6 Things You Should Know About Therapy

How this helpful tool can help you

There are a lot of misconceptions about psychotherapy. That's understandable. It's a relationship that develops behind closed doors over conversations about mostly private matters. Also, the topic of mental health makes many people uncomfortable. Few people would disagree that you should take care of your physical health by visiting a medical professional, but many studies show there is a great deal of fear and stigma surrounding the open discussion and treatment of mental and emotional health.

But your emotional well-being is just as important as your physical health. You deserve to be comfortable and happy in your life, and psychotherapy is a powerful tool that can help you get there. I want to demystify therapy, put your mind at ease, and explain how therapy works – and works well.

You are in charge of picking a therapist.
Therapy is all about taking control of your life and moving it in a positive direction. That begins with choosing a therapist you like. You are allowed to (and should) "couch shop."  Ask friends for referrals or look at some professional profiles online (such as the ones on Psychology Today) to get a feel for different therapists' approaches. Then give some a call. Most will likely offer a 10- to 15-minute free telephone consultation to get a feel for the relationship.

When you decide to try a session, it's understood that you are doing just that – trying it out. You should never feel pressured by someone to keep working with him or her. If you don't feel comfortable in your first session, move on and try someone else. Forty years of research confirms that the best therapeutic work is rooted in a trusting connection between you and your therapist.

Going to therapy is not a sign of weakness.
It's actually a sign of mental health to reach out for supportive help when you need it (rather than isolating yourself). You probably wouldn't think twice about hiring a personal trainer to help you understand how to do proper strength training (and to motivate you to do it). So why wouldn't you hire an expert to help you do a little heavy lifting in your emotional life? A therapist's job is to help you learn to care for yourself. You would probably really enjoy a gift of unlimited personal training sessions at a gym, so think of therapy as a gift you give yourself to help you feel better.

Your therapist's job is to understand you.
In a therapy session, you can expect the therapist to be very interested in your life and what you have to say. In the first couple sessions, you will get to know each other. She will ask you questions about what brings you to her office and also take a history, asking you broad questions about the circumstances of your life. This process of establishing a rapport takes place over a few sessions.

You are in control of the process.
As therapy proceeds, you and your therapist will come up with goals for you to work through at your pace. If you have an issue that you find embarrassing, you can reveal it when you feel ready. Your therapist will always aim to strike a balance between respecting your pace and feeling out what needs to be explored in order for your healing process to proceed.

You should feel comfortable and relaxed with your therapist, even if revealing some deeply personal information sometimes feels uncomfortable. A therapist's job is to listen without judgment and share with you what she has learned in a way that helps you shape your life the way you want to.

Therapy does not make you dwell in the past, but helps you live in the present.
Therapy is a positive process to help you develop self-knowledge and self-esteem. Yes, you will identify old thoughts, feelings, and habits formed from your past experiences, but you focus on them only to learn new skills and ways to manage your emotions moving forward. In therapy, you learn that self-awareness and self-love are not just words, but actual emotional states worth the effort because they have big long-term benefits.

Therapy is not forever.
As your therapy progresses, you slowly internalize the positive skills you need to regulate strong emotions and to strengthen your self-acceptance and relationship to others and the world. And when you feel ready, you can move on.

There are many reasons to feel that it's time to end therapy. Sometimes you know you're ready because you have made good progress on your original goals. Another reason might be to take a break and use your new knowledge and skills to negotiate the world on your own.

When you feel it is time to move on, don't end the therapeutic relationship with an email or a text. Instead, practice your hard-won communication and relationship skills and talk about your thoughts and feelings with your therapist for one or two more sessions.