Deciding to try therapy for the first time and reaching out for help can seem daunting, and often can leave you full of questions about what therapy is and what it is not. In Unmute’s very first video blog, we had a chat with Rhiannon Chiacchiaro, a practicing therapist on her way to earning her LMHC, who helped us demystify therapy.
Not only is this video blog informative for newer therapy seekers, but it was also super helpful for someone like myself, who has been a long time therapy goer. Below is a short recap of my conversation with Rhiannon, but be sure to check out the full video. Enjoy!
What should I expect from my first session with a therapist?
Your first session will be a little different from other sessions. There is going to be a lot of information collecting, paperwork, etc. The therapist's job at that point is to learn to understand you, who you are, and why you are choosing to seek therapy. In your initial session, you should share what you're comfortable sharing and don't be afraid to ask questions.
Is it okay to ask my therapist personal questions?
You can always ask, but the therapist may not answer. Ethically we do have a standard we have to hold ourselves to, and because of that we really do have to limit our disclosure. Some basic things are totally finel for example, I wear my wedding rings in session, so people are going to know that I am married. Generally, if you are asking about that because you want someone who can empathize with you, therapists are usually okay answering those questions… What we don't share would be our own mental health diagnoses or problems we have had in the past. This is because we don't want to stifle you from talking about something for fear you will upset us.
Is it weird to ask a therapist what their ethnicity is?
Generally if you are doing it for the sake of finding someone who has the same lived experience as you, that is all right. A lot of times people advertise that on their website or profile.
How do you politely break up with a therapist if they are not the right fit for you?
This can be a really hard thing because a lot of times we want to please everyone and we feel bad because this person is trying to help us. The first thing to recognize is therapists are used to having clients go elsewhere. This is about fit, and getting the help you need. The best way to approach it is reaching out and saying “Hey, I’m not really getting what I need out of these sessions. I was wondering if you could refer me to a colleague or somebody else who may have more focus on _”... The worst thing you can do is ghost someone! I know it can be anxiety inducing to have that conversation. But when you just vanish you stay on our client list and we have to reach out to you to make sure something bad hasn’t happened. The best thing you can do is come and be honest.
How do I know I’ve found the right therapist for me?
When you meet a therapist for the first time there is often a gut feeling to it. There are a few things you need to feel off the bat, and this changes for everyone. Some people want to feel validated and listened to, some people want something to work towards. The best thing you can do is try and take inventory of what your priorities are. Ex: What kind of person you want to talk to, what the feelings in your therapy sessions you want to have. I say give it at least three sessions before you make a decision. Check in and see if you are getting that feeling you are going for, and ask yourself, “Do I feel like I am making progress in the right way? Am I coming out feeling like something is happening?” And that something happening may not be positive. You may come out of your third session and think “OMG I just broke down for the first time and cried over this thing.” That's not necessarily a bad thing! It may be uncomfortable, but that discomfort is how you open the therapeutic window.
Do you have a recommended window one should allow for trying out a new therapist?
Generally no fewer than three sessions. However there is a caveat to that. If in one of your first three sessions your therapist does something that invalidates you, says a slur, misgenders you, etc. Something where they actively did something discriminatory or really made you uncomfortable, and put you in a space where you no longer think you can get along with them, then you can cut ties there.
What do you recommend if someone is uncomfortable with talking to their therapist about something?
There is a balance to be had in that. Therapy is meant to be taken at your pace. You can improve, and work through what you need to in therapy if you are constantly being pressured into it. You need to have a safe space. In that sense, it's totally fine to tell your therapist “I'm not ready” or “I can’t do this yet.” That said, we just mentioned discomfort. You are not going to get very far in therapy if you are comfortable the entire time. If you only want to be comfortable you are pretty much just having a chat with somebody. The point of therapy is not to just be upset about everything around you, it is to help you find what you can control, your inner peace and inner health. And to achieve that you have to sit with the suck sometimes. However, if you ever feel unsafe, your physical or emotional safety is at risk, you're having massive panic attacks everytime you go into session, etc., that is not discomfort. That means something potentially harmful is happening and it is no longer therapeutic. If this is consistent, you may need to dial back.
Do you have any advice for individuals who are meeting their therapist in person for the first time post Covid-19?
Depending on what state you are in and what practice you are going to, you may be required to wear your mask. In my practice we do not ask about vaccination status. However, there will be safety precautions you have to follow. Covid aside, going into a therapist's office for the first time can seem daunting. Some therapists have home offices, so for some it will be in their house or a special room. Some have group practices where you will be sitting in a waiting room and then get called in. Some have a private studio space. So there is not going to be one environment to expect. Generally, they feel less sterile than in a hospital or doctor's office, so hopefully it should be comfortable. When you go into the session, wear whatever is comfortable for you (as long as it’s appropriate for public). You don't have to dress formally; relax, this is for you. Let yourself take a minute to adjust to the space and environment. There may be some different leads when you are in the office because you will have that physical and nonverbal communication now that you can see each other’s whole bodies. Take your time, ease into it, and again let your therapist know if there is something they can do to make you more comfortable.
What is one thing you want people to know about therapy?
The biggest thing I want people to know about therapy is it is not one size fits all. In America we have developed this Eurocentric, westernized, and white washed idea of what therapy is and has to be.What psychoanalysis is, what talking is, and what values and goals you are supposed to strive for to be happy. Unfortunately, that has become invalidating to a lot of groups who have suffered trauma or come from marginalized communities because they feel they are being fit into this mold of what therapy has to be. It's not true. In the mental health community we are working on cultural competence, being able to support people from a social justice angle, and examining our own privileges as therapists in order to create an inclusive environment. This could be anything from taking religious and cultural preferences into account, to trying a different form of therapy. We have therapists who don't do talk therapy. They do expressive therapy, dance, movement, art, going out and digging, building, and planting things. Find a therapy that works for you and don't feel like a failure if you don't jive with one style of therapy. That doesn't mean you failed at therapy; it just means you didn't find the right fit. I tell everybody you deserve to be well, you deserve to feel in control, and you deserve to feel worthy. If you don't feel like you can do that, then go find somebody who will help you get there.
My conversation with Rhiannon was quite eye opening, and allowed me to walk away with a new perspective on what therapy means. One part of the conversation that has stuck with me since was having to “sit in the suck.” Therapy may not be easy or comfortable at all times, especially when you are first starting out. However, discomfort is often the greatest environment for growth. As Rhiannon said, take things at your own pace and check in with yourself throughout your journey, because you deserve to be well.