What To Expect When You See A Psychologist For The First Time
I’ve been seeing counsellors and psychologists one and off for over ten years now, and although the stigma of accessing mental health care has decreased dramatically, I think a lot of people are still scared, uncertain and unsure about going to a counsellor or psychologist themselves.
I make a conscious effort to avoid writing ‘how to’s’ or advice, I also don’t like to write ‘you should’ content – I’m much more comfortable sharing my own stories and what I’m learning from my own experiences rather than telling other people how they should live their lives.
But this is a topic that’s close to my heart and it’s not something that I see a lot of people talking about – and I also wonder if it’s something people would feel comfortable asking me about. So, I wanted to write a little guide of sorts around what to expect when you’re seeing a counsellor or psychologist for the first time.
For me, seeing a coucellor or psychologist is completely on par with seeing a doctor. In reality, it’s more like getting a personal trainer for your mind, a chiropractor to adjust your thinking, a physio to strengthen your mental health.
I openly talk about seeing my mental health professionals as if I was seeing any other medical or health professional. I’m not ashamed or embarrassed when I go to the physio so why would I feel any different when I see my psychologist?
“I say that publicly because I think it’s really important to take the stigma away from mental health… My brain and my heart are really important to me. I don’t know why I wouldn’t seek help to have those things be as healthy as my teeth. I go to the dentist. So why wouldn’t I go to a shrink?” — Kerry Washington
Everyone’s mental health story is different. Over the years I’ve seen three different psychologists, two councillors, a prayer counselling team and a couple’s counsellor.
Just like it takes time to find a great long-term GP, physio or personal trainer it also takes time to find the right mental health professionals to help you on your journey.
How Do I Know If I Need To See A Councillor or Psychologist?
That’s a little bit like asking ‘how do I know if I need to see a doctor?’ Personally, I see a doctor when I’m encountering a medical issue that I’m not able to care for myself. If I get a headache or a head cold, I know how to nurse myself back to health, I know what medication to access and how to rest at home. If my headache gets worse, if it’s gone on for days and I’m no longer able to self-care I book a doctor’s appointment.
For me, it’s the same with mental health. If I’m having a stressful week, I feel a bit down, I’m emotionally sensitive, I’ve experienced a loss – I know how to self-care in those situations to a point…but sometimes I can’t shake what I’m feeling. The negative thinking is on loop, my self-talk is aggressive, I’m crying ALL THE TIME, I can’t sleep…basically I’m feeling tangled up and I can’t untangle things myself.
Our physical health is like our mental health – sometimes we’re well and sometimes we’re not. That’s no reflection of the kind of people we are – it’s biology, it’s life, it’s part of the human experience.
“Mental health problems don’t define who you are. They are something you experience. You walk in the rain and you feel the rain, but, importantly, YOU ARE NOT THE RAIN.” — Matt Haig
My general advice is if you’re feeling anxious, stressed, depressed, dark, not-quite-yourself, snappy, have suffered a loss, have experienced trauma – and the self-care you’ve tried isn’t working, you’re not getting back to feeling 100%, you feel stuck, you can’t talk about things because it’s too painful then it’s worth seeing someone about your mental health.
It can be scary to admit your mental health needs help, especially if you see mental health issues as something that happens to other people, not you. But that’s a lie we’re all been sold. Everyone with a body gets sick, everyone with a heart and mind faces mental health challenges. It’s not the weak who need help – it’s all of us – and the bravest and most rewarding thing you’ll ever do is push past your fear and take care of your mental health.
“The advice I’d give to somebody that’s silently struggling is, you don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to struggle in silence. You can be un-silent. You can live well with a mental health condition, as long as you open up to somebody about it, because it’s really important you share your experience with people so that you can get the help that you need.” — Demi Lovato
“The experience I have had is that once you start talking about [experiencing a mental health struggle], you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club.” — Prince Harry
“I found that with depression, one of the most important things you can realize is that you’re not alone. You’re not the first to go through it, you’re not gonna be the last to go through it,” — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
I Want To See A Coucellor or Psychologist – What’s My Next Step?
In Australia, if you’d like to see a psychologist, you can access a mental health plan by seeing your GP and doing a mental health assessment. The assessment isn’t scary at all, it’s basically just a one-page quiz where you answer about 15 questions by ticking ‘never, sometimes, always’ boxes. It takes less than 5 mins and it will help the GP assess you. No invasive questions, it’s very non-confrontational and easy. Once you’ve finished the assessment your GP can give you a referral to a local psychologist and you’ll get the government rebate on your first 10 sessions – depending on what your psychologist charges this can mean your sessions are free, heavily subsidised or half price.
