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What does it look like to meet with a therapist? What does it feel like to meet with a therapist? Why do people talk about how helpful therapy can be, but other people put therapy down?

  • Short answer: Just like any other relationship in life, a relationship with a therapist can look different for everyone.
  • Longer answer: Keep reading for some of the basics of the therapeutic relationship built between a client and their therapist.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Therapy (or Psychotherapy) is “…a type of treatment that can help individuals experiencing a wide array of mental health conditions and emotional challenges.”

Conditions and challenges can include things like:
Stressful life situations, conflict within a relationship, conflict within self, medical illness, traumatic experiences, depression, anxiety, parenting issues, substance issues, loss, grief, and much more.

“It’s never overreacting to ask for what you want and need.”
– Amy Poehler


Basics of a Therapeutic Relationship:


A therapeutic relationship in plain words is the relationship built between a client (or clients) and their therapist.

Here are a few essential foundational parts of a therapeutic relationship:


  • Trust: Without building trust, respect, and genuine care, the therapeutic relationship will likely not reach its full possible potential.
  • Commitment: Without a commitment from both parties to show up, communicate, and work, the process stalls and the helping relationship will likely suffer.
  • Collaboration: According to the American Psychology Association, “One big shift in psychotherapy in recent years is toward greater mutuality—the notion that psychotherapy is a two-way relationship in which the therapist and client are equal partners in the therapy process.” Without equal collaboration, there is often more giving or more taking and can feel exhausting for both parties.
  • Communication: While there are various types of therapy, talk therapy is a frequently used therapeutic process. Without talking, emoting, or sharing with each other, the relationship between a client and therapist will likely not work.
  • Non-Judgment: A therapist is professionally trained to be open, non-judgmental, and to hold a safe mental space for their clients. The hope is that within therapeutic relationships, individuals can express themselves honestly and openly, without any immediate attachment of fear, judgment, or rejection. 

The client / therapist relationship is often different from any other because of the way the foundational parts listed above are developed.


What Does a Relationship With a Therapist Look Like?

I have heard therapists are sometimes referred to as a mix between a medical doctor and a friend. A doctor takes care of your physical health and is often very professional in approach. A friend is someone who knows all the personal details of your life, listens, and gives personal advice on what to try to make it better. A therapist can sometimes feel like a mix of these two approaches.

So how do we mentally categorize our relationship with a therapist? I would suggest thinking of them as a professional who helps with personal things in our lives.

The Family Institute reports, “‘A little over half of the beneficial effects of therapy accounted for are linked to the quality of the alliance [between the client and therapist],’ according to Dr. Adam Horvath, (a professor at Simon Frasier University and a leading expert in research on the patient-therapist relationships).”

Unfortunately, there are clients who do not always have a helpful experience within therapy. Experiences like this can leave people feeling like they don’t like therapy. If a therapist does not feel like a good fit or doesn’t pass the vibe, it is okay to look for a different one. Kind of like meeting people and deciding if we want them as our friend. In fact, I would encourage looking for someone else. Throwing the idea of therapy out the window can leave us feeling even more alone. We do not deserve to go through life alone.

Finding the right therapist is often like finding the right friend. It can take some time. If the first friend option doesn’t work out, we usually keep looking. Doing the same with a therapist can be really important for our healing and our long-term health.


Expectations Vs. Reality

Therapists are not magicians. While they do have a lot of training in various areas and most work hard to continue learning, they do not know everything. They also do not know the EXACT thing that will help their clients right away. So they ask a lot of questions.

As a counselor, I like to mentally approach a client’s concerns this way:

When a client comes into therapy, I have an entire bag full of tools, tips, tricks, and helpful information. If a client tells me they are struggling with something, I listen to understand exactly what is happening and ask a lot of clarifying questions surrounding their struggles. If I don’t ask questions, I may miss something really important (ex. Is their struggle related to personal life? Work? Social interactions? Diet? Sleep? Self-image? A combination of things?).

