Getting The Most Out Of Therapy
So, you've taken the plunge, scheduled your appointment and now you are face to face (or face to video) with someone who wants to help you heal and improve your life's outlook. You might be wondering, so, how does this work? I just sit here until something happens? Do they do something, or do I? What should I talk about? Will they tell me what to do? So many possibilities, so many options can fit into those 50 minutes that it can be overwhelming to know where to start, even for seasoned therapy-goers.
Who Does The Work Here
The first thing to understand is that therapy isn't just sitting around chatting, although if it is done well it can feel like that. Your therapist might look like they are doing very little, except scribbling a few notes now and then, but trust us when we say that there's a whole lot more going on. Much of the therapist's work is in reading body language, voice intonation, visual clues to emotional states and comparing that information to previous sessions, applying it to current knowledge of your life situation, and a whole lot more. Much like a detective looking for clues, therapists have a well-trained eye for conflictual emotions, blockages, skewed thinking patterns, and anything that might cause you to struggle. And much like a good detective, your therapist will try not to disturb the scene too much, try not to be too intrusive, try to observe as much as possible, with the occasional pointed question or two as they focus in on the key elements of what is really going on.
Your therapist is skilled in asking the right questions in the right way at the right time, focusing on areas that might be key to unlocking new paths, offering guidelines to insights you might otherwise miss, questioning maladaptive thinking patterns, and applying the techniques and strategies of evidence-based practices developed to give you the best results possible.
The Dance Of Trust
While all this is happening, your therapist is building the essential trust between you that allows you to venture into areas that you might never have allowed anyone, perhaps even yourself, to go. They know that unless you trust them to hold that space for you, your sessions are likely to be unproductive. This is no easy task. Many people coming to therapy, especially for the first time, have a whole range of defensive behaviors learned over years to protect them from those who might use these vulnerabilities against them. To walk into a therapist's office and immediately open up all those vulnerabilities is beyond most people's comfort level, so give it time. With trust comes rewards.
It takes time to build trust. Time for you to feel safe, to actually know and fully trust that you are safe. This is where you do work. This is your side of the bargain and where you determine just how much benefit you gain from your sessions. Your therapist can only do so much. If you aren't willing or able to open up then well, maybe you aren't quite ready? Or maybe you just don't feel comfortable with this particular therapist and would do better with another?
Is It Me Or Is It You?
Sometimes we pick a therapist and on paper (or screen) they seem fantastic, but when we meet them, we don't click. It is important to give any therapist more than a few chances and even to bring up your feelings that it isn't working for you. It might be that they said something, or reacted in a way that left you feeling a little off on the whole thing. When a relationship is new it's easy to misconstrue something and get the wrong end of the stick. It's your session, your money, it's up to you to say what isn't working for you and maybe give them a chance to explain. Don't worry, you won't hurt their feelings. Therapists are well-trained to not take on blame or feel attacked. So go ahead and speak up. If not now, when? And of course, sometimes it's not this or that, but just a feeling. Bring that up too. It may be that you are projecting onto your therapist a feeling that comes from somewhere else. It might even be the key to insight for you.
Therapy is effort. You are working with your therapist to delve into your inner workings to untangle things that might have existed since early childhood. Make no mistake, while your session is a place of safety, it is not without some discomfort at times. Getting to the bottom of things can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings and memories. It is hard to clear a closet out without pulling out a bunch of stuff in the process. For a while, there's going to be a bit of a mess. Therapy is the business of clearing out your closets, taking stock, and making things better for the future. It takes effort on your part to continually reveal feelings and thoughts. You need to be willing to pull things out of the closet so that both you and your therapist can examine them, why were they in there, why were you still holding on to them, can you let them go now, or are they still useful in some way? So you need to communicate. You need to express thoughts and feelings, even those that you don't yet understand. Express thoughts when something seemingly randomly pops into your mind. Chances are, it's not random, but linked in some way to the things you are working on. Your task is to reveal it all.
And it is a process that happens over time. Some things just don't come up immediately. Some things are way in the back of your closet and it takes time to work your way to them. You just can't see all that is in there until you've cleared away a bunch of the easy stuff.
With a little work and a little time, you'll find greater and greater clarity. You might even have one of those glorious sessions where an insight, most likely skillfully brought forth by your therapist, will hit you and you will finally see something that was likely always in plain view and it will, in an instant, change everything. You will feel that wonderful feeling of the weight being lifted from your shoulders. Tears of joy, sadness, and relief, laughter, and compassion will flow through you, as the raw hurtful moments of your life soften into their correct places, and ease finally comes to your being.
Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Backwards
It is important to remember that therapy isn't always going to be brilliant insights. Sometimes it's just chipping away at the granite block with the determination and knowledge that each chip is getting you closer to your goals. And sometimes it can even feel like you are going backward. There is a saying, the night is darkest before dawn. In therapy, sometimes it feels like it is all falling apart and getting worse, but sometimes you need to break it to fix it. Sometimes it needs to fall apart for you to be able to build something new, something better, something stronger. We, humans, have our unique strategies for dealing with things in our lives and we hold on to them even when they no longer work particularly well for us. Eventually, when they fail us completely, we allow ourselves to try something new. Think of these steps backwards as us unlearning something that was no longer working for us.
When Will I be Done?
There are two types of therapy. There is working therapy, working through issues, the healing sort that rights the wrongs in past and present, breaking down and rebuilding, or strengthening what holds us up. Much the same way we might train for a race, or build our bodies at a gym, working therapy is about making things better, stronger, more resilient. It may take months or years, but eventually, you will come to a place where you feel strong and right and it feels like enough has been done. At that point, you can reduce the frequency or perhaps even bring your therapy to a close.
Then, there is maintenance therapy, for those smart folks who understand that therapy is not about mental illness, but about mental health and staying successful in all areas of their lives, throughout life. Those who know that fine-tuning their emotional lives can reap huge benefits and prevent decline or maladaptive patterns. Maintenance therapy is useful after we have gotten to a place where we feel strong, capable, and content with ourselves. We want to maintain that state, even though life and relationships continue to affect us in negative ways. We are wonderfully adaptive creatures and can easily find ourselves slowly adapting in ways that aren't ideal for us. Or we are hit with events that overwhelm us. It is important to have resources available and to be able to check in now and then and fine-tune our responses and our thinking. Maintenance therapy might happen at a reduced frequency that suits your lifestyle, perhaps monthly or just a few visits per year and as an ongoing part of your emotional fitness regime.
We are here for you.