"So, what brings you here?" I ask the new client sitting opposite me.
"I've been thinking about doing this for months! I nearly emailed you last year. I'vehad enough now and I really need help." is the likely reply.
As a psychotherapist I hear this time and time again during the first session with a client. By the time they have found the courage to walk into the therapy room they are often at a very low point, sometimes suicidal. Thankfully, they usually leave that first session with a sense of hope that things can improve but what took them so long? Why didn't they seek help after a few weeks or months?
Often they have told themselves that it's just a phase, that it will pass and of course there are times when this is certainly the case. However, more frequently the client has employed various strategies such as drinking, eating, scouring the Internet for a magic answer, avoiding people etc. all of which worked in the short-term but clearly aren't sustainable or may even be damaging in themselves. After they have exhausted all possible avenues they reach rockbottom and, at the end of their tether, decide to get professional help.
One of the first questions I will ask a new client is "why now, why not 3months ago or a year ago?" Usually the answer is that they've run out of ideas, their relationship is at risk or they've been dealt another of life's blows which has tipped them over the edge. So, how can you tell if it's time to seek help from a professional therapist? Here are 5 questions to ask yourself to determine whether now is the right time...
1. What is the problem?
This may sound obvious but before you can ascertain if it's time to seek help you need to know what it is you want help with. It doesn't have to be specific; your therapist can help with that. It might be as simple as "I have been feeling very low, I'm stuck and I don't know where my life is heading" or "I can't do anything without my partner". If you are struggling with substance misuse, addiction or are having persistent suicidal thoughts then you need read no further, it's time to get some guidance from a professional whether that by your GP or a psychotherapist.
2. How long have I been struggling?
I once received a call from the distressed parent of a son whose relationship had ended abruptly 2 days before. The parent thought he might need counselling. After a brief chat I suggested that the son might simply need time to grieve and to call back if he was still feeling the same in 4 weeks. I didn't hear from her again. Some changes in emotion are a natural response to life's events and, in these cases, time and self-compassion can be a great healer.
3. To what extent is this problem affecting my life?
To answer this you might need to think about what you've stopped doing as a result of it or, conversely, what you have started doing e.g. Drinking, sleeping more. It might help to write down a list of behaviours you have dropped and picked up as a result. Seeing this visually will help determine whether you think it's impacting upon your life enough to seek help. An example of this can be related to a friend of mine who has a mental compulsion around the number 4, splitting things into 4 mentally and physically. This doesn't impact on her life in any way other than being as light inconvenience at times therefore she doesn't seek help. If this were to persist and evolve to the point where she couldn't think of anything else she might then need the input of a professional.
4. Have I tried any other strategies to help with this problem?
Sometimes sharing your problem with a trusted friend or family member can be enough to help you view things from a different perspective or make changes. I am also a massive fan of self-help books, podcasts and web content which can be hugely inspirational and informative. A word of caution on this though, if you are continually delving into books and web content and nothing is changing it's time to seek professional help. Overthinking your problem can be detrimental too.
5. What do I hope to get from therapy?
It's always useful to ask yourself this question because it will help you clarify what changes you want and what you would hope for from any professional input. If the answer is "I don't want to feel like this anymore" ask yourself what you do want to feel like and what you would be doing differently in your life if you were to feel that way. If the answer is "I don't know", go back to question 3 to remind yourself what has changed and what you might want to reclaim. If you still aren't sure, that's okay, you can explore this question with the help of your therapist.
After asking yourself these 5 questions you should have a better idea about how to proceed whether that be through speaking to a friend, seeing your GP, buying a book or looking for a therapist. In another blog we give tips on how to find the right psychotherapist for you.