Once we have talked through enough things that could be contributing to their personal struggle, I like to pull some of those tools, tips, tricks, and information out of my bag and ask the client if they think that tool might help them. If they don’t think it will, I am not going to try to pressure them into using that particular tool. I want something that will aid them greatly. So if a tool won’t work right away, or if a client tries the tool and it doesn’t work, it is important for me to reach back into my bag of helpful things. That is why I say therapists are not magicians. They don’t know the exact thing to suggest or what will be the most helpful tool at the beginning of the process. Personally, I am always ready to pull things out of my bag if a tool isn’t working.

Therapy sessions can be structured differently depending on the therapist, the needs of the client, the severity of the client’s needs, the type of therapy techniques or theories being utilized, and more. One of the MOST important things I tell clients is, “You should have control of what you want to talk about and work on in your session. It is your health. You should have autonomy over how it goes and the direction we head toward.”

This does not mean that therapists don’t ask challenging questions or try to push clients outside of their comfort zones a little. Challenging and pushing clients should always be done in a way that is respectful, has been talked about in session together, and doesn’t cause harm to a client.


Boundaries in the Therapeutic Relationship

Boundaries are often important in all our relationships. Having boundaries in sessions with a therapist can be vital for overall health and healing.

Boundary areas can include:

  • Discussing content that feels safe and waiting to discuss content that feels unsafe.
  • Keeping the relationship professionally appropriate.
  • Appropriate physical touch and gift giving practices.
  • Expectations about modes of payment and fees.
  • Length of sessions or locations of sessions.
  • Appropriate communication channels and interactions outside of therapy.
  • Confidentiality and personal disclosure.

These boundaries are typically discussed during the first session, but can be revisited throughout the therapy process if need be.


Some Basics in Session

Sometimes therapy can feel overwhelming or we can feel unsure about the process. The goal of therapy is often to work on changes a client desires to better their quality of life. It should feel like your therapist is one of the most professional supportive people in your life toward those desired goals. Understanding some of the basics of a session can often help.


Basics in sessions can include:

    • Paperwork: Like any other health concern appointment, filling out paperwork will help a healthcare professional be able to have a better understanding of what to discuss and look at with you. Completing paperwork BEFORE a session is done for legal reasons and the safety of everyone involved. Can it be annoying? Sure, but it often helps LEAP the care of a client forward.
    • First (Intake) Session: This is the start of therapy. An intake session typically lasts an hour for an individual session and maybe a bit longer for couples, families, etc. The first session is usually where clients begin telling the therapist what possible conflict(s) exist in their life and the possible changes they hope for. Some clients express they finally feel like this session helps them release the weight of the world from their shoulders or a relief to finally have someone listening and working to help them.
    • Talking: Therapy is a lot of discussion, especially the first few sessions. I have heard that sometimes clients feel like they didn’t get as much accomplished as they wanted to in the first few sessions because they are trying to get their therapist caught up. Clients can sometimes get discouraged if they feel like the first session didn’t help them as much as they wanted it to. This feeling can be common, but a therapist can become more effective with the more information shared. The first session often does not get all the needed information out. I always encourage people to stick with it even if it feels slower than they would like it to be at first.
    • “Homework”: Some therapists like to encourage their clients to do work outside of a therapy session. It can be common to have about an hour session per week. If we only do work an hour a week, change takes a lot longer. Effective change often requires work outside of sessions and many therapists like to give tools, tasks, or “homework” to try and help further aid a client’s desire for personal change.


Where to Start?

The hardest part of the therapeutic process can be that first step of reaching out. Calling, emailing, or messaging a therapist or counseling center can feel daunting. The good news is that you do not have to figure the whole process out on your own. Therapists are trained to walk with you through it.


Some helpful places to start include: 

  • Searching for therapists who are trained in areas that you desire change to occur in. Therapists will often list populations they work with most (Ex. those who have experienced depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, etc.) or what they are certified in (Ex. certified in EMDR – therapeutic approach towards trauma).
  • Reaching out to a clinic or center to ask questions.
  • Ask a therapist if they do a consultation phone call to discuss their personal approach towards therapy.
  • Finding the best contact method that you feel comfortable with. Some of the most common include calling over the phone, filling out a contact / referral request form on a website, and sometimes even emailing.
  • Possibly ask a trusted adult to help with that first step of reaching out and requesting services.

If you have questions about services, would like more info about services, or are interested in services, please feel free to reach out to us at 248-573-7417 or

Let us take this first step with you!