First written for and published on Recovery Warriors.
“What if I’m scared to open up in therapy? How do I talk about myself?”
The above is one of the most common questions that my clients ask me before their first session, and the hesitation before entering any form of therapy is understandable.
Whether you’re still struggling with the depths of mental illness, in recovery, long recovered or simply have a few creases that you want to iron out… entering therapy is a huge and exciting step. And it may just be a little bit scary to you, as well. That’s okay!
It’s a big step, so it’s natural to be a little nervous.
But, from the perspective of someone who regularly visits a therapist, I want to tell you this: It’s not always easy to open up to a stranger. You have to trust the process and know that it’s up to YOU to guide how much you want to open up to your therapist and ultimately, that will dictate the quality of therapy that they’re able to give you (as without the utmost honesty, they can’t fully explore how to best guide you to the fullest of their training and capabilities). But although it feels unnatural at first to expose all your secrets and truths to a total stranger when you’ve likely previously dedicated so much energy to secrecy and mistrust… fight through those feelings. Be honest anyway, in spite of what your fears tell you. The more you practice it, the easier it will become.
And, from the perspective of someone who gives others coaching, I want to tell you this: We understand your nerves, your hesitation and your fear. We’re trained to help you overcome that, and it’s our job to make you feel as comfortable as possible. We don’t want to intimidate or scare you and the last thing on our minds is judging you. We don’t sit around with friends over coffee after sessions and spill all your secrets, we don’t gossip about you to strangers in the grocery line. But we do think about you, after our sessions are finished – we lay awake at night and think about how best we can help you in our time together. We feel compassion and empathy and we hope that you’re starting to feel better with our help. We brainstorm ways to make your life better and ways to make you feel more at ease. And although our relationship is strictly professional, you become part of our lives. We care about you, and not just because we’re being paid to help you. We’re humans too, and we understand.
When it comes to “opening up” to your therapist, there are plenty of strategies to help you work through the fear and discuss your thoughts more freely. Here are some of my favourites that I use myself in my own therapy, and with my clients:
1. Journal your thoughts.
This is one of the most effective ways to overcome your fear of discussing yourself in therapy. Before each session, it’s helpful to note some dot points of items that you’d like to discuss, significant events/thoughts that you’ve had and questions that you might like to ask your therapist. As you go more in-depth into your therapy, you may also find it helpful to keep a therapy journal noting what you’ve discussed and how you’re implementing this into your life. And, if you’re about to see a therapist for the first time, you might also find it helpful to write them a letter before you see them explaining why you’re seeking their help and what you’d most like to achieve – this helps give your therapist some context, and allows you to feel as though you’ve already started the relationship before your session.
2. Start with small chunks.
It’s easier to talk about less vulnerable subjects… so first, get comfortable talking with your therapist by discussing some smaller issues. Your therapist is trained in guiding conversations and will lead the discussion in small talk, opening up and setting boundaries, so follow their lead. If you feel particularly vulnerable, you can even ask them to explain their confidentiality policy to you for your own peace of mind.
3. Remind yourself that your therapist isn’t there to order you around.
They’re not there to tell you what to do, but rather to guide you to helping you find your own answers and way forward (as guided by proven strategies, skills and techniques that they can teach you). Your therapist wants to empower you to be in the driver’s seat of your own life… focus on the empowerment in this, and allow yourself to guide therapy at your own pace.
4. Go into each session prepared.
Ideally, choose session times where you’re not likely to be overwhelmed with stress or anxiety (e.g. from school or work) that might inhibit your desire to be vulnerable and honest with your therapist. Before your sessions, allow yourself to be in a calm headspace by taking a few deep breaths and reminding yourself of:
a. why you’re in therapy;
b. what it is helping you to achieve in your life; and
c. what you want to get out of that session.
Therapy is certainly not always easy but if you are prepared for each session, the process is easier. At the end of a session, your therapist will usually tell you what they would like to discuss with you when you next meet – make a note of this so that you have ample time to prepare.
5. Reframe your expectations.
You’re not there to entertain your therapist or stun them with how ‘broken’ you are… therapy is not a contest, but merely a discussion intended to enhance your mental wellness and build resilience so that you may have a wonderful, happy life. Be mindful of your own personality traits to safeguard yourself – do you normally use humour as a tool of deflection to avoid talking about hard things?
Try not to use therapy as a way to make jokes or make light of your situation. It’s a time to be serious, a time to improve and a time to be honest.
6. No dishonesty under any circumstances.
I mean it! If you’re having a great week, be honest. If you’re having an awful week, say so. If you haven’t done your prescribed homework, say so. You will not be reprimanded or punished by your therapist for lack of action… if you’re struggling with sessions or homework, your therapist will help you find a way to make this easier. Secondly, if the homework isn’t working for you or you don’t feel yourself making progress, you are not going to let down your therapist and they’re not going to be disappointed in you. They want to help you find the path to your success and if one path doesn’t work, they’re going to keep trying and trying and trying until it feels ‘right’ to you.
There is no ‘wrong’ answer, as you and your life and your struggles are unique!
Finally, I want to remind you of this: your mental health is not a ‘luxury item’. It’s a necessity. It’s your sanity, your survival, your hope and your ability to live your life in the way that you deserve to. And you, my friend, are worth investing in!