Therapists are a mystery to many people. If you have never been to therapy there may be some confusion about the whole process. Is it someone telling you how to live your life or just staring at you as you talk? Before entering into a therapeutic relationship, here are the five essential things you should know about therapists.

1. They are all different.
When someone says they have a therapist, what image comes to mind? If you haven’t met many therapists, the person you think of may be based on characters from T.V. dramas or the latest reality show about fixing someone’s life. Often the first thought is an older white woman or man, with a calming presence and perfectly crafted responses. While these people do exist, every therapist is different. This means there is no one-size-fits-all when looking for someone to help you work through problematic areas in your life. If the therapist does not meet your needs that is okay and it doesn’t make them a bad therapist. The therapist should be understanding and able to refer you to others that may be able to fit your needs. Sometimes the therapist is the one who decides you are not a good fit. This doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. It just means the therapist wants you to get the best help possible.

2. Counseling is not about getting advice.
There are so many approaches to therapy. A therapist can do anything from cognitive behavioral therapy to humanistic to emotion-focused. These different approaches are based on the therapist’s preference and the problem that you’re presenting to them. One thing therapists do should not do is tell you how to live your life. The goal of therapy is not to come in with a problem and leave with your therapist’s solution. You are the authority in your life. This means you have to decide what is best for your life. The goal of the therapist should be to help you reach your goals. They should be assisting you and coming up with strategies that will fit your situation and that you feel comfortable implementing in your life. They should not be dictating how you live your life. This is probably the biggest distinction between therapy and coaching.  Most psychotherapists want to give you the skills you need to make the best decisions for your life while coaches tend to give you a plan for how to live your life. Seeking therapy means that you want to be able to manage your life better and make decisions based on your desires and not the influence of the past or present.

3. Therapists continue to learn

Once a therapist has their degree, is licensed to practice, and has no immediate need to go back to school, that’s it, right? Not at all! Effective therapists continue to learn in three ways. One way is through continuing education. Licensed therapists are mandated by their respective Board of examiners to continue to learn throughout the life of their careers but even when continuing education isn’t required, therapists will seek education specifically related to their field of interest. Along with that, good therapists also read books and consult with other therapists. This does not mean a therapist is unskilled or lacks knowledge. It means that the therapist is committed to finding the best ways to help clients and recognizes that he or she may not be an expert on everything. Additionally, some therapists believe that their clients are the experts of their own life. This is why it can take multiple sessions for the therapist to understand the problems that you bring to therapy. When you unpack your baggage, you share your experiences and the impact they had on you. Through this process, therapists learn to see life from your perspective and this isn’t always a quick process. Therapists are knowledgeable about a lot of human interactions, but still, take the time to fine-tune their knowledge to your particular set of experiences.

4. Price does not equal quality
The cost of therapy can vary greatly. If you’re using insurance, your copay may be the same as it is when you see your primary doctor. If you’re seeing a sliding-scale therapist, you may get a discounted rate based on your income. You could also be paying upwards of $200 every time you speak to a therapist that is out of your insurance network or you make too much money for a discount. There are many factors that determine the quality of a therapist. Price is not one. There are plenty of awesome therapists that see clients for $50 a session or less just as there are some not-so-great therapists that charge a lot more. This is why it is important to know what you’re looking for from a therapist and understanding how they can help you. Other things that don’t determine the quality of a therapist: age, years of experience, personal experience, where they got the education, etc. This doesn’t mean that these things aren’t important and that you shouldn’t look into all of these areas. It does mean you should be clear on your desired qualities and why you value them. It can also help to see if a potential therapist does consultations so that you can ask the important questions. Referrals from friends, family, or another professional are probably the best way to find someone who is a good fit for you. You may be surprised when the person that has the biggest impact on your life does not look like you thought they would.

5. Therapists go to therapy
The field calls for strategic disclosure. This means therapists aren’t usually in situations where they are sharing personal struggles because it takes the focus off the client and if they do, it is done to help the other person. Any time you see a therapist, whether in a private session or speaking at a public event, their role is to assist their audience in being their best selves. But, therapists are human. They do not live perfect lives, incorporating perfect strategies, with their perfect spouses and perfect children. While they can be extremely helpful and encouraging, therapists sometimes struggle to incorporate their knowledge into their own lives. For this reason, therapists go to therapy. They talk to other professionals about their struggles, about how their past has affected them, and how to make sure their own struggles don’t affect their clients. They use coping skills, self-care, and set boundaries. They also make mistakes, say the wrong things, and communicate poorly. A therapist can be an expert on a subject and able to help a lot of people but not have every area of their own life figured out. This may be the hardest thing to understand because as humans we want to look at those that appear to have it all together for motivation. Imagine if your therapist never had to struggle through something. How effective could they be at understanding your struggle and helping you through it? While this may not be comforting, I hope you find comfort in knowing that everyone is struggling to be their best selves, so you are no more or no less than anyone else including your therapist. Just as therapists have learned skills to help him or her leads their best life, so can you!

So there you have it! Mystery solved. Therapists are imperfect people with a specialized set of skills to help others. There are many factors that go into the decision to seek therapy. Hopefully, now you know what to expect once you decide to take that step!

If you like this article, check out the official Melanin & Mental Health podcast Between Sessions hosted by Eboni Harris and Eliza Boquin.