Get Well

What’s it *Actually* Like to Go to Therapy?

by Susie Benitez

Going to therapy, for most, can be a really stressing experience. You’re expecting me to open up about my emotions to a complete stranger? Yeah, no. However, I know myself, and I know I could really benefit from going to therapy. There are a lot of parts of my life that are in transition, and while I can probably handle this on my own, I’ve recently seen myself slipping into negative behavioral patterns, specifically when it comes to handling stress, and I want to tackle it before it gets worse. There are definitely more people like me that have something inside of them saying it’s time for therapy but don’t know where to turn, or even know who to turn to; the process seems daunting and rather mysterious from the outside. So often, you hear things like, “I just started seeing a therapist,” but rarely do you get the chance to ask, “how?” The thing is, I haven’t taken the plunge to go to therapy just yet, because, frankly, it does feel a little scary, but I know it’s the right move for me to take, and luckily, I connected with a friend who helped me take that next step.

It was a conversation I had with photographer and friend Bridget Badore. We were talking about birthdays (we’re both Tauruses, if you’re wondering) when she mentioned something that really piqued my interest—a list that she and her friend make on their birthdays each year that consists of things that they’d like to accomplish within that year; the length of the list being the number of years they turn. Naturally, I had to ask what she had crossed off so far this year and while she has listed a few things (all of them pretty great), it was her last answer that seemed to carry the most weight. “I finally started going to therapy,” she said with a big smile forming across her face. My near knee-jerk response: “Really?! I’ve always wanted to start!” What followed was a conversation that was so open, honest, and useful that we both knew it had to turn into a piece for The Chill Times.

So I reached back out to Badore, who facilitates discussions about mental health regularly on through her photography and on her social media platforms, and regular Chill Times contributor Sara Radin, writer, and staunch mental health advocate, to ask them all the questions I had circling around in my head. With the help of Vienna Pharaon, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Mindful Marriage and Family Therapy in NYC, we found out what it’s like to actually find a therapist—from people who’ve done it.

Arriving at Therapy

Before you can search for a therapist, there has to be a moment of realization that it might be time to see one—and that’s much easier said than done. Badore said she knew she wanted to go to therapy for at least ten years before making the first move to find one, however her inner dialogue dictated an excuse for her not to go “I let my anxiety get the best of me and I would self-sabotage or make excuses for why I couldn’t go to therapy,” she says. “I have extreme mood swings, so whenever I was in a good place, I just thought I could power through without help. Then whenever I was in an [extremely] low period, I would be so lost and depressed that I couldn’t manage anything beyond keeping up appearances.” Radin was in a similar situation just last summer. “I felt consumed with depression and anxiety in a way I could no longer ignore. I was visibly and emotionally unwell—I had trouble getting out of bed, getting dressed, going to work and doing the things that once made me feel happy and alive,” she admitted.

Tackling these deep, internal issues is no easy feat, but at the end of the day, something will get you going. It doesn’t have to be a grandiose sign from the heavens or a confrontation from a loved one to make you realize it, everyone’s time is different. But even if it’s something that feels as small as the voice in your head that’s telling you that you’re ready to talk to a therapist, listen to it! You know yourself best. Through all the debilitating pain and suffering that Radin had felt, “somewhere inside of me, I found the strength to seek help.” Badore had already worked through so many of her issues by herself, “but I knew that I needed help getting past the deeply repressed stuff that I can’t even see by myself … I started to focus in on [therapy] because it really seemed like the next step.”

Beginning The Process

So now you’re here. You’ve worked up the courage to say, “I need help.” Congratulations on this huge step! But now what?

Don’t be scared if you feel overwhelmed. Pharaon says that’s totally normal. At the very beginning of the process, she recommends referrals. “[Ask] around to see if friends or family might recommend someone for you. Schedule a few calls with multiple therapists. Those calls can be directional. You can gain a lot of information from a quick call, and most importantly, you truly get a vibe of that person,” she says. Both Badore and Radin reached out to friends for advice at this stage, with Badore even taking to Instagram for support. “It was so empowering to finally have this support. A lot of people also told me that they were in a similar situation, so I felt so much less alone. My Instagram story provided me with a lot of resources.”

All three of the women I spoke to recommended the same platform to get started: Psychology Today’s therapist search feature. “It’s kind of like Google for finding a therapist. You can narrow down the search in several different ways – by your location, insurance, identity, and so on. You can also directly message the therapists through their website to start the conversation, which makes it really easy,” says Radin. (Pro tip from Badore: this feature works great if you’re phone averse, which I am absolutely guilty of).

Badore agrees, telling me that, “the Psychology Today therapist search is what I used to find someone immediately. I knew if I didn’t capitalize on the momentum I had, then I’d just keep avoiding it.” When beginning her search, she kept an interesting point in mind. She explained that “I chose therapists within my neighborhood or neighborhoods I frequent (and actually like spending time [in]) because I knew that if I made it an easy commute, then it would be one less reason not to go.”

Through her Instagram story (of which she has saved on her profile if you’re interested) she also found a wealth of other even more specific resources. “[My followers] also told me about the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, for finding culturally competent therapists.  I also found Talk Tabu and their AMAZING therapist matchmaking service called Bubble Wellness — seriously, their matchmaking quiz made the process SO FUN and they ask questions that make you feel safe and seen, acknowledging gender, sexuality, income, and other factors you don’t get from the Psychology Today search. They also specialize in matchmaking with culturally competent therapists so this service is especially helpful for POC and non-binary folks.” The power of reaching out! Noted, noted, and noted.

