What does therapy feel like? 10 insights for you to consider

After experiencing some big changes in my life during the past 12 or so months, including becoming a mother and then transitioning back into Little Window, I decided it would be a good time to engage in some counselling, to help me process these events. As it’s been a few years since I’ve had therapy, I was reminded of the daunting, unnerving, uncomfortable, and also relieving sensations of the first session. I think it’s important to talk about what therapy actually involves, and to challenge the sensationalised, often inaccurate, and sometimes downright creepy portrayal of therapy depicted in the media, as well as to normalise going to therapy as a standard part of our self-care.

Our mental health is so important, but seeking help is frequently stigmatised and not prioritised. People avoid treating their emotional wellness for many reasons; because they don’t believe their mental health is as significant as their physical health, they are afraid of feeling worse or out of control if they open up to a professional, they don’t want to appear as incompetent or “weak”, or they have little knowledge and understanding about what occurs in a therapy session.

As a practicing psychologist it feels important to me to engage in self-reflection. Just like everybody else on the planet, I can get stuck in unhealthy patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving, and need help to have a look at what’s going on, so I can work through it. As a therapist I encourage my clients to lean into their vulnerability and to challenge themselves in ways that requires commitment and can involve emotional hard-work; and I think it only makes sense that I try to practice what I preach. Many years ago, the first time I sat in the other chair, as the client, I realised how difficult and confronting therapy can be, but also how vital therapy is for supported and sustainable wellness.

Counselling is a unique process for everyone, however based on my own experience and hearing many others share theirs, below are some thoughts on what engaging in therapy can feel like, in the hope that it provides helpful information and portrays a more realistic perspective for people who have been wondering or feel unsure about seeking support.

1. Some people walk through our doors feeling excited and hopeful about starting therapy, however, it is not unusual for people to feel nervous, anxious or scared about talking to a stranger about their personal experiences. 

The first meeting with your psychologist can feel warm, connected and supportive, but depending on what you talk about, you may also understandably be fraught with nerves about talking to someone new.

Therapy is not usually perceived as a “fun” activity for many people, or something that is looked forward to, like receiving a massage for example. Due to the stigma attached to therapy, it is also not a self-care activity that is easily shared with others in your life, like checking in to the gym on facebook. If paying attention to your feelings and talking about them is not a concept you are familiar with, preparing for the task can be quite anxiety-provoking and uncomfortable. It makes sense then that in anticipating your first session with a psychologist, you may have thoughts about cancelling the appointment, and not want to go at all.

You may start to wonder whether you “need” to see someone, and question what you have to talk about, or wonder how you will talk about your concerns. I encourage you to give the first session a chance. If matched with the right therapist for you, you may be surprised about how relieving it feels to express thoughts and feelings to someone outside of your personal circle, and how comforting it can feel to be truly listened to.

 2. Talking to a psychologist is very different to talking to someone you know personally.

Our friends and family can provide a wonderful support network for us during times of stress, but talking to a neutral person who does not know anybody else in our personal circle has many benefits. For starters, those who are close to us can sometimes be biased, and clouded by their own emotions about a situation, particularly if they too are affected by it. This means that you are likely to be given advice about what they think you should do, when it might not always be in your best interests. A psychologist is able to provide a more objective and neutral perspective to help you to see the bigger picture, without having any other intention other than to support you to feel more empowered within yourself.

Your friends and family may also agree with everything you have to say when you talk about a difficult situation as they want to support you, and although this can feel reassuring and validating, it does not allow for you to be challenged with a different perspective, or the space to explore what you could have done differently. Having someone look at your concerns from an outside perspective can allow for factors to be highlighted that you or people close to you had not thought of before, and also support you to think in ways you are not used to, to allow for growth and change.

Another common hesitation for people opening up to their immediate circle is fear of judgment or rejection about a perceived negative feeling or behaviour. It can be a liberating experience to be able to talk freely about issues and people in your life, knowing that it will be kept private, and also that your psychologist will not judge you or have big emotional responses to what you disclose.

Sometimes the relationships we exist in can be the cause of our distress; some relationship dynamics are so complex and even though these people are very dear to us, the way they relate to us and how we relate to them can play a role in perpetuating negative patterns. Talking to a psychologist can help you to understand these challenging dynamics and support you in the long-term to be in healthy relationships.

3. Some psychologists may not be the right match for you. 

If you are seeing a therapist who fits well with your personality and has an approach that you are comfortable with, your sessions should not make you feel judged, patronised, inferior, pitied, belittled, ignored, rushed, talked over, or pigeon-holed. An effective therapist is present, and should make you feel heard, respected, valued, understood, hopeful, and provides you with information and knowledge about how the process will support you, so that you feel a sense of control and can go at your own pace.

If you feel as though you don’t click with your psychologist, their approach does not suit your style, or they have said or done something that your instinct tells you is not right, it is perfectly okay for you to choose to end your work with that person and look elsewhere for someone who feels like a better match for you. Just like in other professions, some practitioners are not the best match for anyone. It is so important for you to connect positively with your psychologist, as the therapeutic relationship has been shown by research to be the most significant factor in effective counselling.

brene brown

4. You may experience clarity, a sensation of spaciousness within and feeling lighter from giving voice to your feelings and sharing them with someone. 

