When many think about therapy a picture of the client on the couch with the passive therapist may come to mind, as that is how therapy is typically portrayed in the media. As much as people say they would find this unhelpful, and would prefer an engaged therapist, who offers practical help, it is surprising how many clients come to therapy unaware of both what to expect and at times of the hard work that therapy requires. Holding unrealistic expectations can interfere with progress, by showing up to sessions for an hour each week, and venting about problems, thinking that the therapist will have all the answers.
It is crucially important for you, as a client, to have a good relationship with a therapist you feel connected to and comfortable with, because he or she is going to challenge you – to look at things differently, to take responsibility for some things, and to change your behaviors. A good therapist will display empathy, compassion and non-judgment, but they will also hold you accountable. This is not really a fun experience for anyone. You are going to need to open up, be vulnerable, to be honest with yourself and your therapist about things you may want to avoid acknowledging. You are going to be asked to practice skills such as boundary setting or replacing unhealthy coping skills with healthy ones. This stuff is HARD – it doesn’t come easy. If it did, you’d have been able to make the changes on your own a long time ago. Your therapeutic work, depending on the circumstances, may also require you to go back and process unresolved grief, traumas, and/or relational wounds. Also not fun. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but you must understand that authentic change is not possible any other way. Trust me. I wish it was. As a therapist, I hate this fact just as much as you do. I want to be able to skip over it and get to the feeling better part. Really. I am not getting any pleasure from your pain. It simply is the only way to experience authentic healing, progress and growth.
I’m not saying all of this to scare you off. I just want you to be mentally prepared, so that you increase your chances of therapy being helpful. The good news is that you’ll have a compassionate, empathic, non-judgmental, objective, knowledgeable person who is actively engaged in walking alongside you through it. Your therapist’s job is to be entirely focused on your well-being. Therapists are trained to be mindful to not overshoot the window of discomfort – a good therapist will be mindful to not re-traumatize you or flood you with more than you can handle before you’re ready. It’s not a throw-you-into-the-deep-end-and-see-if-you-can-swim type of situation. A good therapist will walk with you through difficult realities and will help guide you to wellness.