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‘This is What Actually Happens During a Therapy Session’

When you take your car to the car mechanic, you know what’s going to happen — your car will get repaired.

When you break a bone and visit your doctor, you know what’s going to happen — your bone will be set in a splint or cast and eventually heal.

But when you make an appointment to see a therapist, what’s going to happen?

Many people aren’t quite certain. Will you talk? Will you be “hypnotized”? Will you have to discuss your childhood? What’s the “point” of seeing a therapist, anyway? Why not just talk to a friend?

There is a great deal of uncertainty in our society about what actually happens during a therapy session, what types of issues and problems can be suitable for therapy, and the kinds of benefits that a therapy session can provide.

I’d like to address a few typical questions — and misconceptions — about what therapy is, and isn’t, and how it works.

Q: Do I have to be “sick” or “disturbed” to go see a therapist?

A: No. While some therapists do specialize in severe emotional disturbances — including schizophrenia or suicidal thoughts — many therapists focus on helping clients work through far more “typical” or “everyday” challenges — like mapping out a career change, or improving parenting skills, strengthening stress management tools, or navigating a divorce.

Thinking that one has to be “seriously disturbed” in order to see a therapist is a myth.

In fact, most of my clients are successful, high-achieving people who are quite healthy, overall, but who are challenged by a specific, personal goal — like losing weight, creating more work-life balance, finding ways to parent their children more effectively, feeling anxious about dating again after a rough break up, and so on.

Just like some physicians specialize in curing life-threatening illnesses, while others treat “everyday” illnesses like flus, coughs, and colds, psychotherapists can serve a very wide range of clients with a wide range of needs and goals, too.

Q: How can I choose the right therapist for my issue / goal / situation?

A: Choosing a therapist is just like choosing any other service provider — it’s a good idea to visit the professional’s website, read client testimonials or reviews (if they have any — many therapists do not, for confidentiality reasons), ask friends and family members (or your physician) for referrals, and of course, check to see who is included in your health insurance network.

If you are hoping to work on a specific issue — say, overeating, quitting smoking, making a career change, etc. — try to find a therapist who has expertise in that area. Many therapists list their “specialties” or “areas of focus” on their website. There are therapists who specialize in relationship issues, parenting issues, anger management, weight issues, or sexuality — pretty much most issues, goals, or situations that you can imagine.

If you’re not sure about someone’s zone of expertise, just call the therapist you’re considering and ask, “Do you have experience working with people who [describe your situation or goal]?” The therapist you’re contacting will let you know, and if they can’t be of assistance, they may be able to refer you to someone who can.

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