If you find yourself in your therapist’s office once a week, know you’re in good company with the rest of America. Whether you’re there to talk about your relationship issues or to receive help for a mental disorder, talk therapy can be an incredibly effective tool. But here’s something you may have noticed — you’re the one doing most of the chatting. And while you’re going on and on about your dating life, friendships, and time spent at the office, there might be one question running through your mind — what’s your therapist really thinking?
Though you’re free to ask the person with the notepad across from you any and all questions, their answers may be vague in the moment. So, here’s what your therapist wishes you knew, but isn’t likely to tell you.
1. Yes, they are judging you after all
There are a few lies you’re told in life — teachers don’t pick favorites, and your therapist doesn’t judge you. This isn’t negative judgment, though. They’re not silently berating you for all of your bad decisions. But they are still human, and if the time and situation is right, they will tell you how they’re feeling about something you’ve said.
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist, tells The Wall Street Journal it’s really his job to judge patients. “Yes, I need to accept my patient for who they are,” he noted, “but to pretend that I won’t bring my humanness to the equation is unrealistic.” Of course, any judgment shared with you should be to your benefit.
2. They’re probably stressed out, too
Maybe you’ve never thought about this before, but consider how many stories (and secrets) your therapist has heard in just one day. There’s a reason your counselor does what they do — they’re compassionate, and they want to help others. But sometimes this comes with a lot of emotional burnout, says Zur Institute. And this doesn’t necessarily take 20 years to occur — many mental health workers face this obstacle early in their careers. If your therapist isn’t taking good care of their own health, they might not be too helpful for you, either.
3. They might want to tell you what to do — but they rarely will
When a friend comes to you with a problem, you’re likely to offer support in the form of advice, but don’t expect the same kind of response from your therapist. Sharon K. Anderson writes in Psychology Today that she asks herself if sharing advice will even be effective for the client to use, or if it’s advice she’d take herself before speaking up. Anderson finds when she tells one of her clients exactly how to fix a situation they’re in, it’s actually pretty counterproductive.
Feel like your therapist may be holding back on offering up solutions to your problems? You might be on to something. Expect them to help guide you through your own decision-making process instead.
4. They won’t be the first one to address you outside of their office
Ever wonder what it’d be like to see your therapist out in public? Do you know exactly what aisle you’d hide behind in the grocery store, or what book you’d shove your face behind in the library? If you already have your escape plan mapped out, know it’s highly unnecessary. In a Psych Central story, Elvira G. Aletta, Ph.D., says your therapist is unlikely to say hello to you in public if you don’t initiate the conversation first. If you do choose to greet them, expect the conversation to be light and short without any mention of therapy whatsoever. And if you haven’t yet run into them in public but you’re concerned about the possibility, feel free to bring it up during a session to discuss what would make you feel the most comfortable.
5. Your therapist doesn’t want to work with your insurance company
There’s the possibility of therapy putting a huge dent in your wallet. Instead of paying out of pocket, you’re probably hoping your insurance company will take on some of those finances. Here’s the catch you might not know about — you must have a “coverable” diagnosis for your insurance company to foot the bill. Lisa M. Vallejos, a licensed professional counselor, tells GoodTherapy.org working with insurance can be really challenging for the therapist, as it forces them to diagnose you and also comes with a wealth of other difficulties. And it might not be the best bet for you, either, as many companies will only cover a certain number of sessions.
If you’re looking to pay for your sessions with your own money, ask your therapist about a sliding fee scale based on your income. This will make it more affordable.
6. They don’t talk about your personal life to others
You might think your life is a complete whirlwind fit for its own memoir, but don’t expect your therapist to discuss your personal life with anyone else — even other people in the field. The American Psychological Association says confidentiality is of the utmost importance in the therapy world, and there are only a few exceptions. If you’re at immediate risk or could put the public in danger, your therapist will need to share this information. They’re also required to report instances of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence. It’s all for your protection, though — otherwise, feel free to spill all of your secrets during your sessions without any fear.
7. They don’t always know exactly what to say and do
Your therapist can help you feel understood and lead you to a more fulfilling life, this is true. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they always know exactly how to help or what you need. Noah Rubinstein, the founder of GoodTherapy.org, says most people think of therapists as superior beings because “most of us spend a good portion of our lives seeking redemption in things outside of ourselves.” But remember, therapists are still regular people.
8. Their approach to therapy might not change from client to client
In theory, your therapist’s approach to your session would be unique to your wants and needs. That’s not always the case, however. Michael Bader writes in Psychology Today that many mental health professionals have a core way of going about things, and it can be tough to deviate from what their teachers have taught them. The best therapists know how to be flexible and open-minded in all situations, but this can be quite hard to do — they’re often bogged down by the rules they think they should be following for an effective session.
Remember, the first person you see for therapy doesn’t have to be the one you continue to see. Finding a therapist that understands you best and benefits you the most is a better bet.
9. They take notes about you — you just might not see it happen
Many of those in the mental health field are taught taking notes during a client’s session is helpful for recalling information later on. This might be true, but it can also be off-putting for the client to see their therapist’s head stuck in a notepad. For this reason, more and more therapists are choosing to put down the pen and paper to stay more engaged. But don’t think this means your therapist isn’t recording anything about your interactions. Ryan Howes, Ph.D., writes your counselor needs to create a legally binding note at the end of each of your sessions. They just might not show you the notepad while you’re in the room.
10. They know when you don’t need them anymore
You might view therapy as a lifelong commitment, but it doesn’t have to be that way. While some therapists will encourage you to continue your sessions indefinitely, a really great counselor will know when you’re no longer benefiting from their services. Counseling lecturer Nicola Blunden told The Independent, “I give guidance on how long therapy might take, but I don’t require commitment.” It’s unlikely for anyone to have a true “aha! I’m done with therapy!” moment, but when you find you’re no longer getting anything out of it, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to leave. And your therapist might even recognize the time has come before you do.