Susan* came to her first appointment terrified. I know this because she told me so. It wasn’t the traffic, the fear of getting lost, or worry about being late. It wasn’t even the actual ‘reason’ she felt she wanted to see a therapist in the first place (her fear of elevators). She was petrified, it seems, that I (her new therapist) would think she was “crazy.”
You might laugh at this – it does sound almost comical – except for the fact that there is nothing funny about a fear so intense that it prevents you from getting the help that you may want, or for some, desperately need.
Unfortunately, it is common for a client to fear this type of judgment from a therapist. As we know, anxiety and worries are usually not completely founded in reality. And it is this type of fear (anxious fear) that usually prevents a person from seeking help.
For Susan, she had wanted to see a therapist for the past 5 years – as long as she had been unable to use an elevator without experiencing severe anxiety. A way we would frame this is that her fear of what a therapist might think of her was bigger for her than her desire to seek help. Until the day her fear of elevators caused her to decline a job offer – for a job she believed she would have loved – because the office was on the 11th floor.
It was then that she decided her need to seek help outweighed her fear of doing so.
It is completely understandable – normal – to be anxious about speaking with a therapist for the first time. Just think about how difficult it is to talk to someone you know and trust (parent, spouse, partner, teacher) about something personal. And when you are feeling most lost, most vulnerable, here you are thinking about talking to a complete stranger.
Think about it: We have been taught about ‘stranger danger’ from a young age. “Don’t get in a stranger’s car.” “Don’t go look at the puppy they say they have in a box around the corner. ” It seems perfectly logical that we might assume: “DO NOT, for any reason and for the sake of all that is sane and good, tell them your deepest darkest fears!”.
So knowing that most (if not all) clients come to therapy feeling anxious for any number of reasons, we want to share our ‘insider secrets’ so you can put at least some of your fears to rest:
1. Therapy is a service.
Just the same as if you go get your car maintenanced, or your hair done: if you dislike the person on a personal level (for whatever reason) you will likely service you car or get your hair done elsewhere. We believe the same follows with a therapist: don’t continue to see a therapist that you don’t connect with! Without a good connection, it will be very difficult to form a trusting therapy relationship, and without that you will likely get little benefit. (If you don’t trust us on that – ahem – there’s plenty of research that supports the idea that a good relationship with your therapist is one of the key predictors of successful therapy).
The exception: sometimes it is important and useful to try to work through some of your feelings with your therapist before moving on (especially if you often have difficulty connecting with people – indeed, this can often be the focus of therapy!)
2. Therapists are human too.
We have personal lives that are not textbook, not perfect and sometimes not pretty. That is usually how we can connect with our clients – one person to another. Sometimes we share personal experiences if appropriate, relevant to our clients to help them heal. Usually we do not – our clients are there to talk and be listened to, to get help, to heal. It is the client’s space, the client’s agenda, and that takes precedence.
3. Therapists have codes of ethics they must adhere to.
Licensed or accredited therapists work within the guidelines of a code of ethics (not saying Aunt Betty isn’t a great listener – but you know that whatever you share with her may spread through the village faster than chickenpox). All are bound to confidentiality (with only certain limits such as reporting child abuse or significant current risk of self-harm or harm to others). We cannot and do not talk about our clients with friends or family. Rest assured that what you share with your therapist stays with your therapist (again, except for a few limited exceptions – and your new therapist will explain all these limitations usually at the first appointment).
4. Therapists love what they do.
We work with people and peoples’ ‘problems’ because we want to see them feel, do and be better. Therapists – at least the ones we know – have no interest in judging their clients, nor do they feel superior. They have a calling, an education, a desire, a gift – whatever you may want to call it – to help others. We realize that clients are anxious at the beginning – it’s our job to ease those fears. If we don’t do that in the first two sessions, see point 1.
So now you know some helpful things about therapy and therapists. If you’re feeling ‘stuck’ and think it might help to work through that stuck-ness then go make that call. There are amazing people ready, willing and able to help.
Why? Because you’re worth it!
P.S. In case you were wondering, Susan successfully overcame her fear of elevators ?
*Not Susan’s real name, of course!