Every now and then, someone asks me for homework as we end a therapy session. There’s nothing strange about this request. There are therapies where homework is a big part of the overall work. And because most of us have been getting homework since we were in school, we’ve been conditioned to see it as an inevitable part of learning and bettering ourselves.
There are times I recommend that a person in therapy try something out on their own, but I generally don’t give homework. I have found that the most healing, most helpful, and longest-lasting effects of therapy are produced in the therapy room.
In my previous career as an actor and singer, I spent a good deal of time in classes working on the performance of a monologue or song. It was important to me to be “performance ready” all the time. My self-esteem was built around this—after all, at 18 I felt the only thing I was good at was performing. If I didn’t do this perfectly, then who was I?
I’d sing my ballad, play my part … and after I was done, there were always comments from classmates and the teacher. Caring critiques. This was expected. And it was usually wanted, at least by me.
I dealt with this by saying thank you, dutifully writing it all down in my notebook—and then incorporating everything later on while I was in the practice studios or my dorm room.
After a while, this did not fly with my teacher and director. She wanted to see me incorporate the notes on the spot—to “show my work,” as they say. I didn’t want to. That would get in the way of my perfectionism.
Still, I learned to do it. It was scary. I felt exposed and vulnerable. But it was amazingly helpful because I learned to do the work in relationship with someone else. There was real-time, moment-to-moment exploration of what I preferred to more comfortably work on by myself.
This was a powerful lesson. Today, I extend it to the work we do in counseling.
As I said, I’ll occasionally encourage people to journal, make a gratitude list, or become more aware of the physical signs they’re getting upset, but it’s not a large part of the work—and in my view, it’s not the most effective part, either.
When we take the pressure off of you, the person going to therapy, we allow for the emotions that exist within relationships—including the therapeutic relationship and your relationship with yourself—to come to the forefront. Therapy is not coaching. Therapy is not something you’re supposed to do on your own.
The courage that comes with exposing your uncensored feelings with a therapist provides you with the freedom to be who you are with the people who matter most in your life.
It’s about relationships.
Therapy is about learning to trust that the work you do in session will enter your life when it is needed. The work you put into your relationship with a therapist sees its real fruition in the relationships with your friends, children, partner, parents, and coworkers. Your people.
It’s not a straight line from we learn this, we incorporate this, and the outcome is this.
We may want it to be. I do (all the time), but I’ve come to see and strongly believe that’s just not how change—real, lasting change—happens. When the change I want is to move out of constant anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, etc., I need to trust that I can’t just think myself out of it.
It’s not about finding new ways to approach a situation with a new script. That can be part of the journey, maybe even an entrance, but it’s not the whole story.
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