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Starting Therapy: Finding a Therapist, How it Works, First Session & Beyond 

First time in therapy? If you haven’t worked with a therapist before, but are considering booking your first session, (or just feel you need some support and are checking out what might be available); you probably have a lot of questions. The entire process of finding and beginning therapeutic work can feel really intimidating and weird. 

You might be wondering:

– Do we just talk on the phone?

How is this different to talking to my best friend?

Can I even say some of my struggles out loud? What if you judge me?

I’ve been there both as a client, as a coach and counsellor (in advance training) and today I’d like to share with you about the process to dispel myths and address fears around the process. 

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Deciding to see a therapist

Making the decision to see a therapist can be something we build up to consciously over a long time. It can be a split second decision to reach out for help. It can be prompted by a crisis in our lives that overwhelms our resources and current ways of coping. We can get in touch with a therapist because someone close to us has recommended we see someone, or see a specific therapist. Whatever the reason, it’s a positive step towards supporting and resourcing ourselves. To becoming more who we are. 

There has historically been stigma about seeing a therapist and about mental health or mental distress in general. Nowadays, thanks to much more public awareness and people, including celebrities, speaking openly about the support they need, much of that stigma is in the past. 

Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean you are ‘mad’. If you have mental health struggles, they don’t make you a bad person. Experiencing mental and emotional distress does not equate to being unable to make decisions, to trust your own experience or to know your own mind. In fact, 1 in 4 people will experience forms of mental distress in the course of a year. Most of us will experience some level of mental or emotional crisis at some point in our lives. 

While lots of schools are now including emotional awareness, mindfulness and psychologically aware education, this hasn’t previously been the case and there are many of us who would benefit from such support. 

After all, lots of us look after our cars better than we do our own minds. You may grumble about needing to take your car to a mechanic, but you know it needs attention and help to keep running smoothly, to cope with the pressures of winter, the wear and tear of travel and the occasional bumps and struggles you meet on your journeys. It’s the same for our minds and seeing a therapist is a way of offering that care to ourselves, to get us journeying towards a future we hope for. 

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Choosing a therapist

People often ask me, “how do I choose a therapist? I am so overwhelmed!”

I know the feeling, with terms like BACP, UKPC, BPS and more, it’s alphabet soup and it can feel like therapist’s adverts are written in code. What exactly is an integrated psychosynthesis counsellor anyway? And what is the difference between a counsellor and a psychotherapist?

 When I first began training as a therapist, I didn’t know where to start either. Eventually, by asking lots of questions and checking in with my own experiences, I found a way forward. Let’s see if we can help you do that too…

BACP, UKPC and BPS are governing bodies. They regulate and accredit therapists. 

For example, I am a trainee member of the UKPC (The UK Psychotherapy Council) and a Registered Member of the BACP (The British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists). This means I have to meet certain – high – standards to be able to be a member and it’s a safety mark for my training and practice. 

Each governing body keeps a directory of therapists and you might like to search those, to find therapists local to you. 

UKCP – Find a Therapist |BACP – Therapist Directory

You may want to choose a therapist who works intersectionally (as I do). There’s a great article in Teen Vogue about choosing a therapist as a queer POC/BAME with fantastic questions to ask your prospective therapist. There’s also a great directory of intersectionally-aware therapists at Therapy for Black Girls.

You can search for a therapist in many different ways, including:

– By location – who is closest to you

– By specialism – who specialises in the issues you are bringing to therapy e.g grief, an eating disorder, chronic pain or suicidal thoughts. 

– By orientation – what ‘type’ of therapist they are. 

Orientation is where all the confusing words start to come in. It’s beyond me in this blog to explain all the therapeutic schools of thought, but they divide broadly into:

– Psychoanalytic – more traditional therapy with less talking and more interpretation

– Humanistic – more open and approachable therapy, with lots of listening and empathy

– Behavioural – goal oriented therapy where you focus on a goal and move through what’s blocking you from it

– Transpersonal – mindfulness or spirituality based therapy that’s more open to working with soul as well as mind

Then there are lots of specialist therapies like equine facilitated psychotherapy, art psychotherapy or play therapy. 

