Between Therapy Sessions: When You Can’t Seem to Do the Work

A diary, open to a blank page, rests on a person's kneesChange is hard. We resist it, maintaining our longstanding behaviors and belief systems, because familiar is comfortable. We typically seek psychotherapy when our old ways lead to problems that make change necessary.

In conventional therapy, you may spend one or two hours per week developing new skills and exploring alternative perspectives. Once you leave the office, your therapist hopes you will incorporate the work you did into your daily life. Sometimes your therapist will assign you “homework” that reinforces the concepts addressed in your session. You might choose to journal or simply think about what you learned to make better sense of it and to uncover new insights for your next appointment.

This consistent attention to your therapy leads to continuity, the unbroken thread that ties together your revelations from week to week. This is the key to lasting change. You and your therapist plant the seeds for change in your session, and then your independent efforts allow them to take root and grow into the foundation for an improved life.

Ideally, that is how therapy functions. In less ideal situations, you leave your therapy at the office door and pick it up only when you return the following week. If your needs are minimal, or you just need someone to listen, this pattern could work for you. However, if your goals revolve around healing deep-seated hurts, improving relationships, or breaking lifelong habits, this pattern rarely works. Without consistent effort between sessions, your therapy may feel disconnected from or even irrelevant to your daily life. If you don’t complete the tasks assigned to you each week, you miss the opportunity to practice new skills that contribute to the goals you set for yourself.

When you find yourself forgetting or even avoiding therapeutic work, you might ask yourself what is getting in the way of taking full advantage of your therapy. The most common answer is you don’t have enough time. After work, family, and other commitments, finding additional time and energy to be introspective or to practice new tools seems overwhelming. You feel stretched too thin, and just making it to a weekly appointment feels like the most you can do. If this reflects your situation, you and your therapist can plan how to optimize the limited time you have in a way that feels realistic to you.

If you’re wondering if there’s more to the story, ask yourself the following questions:

1. Do you prioritize others’ needs over your own?

Consider how much time and energy you devote to other people. Once you’ve given to your partner, your children, your friends, your parents, and your colleagues, you may struggle to find any remaining resources for yourself.

If your generosity leaves you feeling depleted, you may need to create stronger boundaries, which includes prioritizing self-care and carving out time for self-reflection outside of therapy.

Changing your life requires work. Weekly therapy sessions are just the beginning.

2. Are your expectations reasonable?

When your therapist asks you to practice a new behavior, it is expected that you will feel uncomfortable and may stumble on your new path. Your therapist wants you to challenge your status quo and take small, calculated risks that result in incremental change. Sometimes, though, perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking may lead you to believe you must implement new strategies right the first time—or else they’re not worth trying at all. When you operate under this assumption, you miss out on the small victories that add up to greater achievement and increased self-confidence.

Perfectionism and the shame that comes with it may also convince you that what you’re learning in therapy should come easily to you. If these new concepts were obvious to you, you might not need a therapist in the first place! Ask your therapist for help when you’re confused, concerned, or unsure about something you’re processing. They can offer you additional guidance, but only when you’re willing to let them know you need it.

3. Are you afraid of something?

Despite your desire to change your life, actually changing it can be scary. Uncertainty tends to accompany change; perhaps you can’t imagine life any other way than what is familiar to you. Not being able to predict what happens next can feel paralyzing and prevent you from moving forward. Perhaps you also worry that you’ll become someone you don’t recognize.

Modifying your outlook on the world, behaving differently in relationships, and forgiving others and yourself has the power to transform you. You and your therapist should proceed at a pace that is appropriate for you, so you can integrate these new ways of being into your identity. Rather than feeling like you have to become someone else, you can explore how to evolve into a more adaptive, flexible, and limitless version of who you already are.

4. Do you really want to change?

Ultimately, you are in charge of how your life unfolds. You have the right to accept yourself as you are and live your life as you see fit. You have the right to determine which relationships to maintain, what behavior to tolerate, and who deserves your forgiveness. If the change you seek clashes with your core values or is the result of outside pressure, you may struggle to motivate yourself to work on your therapy.

Sometimes, therapy will help you realize you don’t want to or are not ready to change. You get to make that choice. You must remember, however, that you don’t get to choose the consequences of your choice. Your decision may create more peace in your life and/or lead to the end of important relationships. Your decision may leave you stuck in an untenable situation and/or open your eyes to the positive aspects of your life that you previously ignored. Whatever you do, make sure your choice not to change is the one that feels right for you.

Changing your life requires work. Weekly therapy sessions are just the beginning. The real work happens between sessions, when you actively engage in the creation of change and commit to making it last.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Shameela Keshavjee, MS, LMFT-S, Topic Expert Contributor

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lee

    August 16th, 2016 at 7:02 AM

    There is a misconception that therapy is only about the 30 or 60 minutes that you are meeting with that therapist when In reality to get the most out of it they are usually going to assign some homework for you. This has to definitely be an effort that you put forth on your own. Just like anything else you will only get out of it that which you put into it.

  • Will

    August 16th, 2016 at 10:14 AM

    Work from home?
    But I thought that paying money to the therapist was what that was for?

  • Shameela Keshavjee

    August 16th, 2016 at 12:06 PM

    Think of it as taking lessons. If you want to learn a musical instrument, you pay for time with the instructor and then you go home and are expected to practice. When you return for your next lesson, you are able to connect what you learned last time with what you’ll learn this time. If you don’t practice between lessons, it doesn’t mean you won’t make progress – it just might take longer to build skills and to make connections between new concepts. In psychotherapy, you’re trying to learn new ways to think, act, and feel in your life. A therapist can only provide you with a new outlook or tool; your day-to-day life provides you the opportunity to try it out and see how it fits for you in the real world. Of course, your personal goals, the type of therapy you’re involved in, and your therapist will determine what kind of work needs to be done between sessions. If you are getting what you want from therapy without having to give it much thought between sessions, that’s great! That’s just not the case for most people.

  • Will

    August 16th, 2016 at 3:30 PM

    ok that’s a pretty good analogy with the musical instrument- I get it

  • Berry

    August 17th, 2016 at 7:44 AM

    I can relate to that feeling of being disconnected, the flow isn’t there when you need to make big changes if you are not doing some o f the critical work between sessions.

  • Jeremy

    August 17th, 2016 at 10:41 AM

    If you are struggling to do the work at home then somewhere along the way that probably means that you are not ready to make those kinds of big changes in life that likely need to be made

  • Cretia

    August 22nd, 2016 at 11:28 AM

    to me the unwillingness to work means an unwillingness to change

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