This week on Meg-John & Justin we podcasted about when to go to therapy. We covered the signs that therapy might be useful, what to expect from therapy, what it opens up and closes down, and how to engage with therapy once you get there.
We’re using ‘therapy’ here to cover therapy, counselling, coaching, and these kinds of related practices where you sit with somebody – usually one-to-one – and talk about your life.
Perhaps our biggest message was SHOP AROUND! The most important thing with a therapist is to find somebody you’ll have a good relationship with which also means having a shared understanding. People often just go to the first therapist they come across, but it’s really important to find somebody who is a good fit for you by doing at least as much homework as you would do around getting builders into your house or making a major purchase like a vehicle or musical instrument.
When you gotta go
Perhaps two good signs that therapy might be a good idea are when you are really struggling, and when life feels stuck or stagnant. In the first case you might notice tough emotions coming up, a sense of overwhelm, or specific symptoms like anxious thoughts or controlling behaviours. In the second case it might be more that everything feels a bit bland or pointless, or you have a sense that you’re avoiding looking at stuff that’s probably important.
It can also be a good idea to get therapy support after a big or traumatic life event, if there’s something major that’s happened in your life which you haven’t ever looked at, or perhaps as part of a regular check-in every few years with how you’re doing in your relationship with yourself, other people, your work, and life in general.
People often struggle to go to therapy because they see it as a self-indulgence. However, in all these cases your struggles are likely to be impacting on others in your life too: either because it affects your relationships directly, or because you are relying on close people for support.
What therapy opens up and closes down
Therapists can provide a supportive space for you to look at your stuff while having no agenda – in the way friends and family might want you to respond in a certain way, for example. They’re a person who is completely on your side and helping you figure out what’s best for you. Ideally they’ll be empowering you in ways that leave you more able to be kind to yourself and to follow the path that feels best for you. They may help you to learn tools and techniques to apply to your life more broadly, or be more focused on listening and helping you to make connections between what happened in your past and how you deal with things now.
One problem with therapy is that it can reinforce the idea that there’s something wrong with us that needs fixing. It’s important to remember that many of the struggles we have a totally, or largely, caused by shitty cultural messages, injustices, and family systems, work, and relationship dynamics that are toxic or painful. Ideally a therapist would be help you to look at this context and address your part in it, rather than reinforcing the idea that you are individually responsible for your suffering. Also, although the therapist generally puts themselves in a good place to be there for you for that hour, it’s worth remembering that they’re a person in this world who inevitably struggles as much as you do. It’s like you’re both climbing your own mountain. They have the expertise, experience, and perspective to be able to look across to you on your mountain and give you some advice about the next handhold or foothold.
How to find one
It’s worth getting recommendations from friends and searching online for people who work with the kinds of issues you have in a way that sounds good to you. Pink Therapy is a good listing for therapists with expertise around gender, sexual, and relationship diversity.
We’d suggest looking at as many websites as you can find for therapists who work on the right topics in your area (or more widely if you’re considering online therapy). Narrow it down to a few who feel good when you read about them, and then have an email exchange, phonecall and/or initial session with them to see whether it feels a good fit.
If you need a low-cost or free therapist then there are NHS therapists and counsellors through GP practices, as well as voluntary mental health and LGBTQ services in many places that provide therapy. There can be less choice here but it should still be important to assess whether it feels like a good fit, and the opportunity to ask for a different person if not.
It’s worth checking whether a therapist has some form of training and accreditation, although there are a wide range of these that can be appropriate. The first session should give you an opportunity to ask all the questions you need to ask, and give you a sense of how this therapist works.
As with all professions there are some therapists who are exploitative and even abusive, so it is vital to be careful and find someone who is ethical and works with integrity. Also there will be many who can work well with some people but just aren’t a good fit for you.
You should always feel that it’s possible to end therapy if it’s not working for you, and to find an option that’s affordable. Therapy shouldn’t leave you feeling scared and confused.
Find out more
Here’s some videos about how to find a therapist
We’re putting our podcast about all the different kinds of therapy on our Patreon
Here’s a blog post from MJ about the different kinds of therapy, and one about mental health