How to get the most out of therapy

Talk therapy offers an incredible opportunity for personal growth. I get the most out of my sessions by managing my expectations, focusing on my relationship with my therapist and by spending a few minutes before, after and in between sessions to reflect.

So you’ve decided to begin individual talk therapy - that’s incredible! I’m really excited for you as I strongly believe that therapy offers a unique and unparalleled opportunity to grow as a person, friend, partner and parent. It’s not often you get a chance - actually, where you’re literally supposed to - to talk about yourself and what you are going through. If it’s your time first time going to therapy, it’s normal to be feeling a little intimidated, confused and maybe even awkward about it all. Having attended therapy for several years I wanted to share some of what i’ve learnt about the process.

1. Manage your expectations

Talk therapy offers you a space to speak with a trained professional about what you are thinking, feeling and experiencing. It’s an opportunity to explore yourself more fully with the support of an experienced companion. They’re not experts in you. They’re not your friends or your parents. They’re companions with you on your self-discovery journey and there to support you, not to show you the way. There will most likely be times when you just want them to tell you what to do but remember that that’s not their role (and if they believe it is, change). It’s your life and you are the decision maker. Your therapist can help you work through what you are experiencing and can help you evaluate your options, but ultimately, the goal should be for you to feel empowered to live your life, make your decisions and be responsible for the outcomes.

Therapy is a process. Very little will change immediately for you just because you’ve attended a couple of sessions but over time you should feel that you are growing and better understanding yourself. If you aren’t, or if you feel like something isn’t working, tell your therapist. It might feel intimidating and you may feel afraid of hurting their feelings but I imagine that they’ll more likely feel excited that you’re advocating for yourself. If things don’t improve, change therapist or the type of therapy. Your doctor can mend your broken arm whether you like them or not but if you don’t like your therapist, you’ll likely not get very much from your sessions. It might take a while to find a therapist that you work well with but don’t let the potentially frustrating and difficult search put you off completely from therapy.

2. Focus on your relationship with your therapist

Irvin D. Yalom, one of the most famous psychiatrist and practicing therapists, suggests focusing on the “here-and-now” rather than the “there-and-then” in your sessions. His advice was meant for therapists but I believe it works equally well for clients. Many (most? ALL!?) of us struggle in different ways with forming and maintaining relationships and often these challenges are what lead us to seek therapy. It’s likely that these patterns will replay themselves in our relationship with our therapist so by focusing on the here-and-now, Yalom is encouraging us to explore our relationship to identify, explore and work on these patterns. What are you holding back from your therapist? Are you trying to impress them? Are you afraid of being judged by them? Are you worried about their experience? Afraid of boring them? The answers to these questions say a lot about you and who (and how) you are in your other relationships. By exploring these patterns you can decide what you want to do and how you want to be going forward.

3. It takes more than just talking for 50 minutes

Carve out some time before and after your sessions to prepare and reflect. There’s no right way to do therapy or to be in session, but taking a few minutes before each session to think back on your last session and to check in with how you’re feeling in the moment can help you feel better prepared and ready, hopefully leading to a deeper exploration as there is more continuity between sessions. Taking some time immediately after each session to note down what happened, what you talked about (as well as what you didn’t talk about) and also how you felt during and after the session can be helpful. Our memory is rarely as good as we think it will be. By summarizing each sessions you have something to come back to as you prepare for your next session and having a written record also allows you to look back on and reflect on all the progress you’ve made since you first started.

Having said all this, let me finish with one final encouragement: forget it all if you don’t feel it makes sense for you. It’s your session. No one knows better about what you need and what works for you than you. My suggestions above are based on my experiences and aren’t necessarily right for you. Therapy is deeply personal, so go for it and make it personal.

If you have any thoughts or questions on what i’ve written, i’d love to hear from you. Reach me via email or say hello on Twitter.

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