How to Finance Therapy

This conversation would not be complete without the mention of finances. Therapy is vital for so many, but that doesn’t mean it’s affordable. Badore has to pay out of pocket for her sessions due to insurance difficulties. “It’s still a huge privilege to be able to set aside that [money] every week for this,” she started, “but it’s an investment in my well-being … it’s better than spending that money in an unhealthy way.” If money is tight, Pharaon’s advice is to, “Ask to see if a therapist has a sliding scale. Many therapists will keep a few spots open on their calendar for lower fee clients. If you’re able to come in during off-peak hours, they also might be able to shift the fee around a bit. In addition, some therapists will offer package deals, so if you pay for 10 sessions up front, you’ll save ‘X’”

Sometimes though, even these tips aren’t viable options. Some insurance plans can only go so far. But if paying out of pocket or having insurance are not in your financial budget, there are free options that are really great and very accessible. NYC Well, for instance, is a free and confidential mental health support system that is available 24/7 via text, phone, or chat and offered in over 200 languages. There are also many free clinics available across the country that are just a quick search away. If group therapy is something you’re comfortable with, there are many support groups that you can join, like the Depression and Bipolar Support AllianceAlcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are fantastic organizations that provide a strong support network to those who can benefit from their specializations. Many therapists also offer podcasts too! Some fantastic options are Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast for practical and positive advice, and the Mental Illness Happy Hour for a lighthearted, comedic approach to what can be a sometimes delicate subject.

While this advice might not be able to apply to everyone, it’s a strong start in creating a positive habit however that might be possible.

Choosing a Therapist

Narrowing down your search through practical measures like location and insurance is just one step. Before you choose a therapist, Pharaon says to ask yourself questions like, ”Is there a crisis going on, are you struggling in your relationship? [Have you] just had something traumatic happen? Are you thinking about changing careers and feeling pretty anxious about it?” She compares therapists to specialized doctors, saying, “You’re not going to go to a cardiovascular specialist if your brain is what’s being operated on. If there’s something specific going on in your life, look for someone who has expertise in that area.”

Now, this next part is a part of the process that in all honesty, I did not know about. Pharaon, as well as both Badore and Radin, were quick to explain that finding a therapist is not a one-and-done process, you should shop around until you find one that feels like the right fit for you. Getting to know your potential therapist before you decide is really important, but it’s a lot easier than you think. Email exchanges, phone calls, and consultations are great opportunities to feel them out and see if you vibe with them.  “You’ll get a good sense of each of them … and hopefully, based on how you feel during that conversation, you can make a decision. If you go and it doesn’t feel like a great fit, you do NOT have to continue,” asserted Pharaon. Badore’s friends assured her that, “if the first therapist you try isn’t right for you, that’s okay,” and that keenly noted that, “acknowledging that you have a right to talk to someone that you feel totally comfortable with is a step toward better mental health in itself,” (which is a point that I absolutely love).

So when you arrive at one of these opportunities to get to know your potential therapist, what should you ask? Pharaon explained that in the case of consultations, “most consultations are brief (around 10 or so minutes), so using that time to share a bit of what’s bringing you in is important. Even though you’re only giving a modified version of your story, you’ll get a sense of how the therapist responds, asks questions, and sheds insight. 

Some great questions to ask:

  1. Have you worked with people who present with some of the same things I’ve just shared with you?
  2. Are there certain models of therapy you pull from? If so, how come? 
  3. How do you define success in therapy? 
  4. Would you recommend any colleague more than yourself based on what you know about me so far?”

So, how do you know you’ve found the right one? Pharaon reminds us that, “Therapy is both comfortable AND confronting. Your therapist should be able to create a whole lot of safety and security for you while also challenging you to look at parts of yourself that you might tend to avoid. The experience truly should be both/and. If it’s too “easy” it’s likely missing something, and if it’s too “grueling” it’s also probably not the best fit.”

How To Keep It Up

After you’ve done all the work to find a therapist you really jive with, it goes without saying that keeping up with said therapist appointments is of utmost importance. After all, you made it this far! There are so many creative ways to commit yourself to make this a habit. Badore created a plan of accountability with a friend in order to make sure that their goals were being met. “Just saying it out loud and having someone holding me accountable for it [is] huge,” she says. Pharaon suggests, “[Set] up your next session at the end of each session so you have it on the calendar. Consistency and frequency have a lot to do with the direction that therapy can go. In the beginning, we generally recommend coming in once a week. If it’s possible with scheduling, try to come in at the same time each week so that your routine is easier to keep.” While it’s totally normal to have moments where you slip up or lose your momentum or drive, it’s so imperative to remember why you started doing this for yourself in the first place and keep everything in perspective.

“I try to keep in mind that I only get out what I put into it,” explains Radin. “For example, the more I am willing to consciously listen to my therapist’s advice, make changes in my life, read up on things I’m experiencing, and so on, the more beneficial it is to my well-being. In order for therapy to really work you have to be willing to do the work, to change your behavior and thought patterns, and grow.”

Everyone goes through the process differently, especially at different stages. So how have Badore and Radin been doing so far? After one month, Bridget says that therapy is great. “I still haven’t fully cried yet — five sessions in and I leave with a sore throat from holding back tears (I know, I know, I have to let it out… I’m just not ready yet)! In my second session, I really saw how much I had kept repressed and how much pain I was holding in. I had never given myself the space to really see that before, and it was super powerful.” 

After about a year of therapy, Sara sees it as, “one of many lifelines that has helped pull me out of the darkness.” She makes sure to incorporate her weekly sessions alongside her yoga practices, acupuncture appointments, and sobriety. She continued saying that, “It’s been challenging but overall a positive experience. There have been a lot highs and lows. Some sessions are really tough and others are easygoing, but I continue to move my life in a direction I’m really excited about. I’ve transformed, and I’m ready and willing to continue putting in the work.”

Feature Image via Stocksy

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