by Aga Grabowski
Starting psychotherapy feels daunting to most, if not all, people. The majority of clients we work with attest to the fact that reaching out to schedule an appointment and coming for the first session was the single most challenging part of the entire process. There are multiple, valid reasons for feeling uneasy. Not knowing what to expect, not being sure if the psychotherapist is the right fit, fear of not being understood or (worse!) being judged, negative experience with psychotherapy in the past – the list could go on. One source of unease that is singularly powerful – so much so that when present it often causes people to decide against reaching out – is believing that wanting/needing psychotherapy means something bad about you.
In this post, I would like to set the record straight about what reaching out to a psychotherapist says about you.
1. Decision to seek psychotherapy is a sign of strength, not weakness.
In our society, we tend to place enormous emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency. This becomes problematic when this cultural value is not tempered by recognition of our basic, inherent need for connection and community.
We are social beings – as such, we thrive and heal in context of relationships, not outside of them.
If we embrace only the drive toward independence and self-sufficiency, we quickly become lonely and isolated. At the same time, if we seek connection and support indiscriminately, in all matters and at all times, we would likely become helpless, passive and lose our sense of self. To be resilient means to walk the middle path between autonomy and relatedness, to know when we need to reach out to others and to act on that knowledge without shame or judgment.
The decision to come to psychotherapy demonstrates resilience. Of course, this does not mean we feel particularly resilient when reaching out (more about that in #2).
When we decide to seek psychotherapy, it is at least partly because we have come to realize that a new way of approaching our challenges needs to be found. Coming to psychotherapy is a statement of recognition that the coping that has been attempted thus far, whether alone or with the aid of friends and family, is not sufficient to overcome symptoms or other problems.
By reaching out, know that you are demonstrating several characteristics of resilient individuals: resourcefulness, self-awareness, acknowledgement of limitations, desire to learn and grow.
2. Decision to seek psychotherapy is an exercise in vulnerability - and that is a good thing.
Vulnerability is a charged word that provokes some pretty powerful, conflicted feelings. The dictionary definition of the word vulnerable is: “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; open to attack or damage.” It is safe to say that we do not like to feel vulnerable much of the time. It implies feeling unsteady, uncertain, exposed in a way we may not wish to be. I do not need to dig too deeply in my mind to excavate memories of unwelcome vulnerability. The time I was overtaken by performance anxiety and forgot what I meant to say to my audience and just stood there, frozen. The time I decided to share a painful secret with a friend and was met with a dismissive “That’s it? Don’t worry about it.” Examples abound.
It is impossible to come to psychotherapy and not feel vulnerable in the process. Why would we want to subject ourselves to the discomfort that this may create in us or to the potential for being hurt (misunderstood, judged, etc.) that comes along with it? Because without vulnerability, there can be no real connection, no love, no deeper meaning. Brene Brown, renowned research professor at University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, explains this brilliantly in her famous 2010 Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” She defines vulnerability as: “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Unless we take the risk inherent in being honest about who we are, how we feel, and what we need and want to thrive, we are not going to feel a real sense of connection and belonging. By pushing vulnerability away, we inevitably reject much of ourselves and make deep, satisfying relationships impossible. As Brene Brown notes, to feel is to be vulnerable.
"There is a crack, a crack in everything That is how the light gets in"
Coming to psychotherapy is an exercise in embracing vulnerability. It is an experience that nurtures our ability to be real, authentic, and, hopefully, self-compassionate. It takes courage to engage in this process.
If you decide to reach out to a psychotherapist, try to greet the feeling of vulnerability with acceptance. It is not a weakness! Remember that, as Brene Brown so aptly put it, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper or more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. “
3. You are the expert on your life and coming to psychotherapy does not diminish that. To the contrary!
The relationship between a psychotherapist and a client is a collaborative alliance between two equals who enter into it willingly and with a sense of agreement about its goals and outcomes. In this process, two sources of wisdom and perspective come together: that of the client and that of the therapist. Neither source is “better” than the other: they are simply different. Contrary to what is sometimes believed, the therapist is not someone who has figured everything out, who has it all together and will now impart his/her knowledge to the client. The essence of the therapeutic relationship is nicely captured by a metaphor derived from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, paraphrased here:
Imagine that you (the client) are climbing a big, steep mountain that is full of all sorts of potentially treacherous, slippery spots. My role as a therapist is to watch out for you and help you see them. How could I best do that? If I am standing on the top of the mountain and looking down at you, it will not be possible. If I am walking right next to you, we share the same view and that will not helpful either. Instead, I am climbing my own mountain, just across the valley. From there, I have a good view of your path. I can see certain things that you cannot, such as that an avalanche is likely, or there is an impassable further up on your trail, etc. At the same time, only you know exactly what it feels like to be on your mountain and what is in front of you – in other words, you are the expert on your mountain. I can, however, offer a different perspective. Together we can figure out how to go about climbing this mountain.
I hope that these perspectives help you feel more empowered and at ease as you navigate the process of starting psychotherapy. Thank you for reading!