Trying Therapy For The First Time – PART 1 (SELECTION)

“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful part of us” – David Richo

What Therapy Am I Talking About?

I am specifically talking about mental therapy. The kind of therapy that involves seeing a therapist, psychotherapist or psychiatrist to address the symptoms of mental illness or emotional troubles.

Why Did I Decide To Try

Just like everyone else, I have my own demons and I wanted to start acknowledging them and addressing them. There were a few things that I had been mentally dealing with for years but not making any progress.

I thought I could ignore them and they would resolve themselves or go away. I resorted to self-help books and videos as a solution. However, as time passed I noticed that they only got worse and started coming out in different aspects of my life (relationships, friendships, values, anger management..etc).

Going into therapy, the key issues that I wanted to cover and address were:

  1. Negative relationships with family members
  2. Bad habits and values
  3. Insecurities

How Did I Find The Right Therapist

In the initial stages of my search for the right therapist, I had no idea what distinguished a good one from a bad one. Using a strategy that has worked in the past, I used the same process to shop for a used car. This turned out to be pretty effective and I was able to narrow down the search to a list of therapists that fit what I was looking for.

1. Identify areas of specialization

The first step in this process is to identify what you are looking for in therapy. Identify key areas that you are looking for assistance with and mark them as areas of specialization that the therapist should be specialized in or received a formal education in. You want to ensure that you are paired with someone who will apply a proven method rather than a general approach to your unique situation.

In my case, the areas of specialization where:

Relationships and Family Building. I wanted to repair some of the relationships I had with certain family members. I also wanted to understand the root cause and prevention methods to make sure I did not subconsciously let it happen again.

Addiction Management. I have some idiosyncrasies that I wanted to better understand and break their strong control over my behavior and decision making.

Financial Stress Management and Self-Esteem Building. Money has always had a strong hand in my decision making and happiness. I want to break free from this control. In addition, there are also a lot of self-esteem issues that I have been dealing with and I wanted to identify the root causes to learn to reduce their impact on my psyche.

2. Identify your comfort criteria

Once you have your focus areas, it is important to review the following criteria to determine your comfort. As with buying a used car, there are certain non-negotiables that you have in your head. It is important, to be honest with yourself and consider them. Not considering them could lead you to not fully embrace the therapist and experience which could limit the benefit. Some key criteria to focus on are:

Gender. Are you more comfortable with a man or woman? Some people feel that the same gender allows them to be open while others feel self-conscious admitting problems to the same gender.

For me, I knew that I would not be able to fully open up to a male. There are subconscious and machismo tendencies in the back of my head which would prevent this. Rather than fight this, I decided to move forward with a female therapist.

Location. Is the therapist’s location easy to get to during the week and weekend? Chances are you will not be able to get the perfect appointment each week. For appointments during the week or weekend is the distance from your home/work feasible? It is important to ensure that you are not driving way out of your way. You should be comfortable with the distance to be able to consistently keep your appointments and avoid being late or canceling.

For me, I knew this comfort zone of distance was halfway between my work and home (5 miles). This allowed me to attend appointments during the weekdays just as easily as appointments on the weekends. I was comfortable driving the distance to the therapist and did not feel that it was well out of my way.

Price. Is the charged rate reasonable? We have a tendency to think from our wallets. Despite how important something is, we can easily rationalize or argue against it if the cost is too high. It is important to find a therapist with a rate that is reasonable. Therapy can take multiple sessions over the course of months or years. As such, you need to be comfortable with the rate in the case that more sessions are needed beyond what you envisioned.

For me, this was $110-$150 per session. I could rationalize and justify this expense. This amount was on par with the cost for a session of physical therapy or personal training. It was a fee that was comfortable with and was on par with other healthcare professionals.

It is also important to note, therapists with multiple degrees, specializations or unique services will tend to have higher prices. This premium is for the extra education they have in this field and could correspond to better service (not always the case).

Availability. What are the days and hours of the therapist? Will they fit into your schedule? As important as therapy is, it will often come secondary to your top priorities (work, school, kids…etc). Having a therapist that has overlap in availability with yours will be key to attending events and making it on time. You do not want to pair with a therapist that operates within a small window of time during the week.