It’s probably a good idea to check in with what you are most drawn to and then ask questions of the therapists you are considering. 

The difference between psychotherapy and counselling is hotly debated. Some therapists say there is no difference at all, some think counsellors tend to work more with struggles in the here and now, whereas psychotherapists work more with issues arising from the past and childhood. Some people even say the difference is the length (and depth) of training. Some counsellors train for as little as 2 years. Some psychotherapists train for as much as 10+ years. 

I am a counsellor, so I’m somewhere in between. I am training at a traditional psychotherapeutically oriented college. 

This is what I share with new clients:

Counselling is the opportunity for you to talk about what’s troubling you. You can bring what difficulties, pains or issues you are experiencing – or have experienced previously – the therapeutic hour (50 minutes) is your time and space. A time where you don’t have to take care of anyone else’s needs, or focus on anyone but you. I will be holding space for you, offering my attentive listening, respect for what you share and working with you. 

I hope to support you to explore and understand yourself, resolve difficulties and move towards more productive and fulfilled ways of living. 

I am an integrative counsellor, which means my work is influenced by several different schools of thoughts, including psychodynamic, humanistic and transpersonal. My practice is intersectional and incorporates somatic reflections. I work in a way that is client-led, creating a facilitative therapeutic relationship.

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Making contact and your first session

You may make contact by phone, email or through a website contact form. Generally your therapist will get in touch with you as soon as possible to arrange a time to speak. 

If you are very distressed, please consider calling the Samaritans, or speaking to your doctor for immediate support. 

The first session is different with different therapists, I offer an intake session where we look at what’s brought you to working with me. I do my contracts by email, so paperwork is out of the way and we can begin therapeutic work from our first contact.  

I work with counselling clients in person, at an arts centre and a therapy clinic. When they first come in, I introduce myself, talk a little bit about the guidelines for our work together and remind the client that this is their space. They can say what they like (and no, I won’t judge them). I have great compassion for the difficult and painful decisions, mistakes and complex struggles people have experienced in their lives.

Our job is to create a way they can manage what’s happened and find a way forward that works for them. 

I also work with coaching clients via Zoom – a confidential online phone line. The process is very similar, we can meet with video or only audio – I recommend using earbuds, the ones with a smartphone work perfectly – and after running through the guidelines for working together, the hour is yours. If you are stuck on what to say at any point, I will have tools and prompts to work from and we can move forward together. 

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What’s therapeutic about therapy?

I believe we learn and re-learn in relationship (Todres). 

So while talking on the phone to your best friend can let you vent, it can be very different to talking to a therapist. When you talk about your fears of your mother’s Alzheimer’s disease, I won’t jump in and complain about my own memory struggles (just a hypothetical example). If you discuss your diet, you won’t get any bad advice from me on what not to eat. I’m not there to tell you what to do, but to hold space for you to realise what you really want to do. I have been trained in the subtle art of holding space, so I can do that.

People have commented that it’s the first time in their lives they have felt truly respected and heard. Don’t underestimate the power of that. 

In therapy, we practice making changes in relationship to another. We can learn and read all we like but it’s when the concepts come into contact in the world outside that we make change or find where we struggle to change. Therapy can be a safe space to explore who we are and who we are in relation to others.

Therapy can be a tremendous gift to ourselves, if you are here, I wish you the best on your therapeutic journey and your future.  

Do you have a question about beginning therapy? Let me know in the comments!

P.S If you’d like to know more about my work, check out my info pages on Counselling and Trailblazing Wellness Coaching. I also hold free monthly listening hours here.

Trailblazing Wellness Coaching

P.P.S You may also like Dear Grace: How do I keep my spirits up when I’m hurting? and When it hurts more than you can bear, read this.