A Universe Opens: Reflections On My First Session as a Therapist By Renée Chen on 7/27/21 - 11:41 AM

“Know all the theories, master all the techniques, but as you touch a human soul, be just another human soul.” —Carl G. Jung

As I stare down at the piece of paper holding a few clues to the vast mystery that will be my first-ever client, I feel a universe come into existence, a wide expanse full of potential and possibilities. The past year-and-a-half of didactic and experiential training has culminated here, in this very moment. All that I had previously read and thought about were finally lifting off the pages, out of my mind, and into the here-and-now in the form of a dynamic, real-life therapist-client relationship. As Sanmao, a Chinese feminist writer, put it, “What I learned on paper, I felt, was knowledge that had not yet been tested.” There I was — hours away from testing the knowledge I’d accumulated on a real-life, non-pretend client—sitting in the tension of opposing “what ifs:” “What if I forget everything I learned?,” “What if I’m terrible at being another human soul?,” “What if the theories are wrong?,” “What if none of the theories are applicable to me, or the client?,” “What if the theories are right?,” “What if it actually works?!”

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To alleviate some of the angst-citement—a cocktail of angst and excitement I was feeling, I decided to reach out to a handful of therapist friends—some licensed supervisors, some only a few months ahead of me—and solicit tips they might offer an intern who was about to go into their first-ever session, things they wish a mentor had told them as they were stepping into their role as a therapist for the first time. Here’s a mosaic of what they shared:
  • Check your excitement and adrenaline at the door. As exciting as it is, you are ultimately there for them.
  • Be genuine and be yourself. You don’t need to be a blank slate or do anything to prove yourself. If you’re an expressive person, allow yourself to be expressive!
  • Relate to the patient and be kind. If nothing else, focus on making yourself and the client comfortable. Validate however the client shows up in the therapy session—there’s no such thing as too much or not enough. Follow your curiosity and get to know them.
  • Ask them what they want to work on or change in their life, and then work on what they are ready and willing to work on.
  • Sit with them in their feelings. Don’t try to make them feel better. Instead, help them better feel by exploring and understanding their feelings.
  • Give them permission to feel. You can say, “I imagine if I were in your position, I might feel… Do you feel any of that?” This helps them feel less alone for something they might be feeling but are unable or afraid to name.
  • Don’t be afraid to create space. If you get flustered and don’t know what to say, you can say, “I just want to sit with this for a second before deciding where to go next or what else to explore.” You can also say, “I don’t know where to go from here,” and ask them if they have a sense of where they’d like to go next. Silence doesn’t always need to be filled. Space is comfortable and useful when it is intentional, and we make it intentional by acknowledging it: “I want to take a breath around that before saying anything. That’s a lot that you’ve been holding.”
  • Less is more. Provide a space for them to share. Bear witness to their unfolding. You don’t need to interpret, fix, advise, or do much.
  • Help your client cross the river by feeling the stones. Set small, achievable goals so they feel like progress can be made.
  • Take a moment to remember it afterwards. It’s your first one, and that’s exciting!


Upon wrapping up my first session, I felt a tremendous sense of relief—relief that my client hadn’t asked me whether this was my first session (though if they had, I was prepared to say something along the lines of, “If it were, what does that bring up for you?”), and relief that I’d made it to the other side of what felt like a tipping point in the evolution of this career and calling. Reflecting on the random scribbles I’d made during the session, a few twinkling stars began to emerge against the dark expanse of a nascent universe—the dawning of a new constellation, of a new relationship, with all its mystery and magic.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections