On beginning to change your life: the first session
14 February 2017
‘Signing up’ for counselling/psychotherapy can be a big move? It may even turn your life around in ways you hadn’t thought of. So it’s wise to consider a few things before, during and after your initial session.
Many people looking for a therapist do an initial search online. Others look through a directory. And yet others may be given recommendations by friends or a GP. However you ‘find’ a therapist, you may still wish to run the following checks.
First, your new therapist should, at minimum, be registered – if not also accredited – with a respected professional organisation such as the BACP or UKCP. (Psychologists should be graduate or chartered members of the BPS.) You should also read their website carefully to check they have the experience of, and feel comfortable working with, your general/specific issues. (This is particularly important in areas like sexual difficulties, as few general psychotherapy/counselling trainings offer enough input in this area.)
You shouldn’t be persuaded that someone is a good therapist because they have a lot of letters after their name. Studies suggest that once core requirements of education and training have been met, the effectiveness of the therapist is not dictated by their qualifications; indeed, research indicates it is the quality of the relationship between you and your therapist that can have a huge positive influence on the outcome of your work together.*
Remember also that, with personal recommendations, what works for one person may not always work for someone else. There is still a ‘goodness of fit’ to consider.
And so, having selected a therapist who you believe will be a good fit for you, the next step is to chat to them – through Skype, email, text or telephone call – and, if it still feels like a good fit – book an initial session.
So what can you expect at your first session. If your therapist works for an organisation, your initial session might be quite prescribed. You may have to fill in the organisation’s routine forms and even complete questionnaires or diagnostic tools. However, in a private practice situation, where the therapist works for themselves rather than an organisation, things might be a little more personal and relaxed.
In my own practice, for example, I like people to spend a moment or two getting comfortable on the sofa. It helps me to know how difficult it is for the person to be in the room with me at the start of it all. I often ask people how anxious they feel about coming along for this session – something simple like: ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is low and 10 is high, how anxious do you feel right now?’ Perhaps people don’t always tell the truth – a little in the manner that doctors can’t always trust patients to be honest about the number of units of alcohol they drink in a week – but it gets us started. (By the way, the usual ‘anxiety score’ is around 8. Also, people who have had some counselling or psychotherapy before often find it easier to be in the first session with a new therapist.)
Quite often, we might then go on to talk about how odd it is for two strangers to meet in a room, knowing little about each other but being there with the intention of talking about some of the most challenging areas in one of those two people’s lives. I make no secret of the fact there was a time when I, too, needed the help of therapy. I might use that at some point in an initial session if it helps to build a bridge. After all, most of us understand things best when we know something about it – and sometimes going through a process is the best way to find out.
When you’ve said a few things about your issues and discovered that the therapist is a human being, just like you, your anxiety can fall a point or two.
As the session goes on, people begin to sit back on the sofa. They pick up a bottle of water, which I always have available. They might even check out the tissues. In short, they begin to dial into the character of my room, my therapy space. Their breathing deepens and they discover that therapy is just a special kind of conversation. It’s a confidential place where: the therapist won’t have expectations of what you want to do; the phone won’t ring; no one else will ‘break in’. It’s a special conversation because it’s focused on you. That doesn’t mean the therapist has to be silent or a tabular rasa (blank slate) like you see in the movies (although if that’s what you need, then that sort of therapist can still be found).
I see the therapist as someone who: joins you on your journey, facilitating you to find your answers to fulfil your needs; won’t get their story in the way of yours; can help you, from a detached position, to look at things. I also think that therapy is a distinctively creative process that, through working together, forms the unique therapy you need.
The first session normally races by. People often comment they were worried they wouldn’t know how to say things, or even what to say. Yet, somehow, in the end, there wasn’t enough time to cover all the things they wanted to mention.
Your first session is over. You are walking away from the place of therapy and are going about you real life again. What can you expect now? You may realise you feel pretty tired, perhaps even exhausted. This is the time to start looking after yourself. Between now and your next session you may spend time thinking about the process. You may even dream some answers or questions. An awful lot of the therapy happens between sessions. Your process has begun … Bon voyage.
* See for example: Lambert and Barley (2001) in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 38(4).
Why not visit my therapy website – therapy-space – where you can contact me or find further information about the therapies I provide for women, men and couples.