when one would do.