Unlike a first date, if the first session with your therapist goes well, you won’t end up in bed with each other further down the line. However, the experience will resonate a lot more with first dates than what you may be accustomed to from the other professionals you pay to help you sort your problems. There will be some mutual apprehension, bilateral scrutiny, with both sides wondering: “Will this work?”
The person across from whom you are awkwardly sitting that first time is someone that you will see with some regularity (much more than your dentist, though less than your boss), will bare your soul to, experience intimacy with, and very possibly, may come to love. A relationship with a psychotherapist, particularly one with whom you may be working longer-term (say, six months to several years) may very well be one of the most important relationships in your life since you’ll tell them things you may have told no one else.
Finding the right therapist is crucial and, like any relationship, chemistry is essential.
For these reasons, that first session is an important one in your quest to find the right therapist. That’s why it’s okay to shop around – you might need several first sessions with a few people before you feel secure in your choice. Finding the right therapist is crucial and, like any relationship, chemistry is essential. Is this someone you can be completely honest with? Do they make you feel safe? Sure, it will take time to know for certain, but what does your gut say in that first session? What should you expect?
While the archetypal therapist is famous for his or her quirky behaviours in the consulting room (sitting in silence waiting for you to say the first word; making arcane interpretations about your unconscious love affair with your mum and murderous feelings towards your dad; answering every question with a question; operating at an inscrutable distance; etc.) what you’ll actually find are as many behaviours as there are people practicing. Some will keep a professional distance while others will warmly shake your hand; some will have an amiable sense of humour, where others will be unfailingly serious; some will answer your questions directly, while others will explore the motivations behind it. Not only are there a zillion ways of doing therapy, each individual therapist will do it in their own way.
Most therapists, though directed by their theories and trainings of choice, practice in their own idiosyncratic style. Pick one with a style that suits yours.
While ultimately it’s fair game for therapists to explore your questions rather than answer them straight-on in ways that you’re used to – their answers should still be straightforward about the basics in your first session. In fact, it’s your right to ask:
How do you work?
What are your qualifications? What training did you do?
What are the bounds of confidentiality?
What’s your methodology?
How do you deal with missed sessions, holidays, emergencies, etc?
Can you help me with my particular problem?
After all, you are employing this person to do very delicate work with your psyche, and it’s totally fair to get direct answers to questions about how they may work with you. Like any first date, you may not be able to make this assessment from the start. Many therapists will offer a six-week “trial therapy” with a review – so you can really get into it before fully committing: then you both decide. This is a good idea because, again like a first date, those things you think you understand about them are likely to change after a few more visits. Where you might have idealised your therapist, after a few sessions (or months or years) you may begin to see their flaws (after all, we all have them) – the things that initially made you uncomfortable, you may find are the most challenging, and hence most helpful things they can offer you.
It may sound unscientific, but that je ne sais quoi of a therapeutic match, you generally know it when you feel it
The reason why the relationship is so crucial to psychotherapy is because unlike other relationships, the experienced therapist knows how to use the relational dynamics happening in the room to help you better understand your relationships outside it (both to yourself and others). That means that while you can’t expect trouble-free clear sailing throughout, you can expect to discuss what’s happening between you, even if (especially if) it feels uncomfortable. The freedom to have these discussions unhindered is crucial to a good psychotherapy. After all, isn’t negotiating relationships outside the consulting room one of the most important things you do in life?
First dates are nerve-wracking for either party and there are no guarantees that someone who worked out well for a friend will work for you (would you choose the same partner as your friend?). It may sound unscientific, but that je ne sais quoi of a therapeutic match is somewhat intangible, but you generally know it when you feel it. When you go on that first date you want to have your bases covered (they are who they say they are and are not misrepresenting themselves), and the rest is up to the two of you to make it a productive relationship. In the world of therapy, it’s not so different.