When clients who have never had therapy come to me often their first question is
‘How long will I feel this way?’
Managing your mental health when you are not on top form can be exhausting, many don’t realize that if you have been struggling for a long time, your brain sees this as normal. For those who have experienced or been exposed to repeated trauma this ‘normal’ is deep rooted and what you feel is normal is a coping mechanism your brain put in place to make you feel safe and push down all those experiences.
In order to heal you need to look forward, not back, to realize a healthier way of living and to break old normal patterns of thought and behavior.
So how do you move forward? Before starting the healing, your expectations of what therapy can do may need to be addressed. Here are four beliefs that new clients often have:
Well this is a yes and a no. A therapist is a trained professional, that is true. Often after initial training, therapists go on to specialise in certain issues but this does not make them a expert on you! Therapists should be interested in you and your life, how the issue affects you and your ability to interact. As only you can explain this, it means you are the expert on you.
For therapy to work, there should be a meeting of the two. What the therapist knows about the issue and what you know about yourself. If you a therapist tells you how you are feeling rather than asks you then it may be time to challenge them or find a new therapist.
A therapist may explain what is happening in your mind/body and how people often feel when going through difficult times (psycho education) and then wait for your input or ask questions that help you make your own connections. They may offer tools to help you manage, but again this should be tailored to you and your life – no two people are the same and there is not one-size-fits-all way of coping.
The clients I work prefer a friendly chatty approach, they find the relationship building part of therapy helpful and I’ve been told that the silent, sit back, listen and observe with the odd prompt or question approach makes them feel judged even if the therapist seems to empathise. For some people my approach could feel intrusive and they prefer, what I have heard termed the more ‘professional’ therapist.
You are the expert on what and who works for you, and your therapist should listen! The therapist is there to aid you on your healing journey, to walk beside you helping you to understand yourself. We don’t have all the answers!
This is a common belief that ties in with #1. I have found that people who come to therapy who don’t know what to expect often don’t realise that even if there is no therapy ‘homework’ you will still need to work on yourself outside of your session. The therapist doesn’t wave a magic wand that automatically makes you able to cope with life (though sometimes we wish we could!)
For example if you suffer with anxiety and your therapist teaches you breathing techniques, practicing them only during therapy will not help when it comes to using them. The tools you and your therapist discuss need to be practiced everyday outside of your one hour a week, this helps your brain to unlearn your old unhelpful habits and cement in the new helpful ones.
In the therapy space you have moments where the ‘magic’ does happen, where you realise and recognise certain emotions, thoughts, patterns and behaviours. What you learn in therapy applies to the outside world, it can feel scary and a little unsafe to try them out in your actual life but this is how you move forward. It gives you material to go back and discuss in therapy, work out what is helpful and where you may need extra support.
Whenever my clients thank me for helping them, my response is always the same
“You are where you are because YOU have done the work”
You might be someone who has their ‘magic’ moment very early on in therapy, you might have just needed someone to listen to you and you felt heard. In my experience, clients start off thinking they only want a couple of sessions and then realise that there is a lot more going on than they thought. This is especially true for people who have had issues throughout childhood or suffered long term mental health issues or trauma.
Let’s look at the first session you have, this is should be for going through the contract with your therapist, understanding what they offer, confidentiality and what you should expect from them. It is also when your therapist explains what is expected of you such at arriving on time, what you have to pay etc. This can take time, especially if there are any forms or questionnaires to be completed. Your therapist will also want an overview of your issues, who you have supporting you and if there is any important information you may feel is relevant to therapy.
Poof! The first session is gone and you feel like you haven’t even scratched the surface. Your therapist however is building a mental image of you, your life and what the issues might be and is working out what they have on their therapeutic toolkit that may help you.
In session 2 in my practice I build on that picture, aim to create a safe space and with you and we begin to work out what tools you need to help stabilise your emotions to allow us to move forward.
From then on, the sessions can go deeper if needed, or focus on the tools you need for everyday life, but to feel the benefits of therapy, I would recommend a minimum of 6 sessions to start.
The important thing to keep in mind is the communication between you and your therapist, if you feel something isn’t working or you don’t understand, tell them, this will help keep your therapy on track.
Okay, so this is the aim of therapy but what people don’t always realise is that it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Working through your thoughts, feelings and behaviours can be painful and exhausting, you might dredge up some heavy emotional stuff and that doesn’t make anyone feel good. So going into therapy expect to feel like crap some of the time.
Some clients feel lighter, relieved and a bit more understanding at the end of session only to find later in the week their emotions crash, they feel worse and need to process this in the next session. Others feel awful at the end of the session but process the work and have feelings of a breakthrough. This is where self care and commitment to practicing the tools discussed in therapy comes in.
There is no right or wrong way to heal, it can feel like a rollercoaster, up and down, fast and slow. Think of your therapist like your roller coaster health and safety trainer – they know when to brake and when to let you go faster. They help you recognise when the twists and turns are approaching and the best way to ease up and lean in the right direction so you don’t feel so out of control. With time you can do this yourself and feeling crap reduces.
I’m being honest here about the reality of therapy but don’t let that put you off. Yes, it is hard, it can be painful and ultimately you are responsible for putting it into practice, but the pay off for engaging regularly and consistently far outweighs the discomfort of starting.
Do not rush, trust the process, allow yourself to become your authentic self and make the decision to whole heartedly engage with whatever arises.
Take care, Naomi