You knew it was coming (thanks, Ashley, Laura). Now I’m gonna give you my take, today’s version (I’m sure I’m leaving something important out). How to get the most out of your therapy experience. Not the definitive guide, just a few tips learned in 30 years as a therapist.
Pick your therapist wisely. You’re going to share your innermost everything with this person, so you want someone you feel comfortable enough to really talk to. You want someone who seems to ‘get’ you – and it, whatever it is you’re coming in for. It shouldn’t be as easy as talking to your favorite aunt or your best friend; you need someone who will push you to explore, and that’s apt to make you uncomfortable at times. It shouldn’t be like talking to your high school principal; you need someone you can feel safe with, who’s working with you on your mission. Goldilocks: you’ll know it’s just right when you see it, especially if you interview a couple before you decide.
Research shows that the therapist’s orientation, and whether you see a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist, man or woman, doesn’t affect outcome nearly as much as one crucial thing: your working relationship. The therapeutic alliance, building a strong trusting relationship with your shrink as you work together, is the most important determinant of a successful experience. It takes time, testing, exposing. It’s the bullwark of therapy, so make sure you’re just the right kind of comfortable with the therapist you pick.
Therapy takes courage. No, really. Real courage. To go spelunking inside your mind, your emotions, your motivation, your relationships, your fears and wishes…It’s hard work, often scary, and sometimes surprising. And you do it in front of – no, with – another person. So there’s no hiding from your therapist or yourself. No, actually, you can hide; you’d be amazed how many patients do. And it’s understandable: it’s tough to face up to yourself, out loud with another person. But therapy works best when you are scrupulously honest with your therapist and yourself. So make a pact with yourself to be honest. And, when you find yourself painting a picture to please or impress or make your therapist like you, ‘fess up. Talking about when and why you do that is an important part of the process, and of learning about yourself.
So let’s assume you’re going to be honest and open (within limits: there are all those unconscious things you don’t yet know about yourself). What else?
Have a goal. Oh, it may well change during the course of your therapy, but have some idea of what success will look like. What do you want to accomplish in therapy? What are the issues you need to address and make headway on? Clarify with your therapist what you’re going for, and check in periodically to see how you’re doing. Most people don’t want Woody Allen-style it-goes-on-forever therapy. And just going through the motions… well you read the first post on therapy. Keeping focused on your issues and how you’re doing is a way to ensure you’re doing the work you need to do, not just getting “um hm, um hm” therapy. Support’s important, just not enough.
Show up on time, ready to work. No, show up a few minutes early. You don’t have to go into the waiting room. Go for a walk, get a coffee. But take a few minutes to switch gears, turn off your cell (you’d be amazed at how many people bring a blackberry into session) and, as we said in the ’60’s, “be here now.” Your therapy time is a gift, a refuge from the world, a time for you to do one thing only: focus on you. And if you can, take a moment after your session to solidify what happened, what you learned, before you re-enter the rest of your life.
Take some time between sessions to really think about your session: what happened, how you felt, what you learned. If you’re doing behavioral or couples work, do your homework, practice what you’ve learned. Therapy doesn’t just happen during the session. If it did, it would be one very expensive hour. Therapy happens as you incorporate what you learn in that hour into your life. Questioning, trying new behaviors, listening to yourself (and the voice of your therapist in your head). You want to start thinking, experiencing life from a different perspective, and that takes practice.
Give it time. It’s difficult to be patient, particularly since you don’t start therapy because it’s Wednesday and they’re feeling fine and why not? You’ve got a problem you want to solve, a relationship that doesn’t work, you feel horrible. Whatever it is, it feels pressing. Particularly since you’ve tried everything you know to do before you even got into the therapist’s office. So you want some results, fast. No, actually, if you’re going to be honest, you want the answer. You want the pain gone. Now. Your therapist should know what to say and do, should say and do it, and you should leave transformed. Nice wish. Ain’t gonna happen. And if it does, run for the hills. Because if your therapist solves your problems for you it’s not going to hold. But you know that. So be patient, note the small changes, give yourself credit for hard-won insights. You should see progress (and talk about it – or lack of it – with your therapist).
to be continued…Would love to hear what you have found helpful – and not – in your therapy experience.
And then we’ll talk about when, why, how to end therapy.
Copyright © 2009 Marlin S. Potash. All rights reserved.