Therapy Homework Has Its Place, but the Therapy Room Is Where It’s At

Teenager wearing shorts and backwards baseball cap sits with arms crossed, annoyed expression while counselor waits for him to speakOften when I start working with a person in therapy, just as we’re wrapping up our first session, usually with their hand on the doorknob, they ask me if I have any homework for them.

I smile as I think about the long-winded answer I typically want to give, but as there’s little time for chitchat between appointments, I often say something like, “I imagine that as we continue meeting, the stuff we talk about here is going to work its way into your week. We can talk more at the beginning of our next session.”

Many therapists (and types of therapies) offer specific “homework” assignments. Truth be told, I’ve been known to do so myself every now and then. But the eagerness for homework on the part of people in therapy often takes me back to my performing days.

I had a class in college studying musical theater where we’d do a monologue or song each week. We’d get a lot of feedback from our teacher and peers (constructive and otherwise). At that point, we’d make some of those adjustments on the spot and rehearse the piece. And we’d have another week before we performed it again, having spent the time practicing it on our own.

I hated having to immediately adjust to the feedback by trying out a verse or paragraph in front of everyone. I wanted to diligently write down all of the critiques, sit with them on my own, then repurpose my piece and give a fresh performance the following week.

I never wanted anyone to see the “messy middle.” And my awesome teacher wasn’t going to let me get away with that. I had to do the work in the room.

Fast forward 20 years, and I’m doing the therapy version of this.

It doesn’t need to be a fully formed thought. The emotion or feeling doesn’t even need to “make sense.” But processing it in the room gets us to some amazing places we might not otherwise arrive at, no matter how much home study gets done.

What I ask of the people I work with in therapy, and what I have found to be the most helpful in moving toward sustainable change, is to “rehearse” while in the room. It can be scary and difficult, certainly. But once there is some trust built up within the therapeutic relationship, I strongly encourage the person in therapy to let out, then and there, what they are thinking and feeling rather than “holding on to” or “taking in” a new revelation or introspective reflection.

It doesn’t need to be a fully formed thought. The emotion or feeling doesn’t even need to “make sense.” But processing it in the room gets us to some amazing places we might not otherwise arrive at, no matter how much home study gets done.

For some people in therapy, processing challenging emotions and feelings in the here and now can seem too threatening, regardless of the level of trust in the room. That’s okay! There’s nothing wrong with taking it all in and processing later. You know yourself best. And it’s important to reflect on what happens in session between sessions.

But if you’re able to overcome your discomfort enough to allow yourself to work it out in the room—whether it’s a scene from Hamlet or a sudden understanding of a dynamic in sibling relationships—perhaps we can bypass the censorship of the mind and be with the surprising connections that may arise.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Hazel

    May 15th, 2017 at 11:19 AM

    I agree with you in that I believe the setting in which there will be the most ease and comfort practicing would be in the therapy room. I know that there will always be those things that we can work on after our therapy sessions but it seems more important to know that you are doing something right and what better way to get that feedback than by acting out the scenario with your therapist>

  • ted

    May 16th, 2017 at 9:43 AM

    I like the idea of trying things out in the real world, so you can see how things really go.

  • Cassie

    May 17th, 2017 at 7:59 AM

    You are the one who knows the level of comfort that you have with any given situation but are you always going to be mindful and confident enough to stand up for yourself and not feel the pressure to do things that you might not wish to do?

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