I take a deep breath and try to convey warmth through my smile. The young woman in front of me smiles back nervously, breaking away from my gaze.
“Hi Alex. It is so nice to meet you. Tell me, have you ever consulted a mental health professional before?” A quick shake of the head, indicating no from Alex. I make a mental note to be extra sensitive to Alex’s nonverbal cues to gauge her comfort level as we progress through the session.
I have been working as a psychotherapist for seven years now and the first session is always the most important session for me. It is also often the most awkward for my clients: opening up about your personal problems with a complete stranger can be quite nerve wracking. I recognize the courage it takes to seek psychological help for personal problems and so I do my best to meet the client where they are and take it from there. Furthermore, the first session allows me the chance to explore what ideas the client already has about therapy and help correct any possible misconceptions they have.
“Am I crazy because I am in therapy?”
I may be biased but I think everyone could use some psychotherapy in their lives. The gist of therapy is to provide individuals with a safe environment where they can be their true selves, and not be judged for it. That means you can share your deepest fears, secrets, hopes and dreams, and it is the therapist’s job to stay connected with you through it all. That, in itself, can be quite healing to any human being. But for those of us who might struggle with certain life problems, mental illness, or just need some support, therapy can be a place where you discover things about yourself, including hidden strengths, a more compassionate way of seeing yourself and/or the courage to make the changes you need to be happier.
“Are you going to fix my problems?”
A lot of clients think they will talk to me about their problems and I will tell them how to solve them. That is practically impossible for me to do in a way that is actually helpful. I see my clients one hour a week, which only gives me a small glimpse of their lives. If I had to tell you what to do just based on that one hour, I would be making a lot of assumptions, many of which could be wrong. It is for this reason that I am there to help the client find solutions on their own. How? Well, often I get clients to explain who they are to me or what makes them behave in a certain way. In having to explain yourself to a complete stranger who is very curious and not judgmental, you start to put an order to things in your mind and are able to be honest with yourself. The noise starts to clear out and you can see situations in a new light.
“Am I going to just sit here talking, and you listening?”
Based on the approach they use in their practice, each therapist’s level of engagement is different. While generally the clients do most of the talking, I rarely sit as a silent observer. I will ask questions, offer reflections, and collaborate with you to find helpful coping strategies. Therapy is definitely a lot of teamwork, with the therapist constantly taking cues from the client about how best to help and support them through this process.
“You are not the same __________ (enter race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, lived experience, etc.) as me. How can you understand my reality?”
It happens sometimes that clients are scared that my age/gender/ethnicity/faith/other personal characteristic will prevent me from truly understanding or accepting them. I try my best to honor their fears…after all, this is their life we are talking about! But as a psychotherapist, it is my trained expertise to connect with a fellow human being’s experience, no matter what it is. Sometimes connecting can be difficult but that is where I rely on the trust in our relationship to ask questions and check assumptions so that I can truly understand the person before me. That being said, there are times that you may require a therapist of a certain shared background or history and so I urge you to shop around until you find the right therapist for your needs.
Starting a psychotherapy can be very intimidating but when done with the right mental health professional, at the right time in your life, it can be a circumstance-changing experience. So go ahead, dive into the process and be prepared to discover yourself!