Your first therapy or coaching section can be nerve-racking. Will my therapist or coach judge me? Will we connect with one another? What will they ask me? And of course: How much should I share?
When you begin working with a new therapist or coach, how much to share, especially in that first session, might be one of the biggest questions on your mind. The good news is that, like most things in therapy or coaching, how much you choose to share is up to you. But just because it’s up to you, doesn’t make it any easier to decide what and how much to share in the first place.
Here’s how to prepare for your first therapy or coaching session and figure out what works for you when it comes to deciding how much and what to share with your therapist or coach.
The short answer is: no. How could you? You’re a complex human being with a lot going on and there’s no expectation that you would be able to share everything about yourself in an hour or less.
“New clients are often curious about how much they will be expected to share in their first session,” said John Brown, a hypnotherapist and MyWellbeing community member. “As a hypnotherapist, my new clients are also often curious about whether they'll reveal all their secrets under hypnosis. In both cases, the answer is going to be the same: you're not going to disclose any information that you don't want to, and you don't have to share any more information than you feel comfortable with.”
Anything you want! Before you have your first session, most therapists and coaches will have a phone consultation with you where you can ask questions and find out more about how the two of you can work together.
If you have some idea of what you’d like to work on, the phone consultation is a great opportunity to share your thoughts with the therapist or coach and learn more about their experience with your specific issue areas. And if you don’t know yet, that’s totally fine! Let the therapist or coach know, and they’ll be able to share their approach to learning more and finding out how best to work with you.
If you’ve decided to work with a provider who is more goal-oriented, you might take the first session to start to identify some of the goals you have for your treatment or the outcomes you want to see. Other providers might leave it more open-ended and leave space for you to share some things that might be top of mind for you.
You might take some time to talk about things that happened in your past, things that are happening now, or things that might be coming in the future that have initiated your coming to care. You can be as broad or specific as you’re comfortable being.
You get to decide what you feel safe and comfortable sharing and whether or not you want to withhold something to discuss later on. You’re the one who decides if enough trust and rapport have been established between you and your therapist or coach for you to share what’s on your mind.
“Your therapist, hypnotherapist, or coach is there to listen to you, but they don't have to know every detail of your life; they only have to know enough to be able to help you effectively,” said John. “Depending on what you're working on, there may be more or less backstory involved, but you're likely not going to be asked to disclose more information than you're comfortable with.”
It might sound counterintuitive, but if we push ourselves to share as much as possible, we might leave our first session feeling raw and vulnerable and retreat into ourselves for a sense of safety. It’s not a bad thing to find safety in ourselves, but overdoing it can cause us to associate that sense of rawness with our sessions and might make it harder to open up later on.
It’s true that therapy may be painful and uncomfortable at times, but episodes of discomfort can occur during the most successful therapy sessions. Still, your treatment should help you cope with your feelings more effectively or help you reach your goals—it’s never the goal to feel discomfort all the time. Again, it’s all about doing what is best for you.
There might be a very good reason why you’ve set strong boundaries for yourself, and that’s okay. If it’s a challenge to be vulnerable or to share at all, instead of setting more boundaries for your first session, you might prepare yourself to open up. Think about the things you want to share during your first session that might make you stretch yourself and build a strong foundation to work with in further sessions.
Of course you can discuss whatever comes up for you in the session itself, but especially when you’re first starting out, it can be helpful to plan what you would like to share. You can journal or make a bulleted list on your phone of the topics you’d like to discuss and see if anything else comes up for you. Be mindful of your boundaries and if something doesn’t feel right to you, it might not be the time for you to discuss it.
“Remember that each session is made up of two-way communication. and you have the right to be a comfortable and well-informed client,” said John. “If you're unsure or uncomfortable about a question asked, just ask for a little clarification. A good therapist, coach, or hypnotherapist will be happy to explain their approach and will want their clients to be comfortable. So make sure you ask questions and let your professional know if you have any questions.”
If you’re worried that you’ll share too much too soon and lose focus, you can share that. If you’re finding it hard to break down the walls you’ve built up and open up to your therapist or coach, you can share that as well. It’s normal to feel shy, nervous, awkward, overwhelmed, energized, scared, apprehensive, or any combination of those emotions or others—and sharing that with your provider will give them the opportunity to support you even more.
It makes total sense that you may need more time before diving into personal issues or past trauma, so take things slow if that feels right to you. Remember that every session doesn’t have to be groundbreaking—especially the first one.
Even if you feel like you have nothing to talk about at first, if you approach your sessions with an open mind, you and your provider will have the opportunity to talk about whatever is going on in your life—and you might find out that you end up breaking some ground after all!
Again: what you share is up to you, and you shouldn’t feel any pressure to share or address a topic before you’re ready to do so. Especially in the first therapy or coaching session, take time to communicate your needs and expectations to your therapist or coach so you’ll be on the same page. Your space and time at your sessions are for you, and your therapist or coach will be there to support you every step of the way.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.