Let me be very clear: Therapy is not a replacement for friendship or relationships, because it is one-sided in that the entire relationship focuses on you without a glimpse into the therapist's life.
However, with that said, your experience with your therapist is as helpful and meaningful as you prioritize and work for it to be, like any relationship.
If we approach our relationships with therapists like other relationships -- new, potentially-satisfying, open -- we can stop looking at therapy as this intimidating, scary thing that one needs when they don't have control of their life, thus de-stigmatizing it. Therapy, and a relationship with a therapist, is something one chooses to benefit their lives and something that one has control over like any new relationship. Here's how:
1. You have to choose it.
You can't have a successful relationship with someone if you don't actually want to have a relationship with that person. You have complete agency over going to see a therapist and wanting to form a genuine relationship with one. You have complete control over whether to go, whether to stay, whether to leave and how much you get out of it.
2. Determine, for yourself, what kind of relationship you want and need.
We have different categories of relationships. We have our family-turned-friends, friends-turned-family, work friends, party friends, travel friends, short-term relationships, long-term relationships, etc.
These categories can translate to therapists, too. Do you want something short-term or long-term? Do you want someone who specializes in a certain field or with a certain issue? Are you looking to be given homework or hands-on exposure, or are you looking to talk and vent and discover patterns in your life? Knowing these things will help you filter through lists of therapists when you are searching for one, and it will help you know what to ask when you see one for the first time.
3. Set your expectations.
Now that you know what kind of a relationship you want, for yourself, it's important to set these expectations with your therapist. Be open about what it is you expect and what it is you need during your sessions. Therapists are equipped with the expertise and professional knowledge to help you, but like all relationships, different people need different things. Do you need commentary during your sessions? Ask for it. Do you feel like your therapist has started focusing on something that doesn't feel quite right or necessary? Direct the conversation to something else. Does your therapist do something that makes it uncomfortable for you to speak openly? Or does he/she not do something enough? Tell them. And most of all, don't be afraid to ask questions.
4. Be willing to be vulnerable.
In order to surpass the superficiality in any relationship, you have to be honest and truthful. This is the same with a therapist. When you find a therapist that creates a space completely void of shame or judgment, the true healing begins.
But in order for this to happen, you have to be vulnerable and you have to trust your therapist. The way the most important trustworthy people in our lives make us feel safe and like we belong, you have to find that balance with a therapist.
5. You have to work at it.
It won't be easy. It takes time and effort to develop depth in any relationship. The emotional exhaustion that sometimes comes with therapy can be daunting, but it's important to remember that issues, and struggles and experiences need to be surfaced, talked through and thought about in order for them to be processed and/or purged.
Furthermore, be honest with yourself on your effort levels. Are you being honest and forthright about things that are difficult to talk about? Are you avoiding something? Are you using the time in therapy to really achieve what you're seeking from it? You have to be committed to going to therapy as often as you truly think you should. And though therapy might be one hour a week (or however often you have decided), the work is brought home both consciously and subconsciously.
6. Don't compare relationships.
There's no shame in seeing a therapist, so there's no shame in talking about. But, don't compare your therapy experience or your relationship with your therapist with your friends or someone else's. All individual relationships among people are different and unique and cater to the exact space and connection between those two people and those two people alone. Remember this. (But if you feel like certain needs aren't being met and realize that someone else is getting something out of therapy you wish you were, bring it up to your therapist.)
7. Don't be scared to walk away.
Not every therapist will be the right fit, so after a few sessions and a genuine try at making it work with one therapist, be willing to admit that it's not working. However, don't give up on therapy altogether, the same way you wouldn't give up on all of your relationships because one didn't work out. Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all ordeal.
On the same note, as you work with yourself through therapy, there may come a time when you know you are done. People go to therapy for a variety of reasons, and some things require short-term help or intermittent help vs. long-term help. Keep touching base with yourself on your progress and on whether you are benefiting from your therapy. This may mean leaving one therapist and finding another or not needing therapy at the moment/anymore.
Human connection is a necessity in life. We all need people to love, be loved by, to feel a belonging amongst, to connect with, to share with and to sometimes lean on. Therapy is a form of human connection that has been getting a bad rep, but honestly, it's an empowering personal choice for anyone who's willing to give it a shot; these seven points serve as a reminder that like any relationship, you are a participant with say, choice and control.