Finding a Light in the Dark: How to Make the Most of Therapy

Person holding lamp out ahead walks through dark areaPursuing psychotherapy is a brave endeavor indeed. Many people make this choice when they find themselves in a dark place and are unable to see any light ahead of them.

In order to even begin the process of finding a therapist, you may first have to confront societal and internal judgments (“I must be sick.” “What’s wrong with me that I need to do this?” and so on). After that, you then find yourself attempting to choose a complete stranger who you will entrust with your innermost thoughts. If you haven’t sought therapy before, you may feel overwhelmed and as if you are stepping into the unknown. You might feel anxious or afraid and be unsure of the best way to proceed.

If you are experiencing serious distress, you may have gone as far as you can by yourself, or with the support of friends and family, and done as much as possible in order to improve on your own. You may feel as if you have no further choice beyond therapy.

Whatever your reasons for choosing therapy, however you get to the therapy office, I have a tremendous faith in the psychotherapeutic process. When a therapist and the person seeking help can earnestly work together to explore the person’s inner world, utilizing the contact made between the two of them (the therapeutic relationship), greater insight and an increased ability to address and work through inner conflicts is likely, and maturation often follows.

I don’t think that every therapy process is successful, however. A number of unconscious forces may be at work, in either the person seeking help or the therapist attempting to help them, and any of these might effectively derail therapy.

Keeping the following eight points in mind, from the time you begin therapy and throughout the process, may help you make the best of your choice to seek help—and get the most out of your therapy sessions.

1. Therapy starts when you decide to seek therapy.

Take your search for a therapist seriously. Try to get a few names of potential therapists you can then interview. Taking the time to be thorough and control your search better enables you to find the therapist who fits you best, not only with regard to the specific issues bringing you to therapy, but also with regard to your personality and identity.

Some mental health professionals offer a first consultation over the phone, free of charge. Take advantage of this, if possible. You may be able to get a feel for their manner and personality, and at the very least, rule out some who may not be ideal for you and your needs.

2. Allow yourself the time to assess the fit of your therapist.

If you are in distress, you may be anxious to begin therapy and alleviate some of what you are struggling with. This is a common feeling. You might want to just choose a therapist at random and fall right into the process of therapy. While this can work for some people, it is often best to consider the first few sessions as a mutual assessment and use them to get a felt sense of whether this therapist not only listens, but hears what you have to say, and if this is a helping professional you feel comfortable with. Doing so is likely to greatly increase the chances for a good therapeutic alliance and eventually, success with treatment.

That being said, listen to your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s generally best to move on in your search.

3. Take some time in the beginning to think about your goals for therapy.

Although therapy can take unexpected twists and turns, you can establish a more definitive direction to continue to assess the therapy if you establish goals in the beginning and keep these in mind throughout your work with a therapist. Goals might include minimizing painful symptoms, gaining insight, or pursuing transformation, among others. Regardless of what goals look like for you, they can often serve as a guide when therapy seems aimless.

Regardless of the number of therapy sessions you attend each week, you can maximize the benefits of treatment if you take the time to reflect on what you talked about in the session and—even more importantly—what you felt during and after each session.

4. Share your doubts, fears, concerns, and hopes.

You might be surprised to learn many people don’t share their doubts, fears, concerns, or even hopes with their therapist, perhaps because doing so might feel scary. But I say it can be well worth the risk! These feelings are deep expressions of you, and they can help your therapist know your particular vulnerabilities and become more informed about what you need from your therapy.

If your therapist reacts negatively to these feelings, this is often a red flag they might not be a good fit for your needs.

5. Talk to others who are receiving or have received “good” therapies.

It can be helpful to talk to friends or family members who have had a positive therapy experience. It’s possible to discuss this without exchanging details that may be too personal or private. You might simply ask what helped them most in their experience, or what detail(s) made their therapist a good fit. Although every therapeutic relationship will be unique, there are some universal aspects of good therapy you can look for.

6. If you don’t like something your therapist says, tell them. If you really like something your therapist says, tell them.

It is very possible that, if you are suffering or experiencing distress as an adult, your injuries were originally sustained within the context of your early relationships with caretakers. Thus, opportunities for healing are often greatest within the context of a relationship. Because of this, it is important to share feelings of hurt, anger, or disappointment, along with more positive feelings, with your therapist. This feedback is helpful, and can be essential, as it helps your therapist get to know you better and gain greater understanding of what you need from therapy.

7. Try to reflect on each session in between sessions. Share those thoughts with your therapist.

Regardless of the number of therapy sessions you attend each week, you can maximize the benefits of treatment if you take the time to reflect on what you talked about in the session and—even more importantly—what you felt during and after each session. These feelings often communicate something important about what is happening on an unconscious level during the therapy process.

8. Reflect on your goals from time to time during the therapy.

Use your goals as signposts from time to time. Beyond simply keeping them in mind, take the time to really consider them. Checking in on how things are going, with yourself and with the therapist, can be helpful. Doing so can allow you to recalibrate with your therapist, if necessary, in order to stay on course.

Therapy can be a lengthy process. It may be difficult at times, but keeping these tips in mind can help you increase your chances of success and make it more likely you will find the challenge of seeking treatment to be a rewarding one. Therapy can work for you, as much as you work for it.

I wish you the best in your therapeutic endeavors.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, therapist in Berkeley, California

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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  • Allison m

    Allison m

    October 12th, 2017 at 11:05 AM

    I am convinced that the more you put into anything that you do, the more you will get out of it in return, This goes for workouts, therapy, your job, your education, your marriage, anything. If you work hard to go far and succeed then you will.

    If you are lazy and put little to nothing into that experience, I can already predict what it is that you will achieve in the end. Very little.

  • Peter

    Peter

    October 13th, 2017 at 12:11 PM

    One of the toughest things that you have to do is admitting that you need some help, and that you would benefit a great deal from working with a therapist.The hardest thing that I have done is admitting to myself and then to other people that I did need some help. I have always been a do it myself kind of guy so coming t that realization was a big challenge for me to admit it. I am happier now that I have though because going to therapy is a way for me to release much of that fear and anxiety that I was otherwise living with.

  • Cate

    Cate

    October 16th, 2017 at 7:24 AM

    So what happens if you start going to this person for therapy and then you make the determination that this is not the right professional fit for you? I would be the one who is more likely to just never go back to see the person but I know that the grown up thing to do would be to talk to him and her and see if there would be some way that the two of you could meet in the middle. Suggestions for how to approach this?

  • Ben Ringler

    Ben Ringler

    October 19th, 2017 at 9:12 AM

    Hi Cate,
    That’s a great question, one that probably depends on many factors. How many sessions are you talking about? Is it one session? Or 10 sessions? The more into the therapy you are, the more I would suggest bringing it up and seeing how your therapist responds. It’s hard to know if its something having to do with your own fears or if it truly doesn’t feel right to sit with this person. It’s a big, big deal to choose a therapist because you’re entrusting him/her with your most tender parts of yourself… As a general rule, I would recommend talking to your therapist and seeing if his/her response warrants continuation or not. This can be a big turning point in your life if you can speak up for what you need, and the right therapist will appreciate that!
    Hope this helps. I know it can be challenging!

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