Many people describe feeling a sense of relief and release, as well as lighter and positive at the end of their first session, as they have been able to, sometimes for the first time, have their concerns heard, explored and understood. Sometimes this process is enough in itself to be the catalyst for big shifts in thinking and feeling. Often when people discuss topics that hold a lot of emotion, they can feel a tightness in their throat and chest. After they’ve talked through their experience, this feeling usually shifts and feels clearer, as the emotion has had space and room to be expressed. A lot of us hold stress in the body without awareness of how this manifests, and we can go through our lives carrying this stress in unhelpful ways. Bringing our mindful attention to how our body can hold emotional pain can help us to more holistically address our feelings and help to unlock and release them. Of course, not all sessions are the same, and some sessions may be draining and stir up difficult feelings which you can then be supported to safely navigate through.

5. Self care is important after sessions. 

It is common to feel quite tired after talking about your concerns for the first time with someone new. This is an important part of the counselling process – giving voice to your difficult experiences. Just like a physical workout can make you feel tired, doing this type of hard emotional work can be draining. It does take a lot of energy to give language to issues you may never have spoken about before, or to revisit challenging memories or emotions. This is why it is important for you to nourish yourself with an activity that makes you feel good in the few days after your session, to fill your ‘cup’ back up with a positive experience.

 6. Negative feelings are important to experience and bring forward in therapy so they can be acknowledged and have space to shift and change form.

Sometimes we can leave sessions feeling stirred up and vulnerable. This is because talking about negative feelings can be uncomfortable. It takes courage to look at these parts of ourselves. We can get trapped into believing that we should only experience and outwardly show positive feelings, that if we were to feel darker emotions that it is a sign we are going backwards, or not going well. Quite the opposite is the truth. As emotional creatures we are complex and multifaceted, and are wired to feel the full spectrum of emotions. If we try to numb, ignore, avoid and distract from our negative feelings all the time, we essentially deny one whole half of our being, and instead of the feelings disappearing, they can become bigger, stuck, and more entrenched. If we can bring into light the difficult emotions and give voice to them and allow them to be expressed, they can shift and move, rather than get locked within and held by the mind and body. It is then that we create space to experience positive emotions.

7. Therapy is not just ‘talking’.

Many people are surprised that by simply talking about their concerns, things can start to change in their life. When we say things out loud and share them with another person, particularly a person who is non-judgmental and unbiased, we share the burden of carrying difficult feelings. By talking about issues out loud we also give language to internal experiences and this helps the brain to process them in a different way.

brain therapy
Artist: Mikhaela Davis

Talking therapy changes the brain. We are able to increase blood flow to the cortex by sharing our experience with another person – as this increases our capacity to regulate emotions, attune to others, self-reflect and better express our selves, all of which are associated with mental wellness. We are also creating new neural networks that facilitate healthier and sustainable lifestyle patterns by bringing mindful awareness to unhelpful or dysfunctional habits, and making conscious efforts to change them. During talking therapy we help the brain process and store information in different ways to alleviate stress, tension and anxiety. Talking can support your brain to make sense of painful memories in a different context, and can help neurons from different parts of the brain communicate more effectively. This is a significant part of the healing process, especially if you have been through trauma. If you are working with a skilled and effective psychologist, you will be guided to do this in a safe and supported way.

There are other ways to communicate in counselling too, that don’t involve talking. Your psychologist may be trained in modalities such as art therapy, or symbol work, to support you to express yourself in a more gentle and accessible way. These mediums for communicating can be fun, creative and enriching.

8. A lot of the “work” is done between sessions. 

Between sessions you may find that you have moments of remembering something your psychologist said to you, and it suddenly making sense or resonating with you. Sometimes in sessions if you are feeling emotional or overwhelmed, you cannot process information in a meaningful way. It is later, back in the context of your day-to-day life, that particular parts of the session can be illuminated in ways that support you to understand yourself better. As you become more aware of different elements of your life and self that have been highlighted to you, this can start to create shifts in how you think, feel and behave. Some people find it useful to journal between sessions or to talk through what they are discovering with a trusted person, to further process their therapy experience.

9. Therapy takes time.

Depending on your experiences, the counselling process can take some time. It is important to go at your own pace to build trust and connection with your psychologist – for some people, this relationship-building in itself is what can be most helpful, especially if someone has been through a lot of challenging relationships from a young age. It can be helpful to be realistic about significant change. Learning about yourself and how you can navigate through difficult life challenges can be a long-term process. Counselling is not just about putting out the fires, but about maintaining mental wellness, and reconnecting for ongoing support.

therapy self-care
Artist: Ramesh Chindam

 10. Sometimes giving attention to a concern in your life and talking about it, can resolve a lot without you having to “do” or “fix” anything.

A lot of people go to therapy expecting that they will be given advice to problem-solve particular areas of their life they are seeking help for. Counselling is not about fixing; it is a process in which you are guided to tap into your internal world, to discover and draw out strengths, skills and resources to manage concerns – not just for now, but for the rest of your life. In the process you will learn about yourself, the underlying reasons for your patterns of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, and skills that work uniquely for you to manage stress and difficulties now and in the future. Some people report feeling different and experiencing positive change by having someone simply hold a safe space for them to be heard – and by doing so, they realise that nothing needs to be solved, that their emotions have shifted just by going through this process of connection and understanding.

Being brave in therapy is often just about turning up. It takes commitment and deep courage to look at ourselves in this way. Therapy can also feel light, fun and positive. Counselling is a vital part of taking care of ourselves. It is an investment – not only for ourselves but for the important people in our lives too, as they benefit from the effects of us ‘doing the work.’ It is a very powerful activity to help us feel connected, supported, respected, empowered and lets us know that we matter.

© Thania Siauw, Psychologist