Over the years, people, including clients have said to me, "why do I need to go to a therapist, when I can talk to my mom, my girlfriend, my spouse?" "Why pay money to someone when I can just talk to a friend". And I ask in return, “who do you talk to when you need to complain about or navigate a change with the exact same people you are referring to and/or live with?”
Talking to your mom about the weather is great, but what about when you need to process childhood traumas you experienced or she said and did things that were and still are hurtful? And what about if she doesn’t remember the same things you remember or she poo poos your memories and experiences?
What happens when you talk to your best friend about your spouse’s infidelity? Do you think she can just come over for Thanksgiving dinner without wanting to kill your spouse or avoid saying something snarky? Even worse, what if it’s your best friend that slept with your spouse? Yikes!
What happens when you’ve talked to your sister about hating your job for the 100th time and she says “Jesus…stop complaining already, at least you have a great pension”. Are you going to be inclined to talk to her about your spouse’s infidelity or Mom’s hurtful ways of being?
The point is, when you rely on those in your life to talk to, they are biased. They have their own judgments, opinions and thoughts about your life, your choices, your experiences. They may not be able to offer an objective point of view because they are too close to you and the situation or they may want you to stay in the rut. They may judge and make you feel bad about the thoughts and feelings that you have.
Thoughts like “I hate you”, “I love you” “I’m scared” are very hard to express with people you love without it changing the relationship. Sure, it can be done, but change is an evolution that requires constant exploration and feedback in order to get it right.
What is the point of therapy?
The beautiful thing about therapy is that you can work to constantly evolve and get better. You don’t need years and years of therapy (unless that’s what you want and you can afford it). You can weave in and out of therapy once or throughout your life as you recognize the need for a check in or are experiencing a bump in the speed bump of life. I always compare therapy to clearing out your garbage can.
We all experience life and produce garbage. Most of the time we can clear it out with very little effort. But sometimes the garbage can get fuller faster because of life events (i.e. childhood trauma, death, loss of job, divorce, turning 50, etc.) and it’s hard to keep up with clearing it out. You avoid clearing it out until it becomes too full and it gets too scary to clean out by yourself.
A therapist can help you to clear out the mess, and get back to a way of life that allows you to enjoy yourself. Full disclosure though, it should be noted that therapy can be an intimidating experience. You are asking yourself to change and share difficult parts of yourself and your life. This is hard.
As therapists, we get it. We also get that there are many misconceptions about therapy that we often have to help a client get over and that is why it’s important to find the right fit for you. Below are some things to think about as you begin the search for a therapist.
1. Therapy is an investment in yourself.
Let me repeat this…Therapy is an investment in YOURSELF. You will get out of it what you put into it. Therapy will benefit you if you are willing to incorporate the actions, thoughts and ideas that are often discussed in the therapeutic session.
If you are asked to do something over the course of the week (i.e. journal, meditate, set boundaries, confront someone, etc.) and don’t do it, what outcome do you expect? You may have decided that the therapist’s suggestion is ineffective or too time consuming.
If you are unwilling or unable to incorporate the suggestions made to you, can you really expect change? The bigger question becomes, do you in fact really want the change that you say you so desperately want?
Therapy is not a passive process, but rather an active one as you are trying to establish new habits. Recognize any reluctance or resistance that may show up. Resistance or reluctance doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means there is something deeper going on that requires reflection.
2. Do your research.
First figure out what type of therapist you would like to work with. Some people want action-oriented therapists who give them homework every week. Some people want to be in and out after 10 sessions and are looking for a short-term therapist to figure things out. Do you want to talk about something specific (i.e. the death of a parent, a divorce), or something related to your overall dysfunction (i.e. childhood trauma, job dissatisfaction, anxiety)?
Maybe you want a touchy feely grandmotherly type who gives you a feeling of warm milk and cookies. Maybe you want humor? Someone cognitive who is rooted in science and theory? A female? LGBTQ? You get the idea. You have to assess what type of therapist you will be willing to tell all of the scaries to. If you find that you look at a profile and think…“oh I could never tell that person that I hate my husband”…then that therapist may not be for you.
And you do yourself (and your wallet) a disservice by just picking someone because they have an opening or they have an office close to your house. Especially these days as telehealth has exploded as an option and is being covered by insurance, it is in your best interest to look for someone who you will get along with.
Do yourself a favor and ask for a consultation. Most therapists will offer a 15 minute phone call to give you a feel for them and help you explore what you need. Change is already an intimidating thing without the added element of you not connecting with your therapist.
My therapy style? I am a deeply spiritual, sarcastic therapist who uses mindfulness, talk of higher powers and Tarot cards, but also evidence-based practices like EMDR and CBT. And I swear. So go figure. There are right therapists for every person out there, so look around.
3. Ask questions.
If the therapist offers free 15 minute consultations, take them up on that offer. You are interviewing someone to be the holder of your deepest darkest secrets. Ask what type of therapy they provide and ask them to explain further.
I often find that people will have read something somewhere and say, “I want that type of therapy”, however when the process is explained to them, they may realize that in fact it is not what they expected and they have to determine if that is something they really want.
For example, I often get calls for people wanting EMDR and then when I explain to them what the process entails, and what time commitments are to be made, many people realize they cannot make the time or emotional commitment for EMDR to be successful. Of course, you can have an open mind and be willing to try things, but the point is, you should have some sense about what you are hoping to gain from therapy.
4. Be prepared for long wait lists or for a therapist to decline you as a client.
There are lots of people and only so many therapists. You may be given a referral list or see a list of therapists online, but be prepared for the lack of availability as a therapist may not have any openings or may take some time to get back to you. You may also hear that that a therapist may not availability for 3-6 months. This is common (at least in NJ where I practice).
