When my doctor suggested I see a therapist a few months ago, I resisted. “I'll think about it,” I told him. But I didn't think much beyond, I don't want to retell my story yet again. It costs too much. I don't have the time. And, most importantly, it hasn't worked in the past.
In the last 20 years, I've seen a handful of therapists and psychologists, and I never felt like they helped me address the issue I came to see them for. Most of the time those sessions consisted of me venting or chatting about life. I could do that with my friends for free, thank you, Doc.
But with some more thought, I realized, maybe this could help me, if: 1) I find a therapist who specializes in my condition, and 2) I change my approach.
“A client comes into therapy cold and is expected to know what to do, but they don't,” clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D., tells SELF. “There's not much out there to prepare them for what therapy is like, plus everyone's experience is different.”
And every therapist is different. That said, there are a few general guidelines that psychologists say could help make your therapy sessions more effective. Here's what they suggest:
1. Don't necessarily go off referrals.
It's nice that your friend or mom suggested you try Dr. Jill, but does she specialize in what you're looking for help with? Even if your physician gives you a referral, that doesn't necessarily mean that psychologist is going to be the one for you.
When it comes to finding a therapist, "fit" is extremely important. So take your time looking through potential therapists before making an appointment. Use those skills you've honed Googling dating app matches or takeout places and do your research—checking out their backgrounds, specialties, and even their fees, Howes says. He suggests Psychology Today and Good Therapy as good places to start your search. Then narrow down your list to three or four.
2. Before making an appointment, ask for a free phone consultation.
Most therapists will offer free initial phone consultations to new patients. Take advantage of this and ask any preliminary questions you have—like how they work with clients, what their approach might be for whatever you hope to work with them on, and anything else that's important to you. Then go with your gut. “Who do you feel the most comfortable talking to and feel you can open up to?” Howes says.
3. Ask your therapist what progress might look like, and how often you should check in to gauge that progress.
When you first start seeing a new therapist, talk to them about how you'll know if you're making progress (both in and outside of your sessions). Then check in with your therapist from time to time, licensed clinical psychologist Stephanie Smith, Psy.D., tells SELF. See how you're feeling, take note of any changes, and ask your therapist if he or she notices anything different (since we don't always see shifts in ourselves).
“Sometimes people get frustrated because they're starting at zero and want to be at 10, and that's going to be a very long road,” clinical psychologist Merav Gur, Ph.D., tells SELF. These check-ins will help you stay motivated and develop short-term goals to work towards.