For me, I knew the weekdays were extremely busy and difficult for me. My priority was to find a therapist that had hours until 5-6pm on Fridays and was open on the weekends. I liked having the flexibility of scheduling a weekend appointment in case the week(s) were going to be filled with important meetings and engagements that prevented me from leaving. This way I was able to keep the consistency of my sessions without dealing with the pressure of taking time away from something else.

Accreditation. Do they have a degree or specialized education? Dealing with matters of the mind is a difficult task and you want to ensure that you are in the best hands for that. The goal of therapy should be resolution and/or action. If the therapist you are working with is not proficient in the education or techniques necessary to do that, you could be just wasting your time. It is important to find someone who is well qualified and has a deep breadth of experience to help you deal with your situation. The best way we can determine this is through their credentials.

Pay attention to their accreditation. Do they have a masters degree from a good college or university? Have they completed specialized training or certifications in specialized therapy? How many years have they been practicing for?

For me, I was not too particular on the extensiveness of the credentials. I simply made sure that they had a masters degree in marriage and family and therapy (MFT) or social work (MSW). Beyond that, I also wanted a therapist that had been practicing for at least 10 years. I felt that 10 years was a sufficient amount of time to have seen a wide array of different clients and situations. 10 years would also allow time to develop a personalized methodology and approach that was not “textbook”. I wanted someone who knew what worked in practice vs what they were taught in school.

3. Search using reliable resources

Once you have your focus areas and key criteria, the next step is to use them to identify the best matches. In my experience, the best resources for searching are websites that provide aggregated information of therapists with the ability to filter based on conditions (area, gender, specializations).

The resources I found most effective and relied on were:

Yelp. For finding the office location, availability, website, and reviews.

Psychology Today. For finding, contact information, background/education, accreditation, specializations, and treatment approach

Health Grades. For finding accepted insurances and other general information

Therapist’s personal website. For confirming any information from the above-listed sources. The best resource for contact information and availability

4. Create your list and start interviewing

Using the resources identified in the previous set you should filter and identify 3 to 4 therapists. These people should meet all of your specifications you identified. Keeping a small manageable list will prevent you from opening your mind to many different options. If all of the therapists did not satisfy all of your criteria then rank them in order based on best fit.

Once you have your list start interviewing each one. You want to validate your research (and finding) and get a feel for this individual. A quick phone conversation can tell you a lot. The way that they answer the phone, tone, responsiveness to talk, current availability are all things you want to be comfortable with prior to your first appointment. These factors that cannot be discovered online and will give you a good feel of the individual allowing you to make a decision. If it is difficult to have a quick phone conversation, a one-hour session might be worse.

How To Prepare For the First Session

Despite identifying areas of focus in the previous step, it is important to identify a few key areas you would like to discuss with the therapist. Unlike the previous list, these items should be specific and targeted.

The methodology I used was:

Identify the behavior. Describe the behavior that you are looking to address. Include all people, events or relationships involved. For example, I would like to address the distant relationship I have with my father.

Identify the impact. Describe how this behavior manifests. Include actions, values or thoughts expressed. For example, it is causing me to get angry at others.

Identify the corrective approach you would like to take. Describe how you would like to see the problem resolved. Provide specifics on your intention to understand, continue or stop. For example, I would like the relationship with my father to be closer.

Providing this specific information to your therapist can allow them to get a good understanding of the problem and impact. It can also help them form a targeted plan to investigate and address it.

Having these specifics on-hand at my first session greatly increased the effectiveness of the first hour. We were able to immediately identify my areas of focus and start targeting the first one before the end of the first session. This also helped guide the following sessions because my therapist was able to easily relate things or keep them focused on the primary objectives.

What Are Your Thoughts On Therapy?

What I’ve shared above are learning and rationalizations from my own experience with mental therapy. I would love to hear your thoughts on mental health and therapy. What has/has not worked for you? Feel free to comment below with insights or identify an area I might have missed. Please share so we can learn and possibly incorporate ourselves.

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