The 10 sessions reset every year – so every year you can get a new assessment done and access another 10 subsidised sessions.
If you don’t want to see your GP you can book in with a psychologist directly, you just don’t get the government rebate.
If you’d like to see a counsellor you don’t need to see your GP first, you can just make an appointment with them directly.
How Do I Find The Right Councillor or Psychologist For Me?
This can be the hard part – you may need to go to someone for a few sessions to really know if they’re a good fit for you or not – and if they are not, you need to make the call and switch.
If you’re on a government mental health plan this may mean asking your GP to write you a new referral to another practitioner.
My tips would be to have a think about the kind of person you’d like to see – do you prefer them to be male or female? Do you feel comfortable talking to someone who may be younger than you? Do you have a specific mental health issue you’d like to address such as grief, childhood trauma or anxiety?
Do your research – you can find out a lot about health practioners online, a lot of them describe their therapy style on their websites.
When I was getting counselling related to my church experience it was important to me that I saw someone who understood my faith, when I was going to a psychologist for anxiety it was important to me that I saw someone who specialised in anxiety. I found two anxiety specialists in my area, I went to one for a session and it just didn’t click for me, I didn’t feel heard, I didn’t feel like the techniques he wanted me to use would benefit me – so I sent an email cancelling my next session and booked in with someone else.
[Art by Crazyhead Comics]
It can be exhausting to find the right fit for you but once you find that person it’s worth it.
For me, I know I’ve found the right person when I feel comfortable, I feel they are really listening to me, I feel they understand my journey and genuinely want to help me untangle things, I feel comfortable in their environment, they have strong and clear boundaries, I feel safe, it’s a professional environment. They give me helpful advice that I would have never thought of myself, but it aligns with my values – and, most of all, I start to feel better.
Listen to your gut, follow your intuition – this person is walking into the dark with you and helping you get out – if you don’t trust them, I don’t think the process can work.
“What I love about therapy is that they’ll tell you what your blind spots are. Although that’s uncomfortable and painful, it gives you something to work with.” — Pink
I’ve Booked My First Appointment – Now What?
In my experience, the first appointment is focused around telling the counsellor or psychologist why you’re there and what you’re hoping to achieve – it’s not super emotional or difficult – it’s breaking the ice and getting the ball rolling.
I have learnt that you always want to carve our time after a session to have space to reflect. Some sessions may be really emotional or thought provoking. If you have to rush off into another meeting or get straight back into work, it can make things harder to process.
When I’m working full time, my preference is to have a session after 5pm when I can just go home and relax, or on a Saturday when I have an hour or two after the session free.
Before I see someone for the first time, I like to have a think and be very clear about why I’m seeing them and what outcomes I’m after. The more specific I can be the more I get out of each session – my psychologist can focus their energy on helping me untangle everything rather than trying to pull information out of me.
What have I identified on my own? What triggers or patterns have I noticed? I’m partnering with my psychologist so we can work together on my mental health – the more I bring to the session the more we have to work with.
What Should I Expect In My First Session?
Let me just tell you upfront, it’s not like the movies.
Seeing a psychologist or a counsellor is not scary.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s probably the kindest conversation you’ve ever had.
Mashing all my experiences together, I’ll try to paint a picture of what a first session looks and feels like.
I’m scrambling to park my car, my session is in 5-mins and I’ve just spotted a spot at the end of the car park – I feel stressed, I should have left earlier. I walk into the waiting room, it’s empty, it’s usually unattended. There’s a little fountain in the corner that’s trying to sooth me, but I’m way too wound up to even give it a chance. I wait, alone in the waiting room, my breath slowing down…beads of sweat start to evaporate on my skin.
The psychologist is running late. Typical. Why did I even bother rushing? They’re always late.
The psychologist comes into the waiting room, friendly and fresh. I follow her into the appointment – the room is filled with light, it’s homely, with lovely art on the walls, a clock quietly ticking, a little bookshelf filled with well-read books, it feels like a living room more than an office. I gently place the cushion on the couch next to me and sink into the lounge.
There’s a jug of water on the little table to my left and an empty glass.
