This article has lots of good ideas whether you are seeking therapy for the first time, returning after a hiatus or just wanting to get more out of it.
Published in Psychology Today
Not all therapy experiences are the same. Find out how to make it work for you.
- Therapy is an effective way to treat mental illness and enact personal change, but a number of factors can determine how much of an impact it has.
- Choosing a therapist who best fits you, being honest in therapy, and attending consistently can all help make therapy more effective.
- Trusting a therapist’s expertise is helpful, but so is giving feedback about how therapy is going.
Therapy is an investment of time, money, and emotional energy, but if done correctly, the rewards can be completely life-changing. I’ve worked with many people who have said, If I’d only known… decades ago, it would have changed everything. Therapy is a place where you can learn a lot about yourself, such as why you think the way you do, why you have certain emotions and how to regulate them better, how to see your blind spots, how to better understand and navigate your relationships with others, and how to cope more effectively with life’s challenges.
But the reality is that not all therapy experiences are the same. Some people radically alter their lives, while other people feel like they are going in circles and never feel like they are getting anywhere. Good therapy is a collaborative experience between the therapist and the client, and there is a lot you can do to get the most from your experience.
Below are seven ways that you can proactively maximize your experience in therapy.
1. Choose the right therapist.
Therapy is not a one size fits all model. There needs to be a good fit between the client and the therapist in order to have an effective working relationship. Some clients want lots of structure while others loathe it. Some clients want lots of feedback while others just want a place to hear their own thoughts. Some clients have specific issues that not all therapists can treat. Finding a therapist that is both qualified to address your particular concerns and is a good fit with your interpersonal style is important for the success of the therapy.
One form of preparation you can do is to gather a small list of qualified state-licensed therapists and interview two or three before making a decision about who to work with. (On Psychology Today’s therapy directory, you can search by zip code and then read the profiles of therapists in your area.) As you interview a therapist, here are a few questions to ask that might be helpful: What type of therapy do you practice? How will this particular therapy help me with my specific problems? Is there any evidence that shows this type of therapy will help with my particular issue? What will the treatment be like? How many people have you treated successfully using this type of therapy? Is there an estimated length of treatment for people with my particular issue?
2. Be open and honest.
Sometimes in therapy, people are reluctant to open up and share all the details that the therapist needs in order to really help them. There can be a range of reasons for this, including shame or lack of trust. With the exception of harm to yourself or others, what is discussed in therapy is confidential. Meaning, your therapist is not allowed to discuss anything about you or your therapy with anyone without your permission. Leaving out information prevents the therapist from making connections and gaining insights that could be very important to the therapy process. Know that your therapist is there to help you. They aren’t judging you and there is virtually nothing you can say that will surprise or shock them. An experienced therapist has heard it all.
3. Be consistent.
Research examining the “dosage” of therapy needed for treatment tends to show that on average, approximately 20 sessions of therapy occurring once per week are needed to get a reliable improvement in common psychiatric conditions. Of course, this depends on the type of therapy and/or your own particular issue. However, what’s most important is that the therapy be consistent. When sessions are spaced too far apart or people miss sessions on a regular basis, what happens is that there is an interruption to the learning process, and what I like to call “drift” occurs. People often don’t hold onto or benefit from the insights they are making if that learning isn’t being reinforced in a timely manner.
4. Keep a therapy notebook.
One of my favorite tools is a therapy notebook. It’s just a simple notebook where clients are able to take notes during sessions, do their homework assignments, and write down any thoughts that come to them during the week that they wish to discuss during our sessions. The notebook serves as a tangible way to track and hold on to the learning that is occurring during the therapy process. It’s also a great way to track progress and see your own change when you look back. You are better able to see how far you’ve come, based on what you’ve written in your notes.
5. Practice what you learn.
The biggest difference I’ve seen between people who achieve their therapy goals quickly and those who stay stuck is that the ones who make the most progress practice what they learn and take their homework assignments seriously. Therapy sessions are usually just 45-50 minutes of your week. If you don’t practice what you are learning during the week, it’s hard for the learning to stick. Sometimes it’s hard to invest time and energy in something that you aren’t sure will work for you, but that’s exactly why you are working with a therapist, who already knows from experience what can help. Sometimes the assignments might seem too simplistic to make a difference with your problems. Other times they may seem uncomfortable to do. Give them a try and remember that internal change is just like physical change—it requires some consistency and effort.
6. Trust the process (and your therapist).
While therapy might just seem like talking, there’s a lot more to it than that, and it requires a lot of education and training to become a licensed therapist. Therapists are trained to see and understand things that you can’t see in yourself. They also understand that part of the work is guiding you there until you can see things more clearly. If you try to dictate to your therapist how the process should go, what you can or cannot talk about, or what you are willing or not willing to do, you are tying the hands of your therapist and preventing them from applying the knowledge they have to help you. Change can be scary and letting go of control can make you feel vulnerable, but remember, you have to tolerate the discomfort of being outside your comfort zone if you want to grow.
7. Give feedback.
Your therapist wants to help you, but what works for one person might not work for someone else. If you are honest and provide feedback, they can make adjustments that will help keep the therapy process moving forward.