Every part of therapy can be informative. The moment you enter the room is no exception.
Different therapists have different styles, but in psychodynamic work there’s usually space left for you to start the session. What you do with that time is important. How you feel about that time is even more so.
This Is Not a Test
If your therapist doesn’t say anything when you enter the room—and I mean not even a “hi” or a “how are you?”—it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being rude. It’s not a test, and it’s not meant to make you feel a certain way.
Believe it or not, the space is there so the therapist has less influence over the session. We don’t want to focus on what we think is important or, even subtly, walk over a feeling or thought you are having. Therapy time is your time.
Do you want to pick up from last session?
Do you want to talk about that incident with your brother-in-law over the weekend?
Do you want to discuss what happened with the guy who sold you a coffee just before you arrived at my office?
It’s up to you. Entirely.
Sure, we may hope to hear about how that discussion went with your partner, the one we’ve spent months gearing up for—but we may not ask about it. Perhaps you’ve moved on. Maybe you didn’t have the discussion and our asking about it might make you feel like you should have had it—in which case the therapy becomes about whether you’re doing what you’re “supposed” to do (and suddenly we’re replicating a relationship with your dad that you’ve been struggling with).
The only real exception I make is if you’ve talked about an ill or dying loved one. I’ll probably ask about that (but maybe I shouldn’t!).
How Do You Use the Time?
Often, people say they don’t know what to talk about. Not because they don’t know what they want to talk about, but because they don’t know how to start.
In those early silences, when you’re struggling with starting the session, it’s good to become aware of the feelings that are filling that silence.
Many people who come to therapy, particularly those who often put others first, have a difficult time just jumping in and talking about themselves. A giveaway for this is when a person immediately asks about my week. They may tell me they’re doing so because it’s polite and they’re making small talk, but therapy is fully about you. You’re paying me and you want to know how my week was? It’s a nice thing to do, but didn’t you say in our first session you want to be more assertive? That people take advantage of you? Well, guess what—that’s what we’re working on by talking about what’s happening between you and me.
Pay Attention to the Feeling in Those First Few Moments
In those early silences, when you’re struggling with starting the session, it’s good to become aware of the feelings that are filling that silence. This can help us understand your (perhaps) social anxiety, your reluctance to speak up in a class or group, your tendency to “live in your head” and intellectualize everything.
Awareness of the shyness, nervousness, anger, worry, or whatever else is in the silence can inform all those other times outside the therapy room when you don’t jump in and say what you want to say. Once you’re aware of the feeling, we can explore it to stop it from getting in the way of your action (or inaction).
Your therapist probably isn’t trying to be a jerk by not starting the session for you. We’re aware of how difficult it can be. To that end, we may, after a time, ask a starter question along the lines of, “What’s it like to be back here today?”
Sometimes we’ll process the silence or the “how are you?” and sometimes we’ll just see where you take the conversation. The major point I’d like you to take away from this is to talk about what’s going on for you in relation to the therapist.
Tell your therapist how awkward it is and how much you wish they’d just start for you. How angry you are because your therapist should be the one to direct the session; you’re paying them for their expertise, after all! Or how overwhelmed you are because of all that’s happening and you just can’t prioritize and need help doing so.
Or, just maybe, you feel you have nothing to say. Well, say that then. We’re here to guide you, but also to do all we can to not influence you.
© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York
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