My psychologist sits across from me. My couch is a little nicer than her chair. She occasionally takes notes but mostly we’re just chatting.
There’s an easy flow to things. ‘What brings you here today’ she asks me. I go into story telling mode, explaining what’s happened, what I’ve tried, what has and hasn’t worked, what I think I need – I take my time, we have an hour and there’s nothing on the agenda but me.
This is one of my favourite parts of therapy – it’s one of the few things I get to experience as an adult that’s all about me. It’s my time, my issues and my health. I feel like I live between the cracks, stuffed around other people’s stories, all the coffee catch ups where no one askes how I’m going or conversations that get hijacked by other people’s drama. This is a gift to me, a time when I’m the only voice in the room – I can tell my version of events, my point of view – it’s validated and no one is trying to talk over me, challenge me, tell me it’s not a big deal.
The psychologist asks questions as they pop up but mostly, she’s listening. ‘That must have been hard’, ‘Could you tell me more about how that made you feel’, ‘I can see why that upset you’.
Whenever I have counselling, or I see a psychologist I try to adopt a no bullshit policy. I’m there because I want help, I need help. I’m not interested in playing games, hiding, being too scared to tell the truth.
I need to work with my psychologist if I want to untangle my mind – the more I edit my story, omit embarrassing truths, pretend I’m shinier than I am the longer and harder this process will be.
I remind myself; they’ve seen and heard it all before. This isn’t the first time they’ve talked to someone with anxiety, or trauma, or depression, or a history of abuse – this isn’t their first rodeo.
This is why it’s important that I have a psychologist that I feel safe with. Someone who I feel is on my team – I need to be able to talk openly, honestly, say the things I can’t say anywhere else in my life.
Tissues are offered when tears start to fall but it’s not awkward. The space always feels peaceful. Always welcome. Always safe.
My psychologist suggests things we could start to work on, areas she has identified that could be blocking me – I’ve laid out the situation and now she’s suggesting the game plan.
I’m assured that what I’m experiencing is normal.
She can help me get through it.
As our session wraps up, we book another appointment.
I like to have regular appointments at first, every week or every fortnight and then as I start to feel better, they become monthly and then every couple of months.
I get up, place the cushion back on the seat, follow the psychologist out into the waiting room and process the payment – some places process it before the session or online.
I feel lighter, I’m not better, things still have a long way to go but I feel lighter, I have someone in my corner now and we’re going to get through it together.
What Happens Next?
Seeing a counsellor or psychologist is like going to a personal trainer once a fortnight – if you’re not doing the work between appointments you won’t progress.
I use the time between appointments to implement the advice my psychologist has given me, I practice the exercises they’ve taught me every day, I partner with them – I have to do the work, I have to apply myself, they’re going to coach me through this but I need to take responsibility for my own healing.
The first session is an easy introduction, then the work begins. The next few sessions are often the hardest, things are been uncovered, challenged and exposed. It’s like decluttering your bedroom – you start pulling everything out and the whole room gets messy.
It’s quick and painful. Then the hard work begins, sorting through item by item, finding a place for things, letting things go – until finally the room looks amazing – everything is sorted. It’s clean and clear.
That’s what therapy is like. In the middle it is raw. Trauma you’ve forgotten starts to resurface, scars become open wounds, I experience flashbacks, I feel like my world has become chaos, like every cupboard in my heart and mind is open. It’s the ultimate Marie Kondo.
But I hang in there, I’m brave, I want to get to the other side so badly. I’m not alone, my psychologist is with me, coaching me every step of the way. We’re a team and together we declutter my heart, my mind, we untangle everything until healing emerges.
It’s a beautiful exchange – my pain slowly woven into something solid and golden that makes me stronger.
“She is beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.” – J.M. Storm
I’ll go and see my psychologist for a few weeks or months, they’ll help me untangle whatever it is I’m stuck on…and then I won’t see them for a while, maybe for months or even years, but then I’ll hit something new and I’ll make an appointment again.
At first, I’d see my councillors regularly for a year but now I’ve got so many more tools and resources to self-care, I find I’ll often see my psychologist for a couple of months every now and then until I’m ok again.
There’s nothing scary about seeing a psychologist, in fact, for me, it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done. I can link most of the internal growth I’ve experienced in my adult life directly to the advice, help and encouragement my health care professionals have given me.
”Healing takes time, and asking for help is a courageous step.” – Mariska Hargitay
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” – Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
[Art by Ilaria Urbinati]