At the beginning of therapy, many people are curious about what they need to do to make therapy work for them. They know that they will have to work in therapy to make it effective, but they often don’t know what that entails. Unfortunately, the unknowns of therapy cause some to feel that they’re just wandering and not making progress, or it causes them to leave therapy before they get to experience all the wonderful benefits. On a different end of the spectrum, these circumstances can also cause a person to stay in therapy too long and still not reap the rewards of good psychotherapy.
Getting the most out of therapy requires an alternation of spontaneity and focused reflection. It’s important to let your feelings and thoughts flow freely, but it’s also important to slow down, step back, and reflect on what those thoughts and feelings tell you. There are many ways and many areas of your own self-exploration in which you can practice this. While the content of your therapy sessions will be unique, I’d like to offer some additional guidance I’ve picked up from people who seem to get a great deal out of their therapy sessions:
- Bring all of the different parts of your personality into your session. There may be a frightened and vulnerable child who needs to come in and cry, a micromanager who wants to tell the therapist what to do, a demon filled with hate, or an angel too sensitive for the real world. We all have many different parts to our personalities; some we’d like to hide, and some that are the only parts we’d like to show. Notice what you’d like to leave at the door and instead bring it in, either by showing it to your therapist or by telling him or her about it. Then, reflect on why you feel you’ve needed to deny this part, and what it may have to offer you if it could be included mindfully.
- Bring all of your emotions into your sessions. Your tears, your anger, your fear, your shame, and your delight—bring them all. Notice which ones you try to avoid, and welcome them all in as much as possible. Be willing to step back, contain them, and be curious about them without letting your emotions get out of control. In therapy, we exercise the capacity to have an emotion without it having us.
- Try to keep the focus on yourself. It certainly feels good to be able to blow off steam about what others have done wrong. A little venting can go a long way, and your therapist’s empathy, at this point, is indispensable. Eventually, though, you’ll need to step back and ask how you can think about the situation differently and how you can respond to it differently. When you focus within, you’ll find a lot of resources to make the changes you want and be much more empowered to make them.
- Forge an authentic connection with your therapist. Research tells us that the connection between a Please don’t feel you have use all of these suggestions, or that these are rigid rules that you must follow. It may take time to develop the ability to use these, and that’s OK.therapist and a person in therapy is profoundly important for change. But, as with all relationships, a good therapeutic relationship is made rather than simply found. To accomplish this, be direct with your therapist.No therapist is perfect. What is your therapist doing that works and doesn’t work? Is he or she leaving things out that you had hoped would be part of your work together? Do you find him or her cold? Intrusive? Not challenging enough? Too challenging? Do you worry that you like the therapist too much or that you depend on him or her too much? Say so.This sort of direct communication not only helps your therapist help you, it also helps you get comfortable with parts of yourself that you usually hide. A core principle of therapy is that it’s the relationship that heals. But you can’t just show up; you need to open up, too.
- Be very curious about why you are the way you are, and don’t judge yourself for what you find out. We’ve all adopted strategies for getting along in life; some help and some hinder. What are your strategies? Why have you developed them, and what do you get out of them? Some people, for instance, realize that they amplify their anxiety in order to get help from others because that’s the only way they were heard when they were young. Once you identify your strategy, don’t judge it. Have compassion for yourself. Self-acceptance is indispensable for therapeutic progress.
- Take responsibility for your behavior, but not for things that are out of your control. There is a huge price to pay for imagining that you can control things you can’t. Depression and anxiety are two mental health conditions that often arise from this dilemma. On the other hand, if you spend your therapy sessions blaming other people for how you live now, your progress will be slow to nonexistent.
- Use your sessions to identify themes and patterns in your life. Therapy is most effective when we connect the dots between events and understand how our personalities and our responses affect our well-being. Search for a deeper understanding of how you operate in different circumstances and it will serve you once you stop attending sessions and navigate the world on your own. Your therapist will help you recognize themes and patterns that underlie the events you discuss in session, but you don’t need to wait for your therapist to do this.
- Continue your work outside of session. Once you’ve made progress in some of these areas, it’s time to take the show on the road and apply what you’ve learned in therapy to your world. This can take the form of specific assignments you want to take on, such as going to the admissions counselor at a community college to find out what you need to do to start a degree. Or it can take the form of more general intentions about how you want to behave going forward, such as an intention to not avoid situations that make you anxious. Also, meditation, exercise, support groups, community, and creative work can all help you to actualize the change you’ve been discussing in your sessions.
- Use your challenges—even the small ones—as opportunities for growth. Once you know what your triggers are, welcome these situations as opportunities to respond differently. This is an attitude that often develops without conscious effort in therapy as we bring in the most challenging situations from our lives each week. But if you can begin to do this in a more conscious way, your difficulties will be less painful, and you are more likely to grow as a result of them.
Use of even a few of these points can help you not only overcome symptoms, but it can also help you develop a fuller, more satisfying life. Please don’t feel you have use all of these suggestions, or that these are rigid rules that you must follow. It may take time to develop the ability to use these, and that’s OK. It is the exercise of them that makes therapy so potentially powerful. Many people have entered therapy to fix a specific problem and leave treatment with a more balanced personality and more fulfilling approach to life. If you are using these suggestions, rest assured that your work in therapy will bear fruit.
I’m always curious as to what others have done to make their therapy effective. Please leave a comment and let me and other readers know how you get the most out of your therapy.
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