Starting therapy is a nerve-wracking experience, from looking up which therapists are in your area to actually trying to pick one that sounds like the best fit for you from their generic profile. The most stressful part, though, is meeting the therapist you chose for the first time. You have no idea exactly what they’re going to ask you, and you’re not sure if they will be someone you want to talk to about all of your problems and insecurities. The whole experience is weirdly similar to online dating, and it’s super nerve-wracking to try and find the perfect therapist. I’ve been on both sides of therapy, having gone to therapy myself and now as a therapist, and I still get incredibly sweaty and nervous for that first meeting.
When I was a client looking for a therapist, I was lucky enough to bypass that initial process of scrolling through Psychology Today profiles to find the right therapist. I just went to my university’s therapy center, and they just assigned someone to me. Once I scheduled my first session, I was super excited, and I couldn’t wait for the day to come so I could finally get started. Then the day of my appointment arrived, and I was beginning to feel my anxiety rise up in me: my heart’s racing, my hands are shaky, my shoulders tense up, butterflies are in my stomach, and I can’t stop thinking about having to meet my therapist for the first time.
Stumbling Through That First Meeting
I’m a people pleaser, so any initial meeting with someone is extremely stressful. I feel the need to immediately get a good reading on them to instantly mold myself into being the version of myself that I think they will find the most interesting. This process is exhausting and ultimately impossible, so I start to shut down when I inevitably can’t do those things. Thankfully my default setting is polite and accommodating, so most people don’t realize how awkward I feel inside. In groups of people, I tend to be the person who’s just listening to their conversation instead of being social and adding to the conversation without any prompting from someone else in the group.
When it’s a one on one meeting with someone I’ve never met, I’m usually a little awkward at first (stumbling over my words or saying “um” or “like” a lot), but I am decent at warming up to the conversation and talking like I would with someone I’ve already met. So when I met my therapist for the first time, that’s how I reacted: I was nervous for the first 5-10 minutes, but I was able to talk like I usually would pretty soon after that.
What That First Encounter is Like as a Therapist
Therapy is a unique experience in that as the client you are usually responding to the therapist’s guidance, so there isn’t the pressure of trying to figure out what normal people talk about to try to avoid that awkward transition between topics after both people have said everything they have to say about something and now both of you are scrambling to come up with the next topic while trying not to just stare at them blankly. As a client, it was nice not having to worry about deciding where to go next in the conversation and I enjoyed the experience of being the client.
And then I became a therapist, and then I realized that I was the one who had to lead the sessions and direct our conversation to somewhere useful. That was my biggest fear before I had my first session as a therapist: how was I going to be able to both be present in the moment, listen to them, and direct the conversation to be therapeutic? How would I manage those transitions in conversation that I typically can’t seem to do in other social situations?
I discovered that I didn’t really have significant problems figuring out where to take our conversation in therapy, which was surprising to me. I’m typically an indecisive person. I have a hard time deciding what to eat or do in my free time, so I didn’t know why I struggled so much in most social situations but had no real problem directing a counseling session. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while mundane decisions felt impossible for me to decide what to do, I usually had no issue with actual problem solving or making decisions for things that mattered.
Problem-solving requires you to examine the situation objectively and determine what solution makes the most sense given the pros and cons of all your possible options. For me, the problem with mundane decisions was that there wasn’t a clear “solution” to the problem. After all, when you’re hungry and trying to figure out what to make for dinner, other than avoiding food you hate or are allergic to, there isn’t a “wrong” decision, just a bunch of good options. The difference is that my job as a therapist comes with having a specific personalized plan and purpose for meeting with someone. In contrast, most social conversations are so open-ended that I would become overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities in front of me.
Despite knowing all this about myself, I still get nervous before I meet a potential client for the first time. It turns out that most things you learn in therapy are things you need to actually work on; they don’t magically disappear once you’re aware of what’s happening and why you’re reacting the way you are. An essential part of therapy is the “therapeutic relationship”. The therapist and client form a unique bond, unlike anything you typically have in your everyday life. After all, who else do you pay to be an unbiased confidant who will do their best to help guide you towards your goals?
There is something extraordinary about a therapist and client working together to understand and process what has been going on and brainstorm what the best solutions might be. Still, it can also be a daunting task for both people involved. So my advice, for both therapists and clients, would be to just give yourself permission to be honest and genuine. If you’re nervous and don’t know what to say, tell your therapist or client that. Most people appreciate it when you just acknowledge the awkwardness, and if they hate it when people do that then maybe you two aren’t a good fit to be working together.
Meeting with a therapist or client for the first time is an opportunity for both people to assess whether or not the other person is a good fit to start a therapeutic relationship with them. Finding the perfect therapist is challenging, but you must be willing to turn down a therapist that you aren’t vibing with. After all, you will have to open up to this person. If they don’t make you feel comfortable, I don’t think you will get as much out of the experience compared to having a therapist who actually listens to you and seems to understand what you’re describing to them. So don’t be afraid just to be yourself, even if that means being weird or awkward.