What Therapy is and is Not | First Session

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: Dec 19, 2023

What does therapy mean to you?

In recent years, the stigma around therapy has been reversing and as a result the appetite for mental health support has increased. 

Discussions around mental health are becoming more normalized through major awareness campaigns and mainstream media—hit TV shows like Ted Lasso are putting it at the forefront of their plots, and (ex) royals are working with Oprah to speak openly on the topic through major streaming series deals. On the industry side, the number of psychologists working in Canada increased by nearly 14,000 professionals in the 10 years between 2008 and 2018. 

Still, starting therapy for yourself for the first time is a completely new experience, and it may not be what you initially expected. The team at First Session has interviewed and vetted over 100 Canadian therapists and we’ve uncovered a few common misconceptions about therapy. 

Here are our top lessons about what therapy is, and what it is not.

What therapy is

1) A judgement-free and safe space

One of the most important parts of the therapy is ensuring you and your therapist are the right fit. That includes trusting your gut on how you feel with them and assessing if they have adequately explained how they create a supportive and confidential process. 

This relationship creates a safe space. You can be honest, and your therapist will be receptive to what you want to share. 

Even if you’ve made choices you’re not proud of, your therapist is not there to pass judgement. They’ll be honest with you about any destructive behaviour and you might need to be ready to confront your decisions. But ultimately they’re there to help you understand what you’re going through and why, and how to change the thoughts and emotions that are leading to negative outcomes. 

2) Where your experiences are respected and validated

Therapy is not only for people with unprocessed trauma or diagnosed mental illness. Your struggle is real just as real as anyone else’s challenges. Once you start talking through problems, feelings and your thoughts (even if they’re uncomfortable or you’re not sure yet what they mean), you’ll soon realize you're having normal responses to the challenges in front of you. That kind of validation can be incredibly empowering and liberating.  

“Therapy is not so much of a modality or a technique. It's really a way of showing up in the world. It's really a way of being able to stand and say, this is who I am. This is what I'm thinking. This is what I'm feeling. And it's important to me that I express these things about myself because I care about myself, right? To me, that is a much more powerful, grounded, and helpful perception of therapy than looking at the hierarchy of a doctor or a therapist and a patient.” - Joshua Albert, Clinical Psychologist 

3) Where you can break down your barriers

When issues go unaddressed, we have a tendency to ruminate on those experiences and it can lead to negative or distorted thoughts about ourselves and our situation. It could be difficult relationships with friends, family, partners or coworkers, or it could be deep insecurities that stem from childhood or trauma (whether we’re aware or not). 

This can affect our ability to regulate our emotions and we can get overwhelmed and behave in ways that aren’t useful. With a little help from a therapist, we can pinpoint those stressors and start to gain clarity on who we are and how we are interacting with not only those around us but with ourselves as well.

“Therapy is a place where people come to talk about things that are creating barriers in their lives … a lot of people come to therapy for help to understand how to stop thinking about things that are really getting in the way of them living their best lives.” - Laura Farberman, Registered Social Worker and Psychotherapist

4) Work

The psychotherapeutic process almost always includes change, and change can be uncomfortable. It requires effort and ongoing attention outside of your hour-long session with a therapist. Many therapy modalities (methods) come with “homework” like journaling. The best thing you can do when you start to receive new tools or skills is just to keep trying—work on them on your own time and continue the practice you’re starting with your therapist. You may even incorporate some new habits into your schedule, like time outside or walking.

What therapy is not

1) A place to get “fixed”

Your therapist won’t fix you, because you’re not broken. Therapy is a process. A therapist is not going to tell you exactly what to do with your life or tell you which choices to make. They’ll be there to offer support and be there with you through that journey. What they can do is prompt you with new questions and offer their expertise to help you shift your perspective on the world around you. They can help you understand why you’re thinking or feeling certain ways and empower you to change in the ways you want to. 

“Some people are worried when they walk into therapy that I'm some expert or I'm some, you know, superhuman who can fix all their problems. My approach is completely to be sitting with you, not me up here, you down here, me imparting all my wisdom and ideas and opinions.” - Zoë Plant, Canadian Certified Counsellor

2) A place where you have to share everything all the time

It’s important to know you will not have to reveal everything in your life to your therapist, and certainly not right away (but you can if you want to!). Your therapist will build that openness with you. If you commit to some vulnerability and honesty then it can help open the lines of communication to help you work through those issues that brought you to therapy in the first place. 

“I will not tell you to tell me each and every detail of the trauma, because what is more important is your experience of the trauma, how the trauma is living in your body, in your mind at present and how that is making you feel. That is something that we need to explore more than the actual episode that you’ve been going through.” - Suramya Agrawal, Registered Psychotherapist

Therapists will ask questions and probe a little, but you can always say you don’t feel comfortable talking about a topic or a time in your life. They’ll respect that and guide the conversation to some alternative topics. 

3) Going to be heavy every time

Some people expect to be tearing themselves open at every session, or expect the therapist to want to talk about all of your trauma every time. Sometimes, you might come to a session feeling like you have absolutely nothing to talk about. A good therapist will be open to that, and you will simply start chatting about what’s been going on since your last session.

4) On a specific timeline

Healing is not linear. Therapy has no defined timeline or schedule for improvement. Some forms of therapy can have a set number of sessions (group therapy often takes place over a set number of sessions to start), some people can only budget a certain number of sessions per year, and some people make it a weekly ongoing practice—everyone will have their own path.

Find a therapist with First Session. You can compare hundreds of licensed therapists, counsellors, psychologists and psychotherapists; and filter by province, specialization, therapy type and more. Watch intro videos, and book online or in-person appointments. Remember, many initial consultations are free.

Ready to talk?

Use First Session to find the right therapist for you.

No items found.

Frequently Asked Questions

About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.