If you’ve never been to a professional therapy session before, you might be a little unsure about what to expect. Even if you know that taking this step is the right move for your mental health, it’s completely normal to feel nervous leading up to that first appointment. Opening up about what’s bothering you to a complete stranger is bound to be anxiety-provoking for most.
Here’s the good news: rather than nervously awaiting your first session, you can be proactive and take steps to prepare yourself and help ease your anxiety. As an added bonus, coming to your first session prepared will help your therapist understand you and your needs more thoroughly, putting them in a better position to help you work through whatever concerns you’re hoping to address.
Before your first session, write down some goals that you have for therapy – what you’d like to get out of it, questions you’d like to have answered, or topics you’d like to bring up. Depending on what you’re seeking therapy for, you might find it helpful to split these up into long-term goals and some shorter-term ones. In the days leading up to your appointment, try to take note of the most immediate problems impacting your everyday functioning, and ask your counsellor if you can start there. Keep in mind that if you know “something” needs to change but aren’t quite sure what that is yet, that’s just fine too. Know that it’s also ok to show up completely as you are, right now.
Most of the time, topics we address in therapy can feel painful, embarrassing, or ugly – which is why it can be tempting to lie or to downplay their severity. You may even find yourself wanting to “impress” your counsellor – it’s human nature to want to be liked. Remind yourself, though, that your counsellor is a professional there to guide you through improving your mental health, and it will be difficult for them to do so if you can’t get into the nitty-gritty of things together. You should not have to worry about putting on a show or impressing anyone in your counselling sessions. On the contrary, you should feel safe to be vulnerable and authentic – and this requires courage and bravery. It might take some time to get comfortable and overcome the temptation to sugarcoat, but being as honest and as open as you can is crucial to getting the most out of therapy.
Make time for it
We get it – life is hectic and carving out an hour every week for therapy is probably difficult enough. But, if possible, it’s helpful to try and schedule your session so that you can have some downtime before and after, at least for the first couple of sessions or until you have a better idea of what works for you. The anticipation of going to your first session might leave you feeling anxious and nervous – it’s helpful to have some time beforehand to calm yourself and to reflect on what you might like to talk about. Talking about our mental health at length can be emotionally taxing, so you may find you feel extra tired or experience a dip in your mood following the session. Though this can feel discouraging, it’s completely normal and doesn’t necessarily mean that something isn’t working. If possible, set aside some time for yourself after the session to process and rest.
Manage your expectations, but trust your gut
Not every counsellor is going to be the right fit for you. Remember, though, that the first session is largely for information gathering. Your counsellor might ask you questions about your background and why you sought counselling to get a better idea of how best to proceed. If you don’t feel like the first session was as productive as you’d hoped, don’t give up just yet. It’s totally within your right to decide that a therapist isn’t right for you, but try to give them a fair shot before making a final decision. Keep in mind that dredging up painful memories and processing negative emotions can make things feel like they’re getting worse before they start to get better, which might also distort your perception of how the first session really went.
It’s normal to feel some discomfort during sessions, given how vulnerable and introspective therapy often requires you to be, but your counsellor should never belittle you or make you feel disrespected. If red flags like these are popping up in your session, go with your gut and look elsewhere. It might feel discouraging to know that you may have to repeat your story to more than one counsellor before finding the right fit, but the benefits of sticking it out will make you glad that you did.
Reaching out for help by booking that first appointment is often the best thing you can do for yourself. Our world can be complicated, messy, and downright difficult sometimes – and sometimes we just need a little extra help. There is no shame in getting additional support when you need it. Trust the process and know that one difficult session doesn’t mean you’re not improving. You get in what you put out – communicate with your counsellor about your expectations and needs and collaborate on your best plan-of-action to set yourself up for success in the best possible way. The journey might have painful speedbumps along the way but will be so worth it.