Look at several profiles and websites and come up with a list of two or three therapists that you are drawn to. Also note that a therapist may request to have a consultation to determine if the two of you would be a good fit. As a therapist, their job is to serve you and if they do not think that they may adequately serve you, they may decline to take you as a client.
I, for example, have very limited training in substance abuse and this is a domain that requires specialized training. If a tentative client reaches out, asking for help navigating sobriety, I know that my limited training and access to resources in this domain would not help them in their goals.
I will recommend that they seek another therapist because I do not think I can adequately help them. Often a therapist will provide you with a list of other therapists who may be able to help you best meet your goals.
5. Have realistic expectations.
Going to therapy is not a magic bullet. You may feel better after going to therapy and complaining about your spouse, but that alone isn’t going to change anything. You cannot expect to vent, develop no insight, take no action and be surprised that your relationship isn’t getting better. The work done in therapy is to reflect on your current mindset, thinking and behavior, and explore what isn’t working and what may have to change in order for the status quo to change.
Change may be as subtle as waking up with a grateful heart instead of complaining about what you don’t have to as dramatic as quitting your job and moving across the country. Don’t expect lifelong traumas to be over and done with in 3 sessions. The process of change is a winding road and is never a straight line.
6. Understand the difference between paying out of pocket and using your insurance.
Therapists recognize that there are pros and cons to both. The biggest thing for you to understand is that if you use your insurance, insurance companies have the right to access your file and find out what it is they’re paying for. That includes notes, assessments, etc. And they have the right to determine whether they will pay for therapy and for how long. You will need a diagnosis in order for insurance to cover your therapy. Some people are ok with having a diagnosis, and some people find it intrusive.
Also, know that if you are going through an EAP program, your employer may be made aware of any issues or diagnoses, should they request your records. If you’re ok with that, with the tradeoff being that you have a $25 co-pay, you know that going in.
If you choose to pay out of pocket, your therapy becomes a completely independent experience, where you determine how long you want to stay in therapy, what you want to talk about and not worry about having a paper trail associated with you. The consequence of this is that it can be expensive.
7. Therapy may be costly (especially if you are paying out of pocket).
I often hear people complain about the expense of therapy, reverting back to the idea that they can talk to someone for free, instead of pay a therapist to listen to you. As noted above, therapy is an investment. Therapy can be costly because you’re paying someone who takes the time to hone their craft, read up and research the treatments that are effective, think about how to best get you to your better self.
Therapists constantly invest in their professional development in order to offer you the various tools for you to be successful. Therapy is a skill that requires constant self-reflection and updating. Outside of all of these responses, I often find that fear often drives people to have a visceral reaction to the cost of therapy.
I often find deeper, underlying issues at play, namely a fear of change, a fear in putting oneself first and a fear of what they may discover about themselves. It is the exploration of those things that truly supports why you should be in therapy.
If you can get out of the mindset that therapy is expensive, instead recognizing that you are making a short-term investment in order to have long term gains, namely a life that you enjoy, you may see yourself make a mindset shift.
If the reality is that you cannot afford the fee of the therapist you really want, look for clinics or therapy practices where a sliding scale may be in effect. The therapist you want may also offer a sliding scale fee, so ask.
8. Recognize that change is hard and you have to be willing to change in order to get the life that you want.
You know why you’ve complained about your job for the 100th time, but still not left it? It’s because change is hard and the fear of the unknown keeps us in situations that are comfortable. It’s the Devil you know, vs. the Devil you don’t.
Part of therapy is recognizing that a therapist is there to help encourage you to make change. The therapist cannot make that change for you but they will guide you and nurture you as you get closer to taking the steps that will ultimately help you feel better.
9. Be prepared for negative feedback from those in your life if you tell them that you are in therapy.
The process of therapy is deeply personal. While change, in theory, should be a good thing, change may be perceived as a threat to another person’s way of life. Imagine if you recognized that your marriage with an unfaithful spouse was not healthy for you and you made a choice to leave? Perhaps your spouse would not like that. After all, they were having their cake and eating it too.
You finally decide to quit your job or ask for a raise because you see the value in your work. The supervisor would now have to hire and train a brand new person. The company would have to find money to pay you and possibly other employees who hear about your raise.
Change can be hard because the people around us may make it difficult, either through judgment, guilt trips or out right threats. As you envision the changes you want to make, it is always helpful to ask yourself how those changes may negatively impact those in your life. A therapist will be able to help support you and foster the strength to navigate any negative feedback.
10. Recognize that it’s ok to break up with a therapist.
Whether you’ve seen someone for a year and feel that you have maxed out the work you can do with this person, or you just can’t seem to gel with this therapist after a few sessions, recognize it and honor that feeling.
Ending the therapeutic relationship for whatever reason is healthy as it says that you are recognizing what you need and choosing to put your needs and overall well-being first. And as a therapist, there is no greater thing than to hear that a client is listening to themselves and making choices that support their well-being.
Therapy is a process of learning to trust yourself and to see yourself as more than what you are currently seeing, feeling or experiencing in this moment. If you found yourself reading this, there is something inside of you that recognizes that perhaps something in your life is not quite right. Maybe you don’t know what that is, or you’re afraid to discover it, but give it a try, you may surprise yourself.
My name is Eddie and I am a mindfulness-based therapist in Bordentown, NJ who specializes in trauma, anxiety and Mom stress. I provide online counseling throughout the state of NJ and specifically in Mercer and Burlington County, NJ (Bordentown, Chesterfield, Robbinsville, Hamilton and Princeton). Find me on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.