Illustration by Lindsay Hattrick


Here’s What To Know Before Going To Therapy For The First Time

It’s not as simple as you’d think

by Hafeezah Nazim

I met my therapist by chance. On a whim, one day, I went to my university's psychology clinic as a means to finally face some of the anxiety- and depression-related issues I'd been having at college, and after filling out what seemed to be mountains of paperwork asking me to rate the weight of my pain on a scale of one to 10, he appeared in my life and helped me turn my fears into power. My time with him taught me more than I ever thought possible about myself—so much so that our sessions went on well after I received my cap and gown.

But while my experience finding a therapist was a relatively smooth one, thanks to having a school with adequate resources, I know it's not that simple for most people. For many people, there's tons of legwork to be done in finding a doctor, and sometimes it takes a while before settling on the right match for you and your needs. To better help anyone else who's looking to start therapy, I talked to five therapists about what to expect when looking to start therapy. Here's what they had to say.

Therapy Is Not A Substitute For Advice-Giving

One of the biggest myths about therapy, and the way it may be portrayed on television or film, is that your therapist is going to solve your issues for you. It's actually quite the opposite: "The therapist works as a guide to help the client explore their own goals and meaning so they ultimately make the best decision for themselves," says clinical counselor Sarah Farris. "Therapists will also take an individual's culture, identity, and values into account without judging. In cases that are more specific, the therapist will use particular techniques or methods to treat a certain condition."

Have An Idea Of What You Are Looking For

The actual practice of therapy is far from being one-size-fits-all. There's psychotherapy, journal therapy, music therapy, and so much more. Before finding your therapist, be sure to do some research on all the different types out there. Dr. Katie Krimer of Union Square Practice says, "You may hear lots of unfamiliar terms thrown around like CBT, DBT, ACT, Mindfulness, Psychoanalysis, etc. Before you go into searching for your first therapist, ask yourself what kind of experience you want. If there's a specific issue that you struggle with, do some research to find out what kind of evidence-based therapies are out there that may best suit your needs." 

Know How To Get A Feel For A Therapist Before Meeting Them

One of the best ways for you to begin your journey toward healing is to ensure that you and your therapist have good chemistry. Dr. Bryan Bruno, medical director at Mid City TMS, says, "To figure out if your therapist will have a good rapport with you, start with a phone call to see how the conversation feels. Remember that therapists are human beings, too, so they may not be the right fit for every patient."

And Dr. Krimer tells me that, like you would before heading out to a new restaurant or bar, you should use your friends as references, "One of the best ways to look for a therapist is to ask those closest to you if they have any connections or know someone whom they really liked. It can be really difficult to find a great therapist—and it's hard to know from a picture and description what kind of person they're going to be. So if someone can give you a recommendation firsthand, that can be a great way to start."

But don't stop there. "Once you've done your research and you have someone in mind, you can call the clinic and ask the clinical coordinator a little bit more about the potential provider," Dr. Krimer says. "If you're looking for a particular treatment modality, a preferred sex, someone with expertise in a given field, you can vet someone in this way. Good clinical coordinators will get a vibe from this conversation and typically try to set you up with someone based on your preliminary needs. Even if you've never been to therapy before and know absolutely nothing, you can call a clinic and be upfront about your newness. They will help set you up with someone who they feel might be a great fit."

Know How You'd Like To Pay

It's weird to think of something so emotional and life-changing like therapy as a business. But it's better to get all the technical stuff like payments out the way early. And usually, your therapist will work with you to help you reach a financial system that works for you. "Some therapists accept insurance and some don't. It's important to know if you want to pay privately or use your insurance," Dr. Farris continues. "You can search for in-network therapists and you can also request a quote from the therapist before the appointment to get an idea of what your responsibility would be based on your insurance plan. Some therapists will also offer a sliding fee scale if not taking insurance." 

Things May Feel Worse Before They Feel Better

Along with thinking that therapy can be a substitute for advice-giving, another common misconception is that it'll automatically make you feel better post-session. Not all breakthroughs will feel good—in fact, real progress often makes you feel uncomfortable. It's good to keep in mind that healing, like your own personal growth, is nonlinear and ongoing, meaning that there will be many bumps along the way. You just have to be willing to take the ride.

"I know, I know, this may not be what you want to hear, but it’s important to know: When starting therapy, things may feel worse before they feel better," says Dr. Annie Wright, owner and clinical director of Evergreen Counseling:

I often describe beginning the work of therapy—particularly if you’re looking to explore and change some deeply held beliefs, thoughts, and patterns—as what might happen if you decide to tackle a thorough cleanout of an overly crammed closet you haven’t touched in years. When you begin the process of cleaning out the closet, you have to pull everything out and strew it about you on the floor. It may start to look like a big pile of chaos, and you may feel overwhelmed halfway through the project when you look around and see the mess around you. You may want to quit and you may regret having even started. But to get things really, properly cleaned and organized, you have to keep going. As you do, you can sort out what goes to the trash, what gets donated, what gets returned to the closet and better organized. In time, you’ll have finished the project but do know that there may be a point—or many points—when it feels worse before it feels better.

Therapy Also Happens In Between Sessions

While you'll be making small and big revelations in your sessions, it's important to carry your progress outside of your therapist's office. "It's important to work on oneself and not just think therapy is magically going to heal," says Dr. Sanam Hafeez.

If you're still having trouble getting started, be sure to check out this guide to different types of therapy and other frequently asked questions about therapy.