As a therapist who has also been in therapy for most of my life, I hope I know a few things about how to have a good experience in therapy. I know that therapy doesn’t always give us the warm fuzzies and that some sessions seem more helpful than others.
I absolutely know that therapy is an amazingly helpful tool. And like all tools, the way we use it makes all the difference. While there is no surefire hack to make therapy work wonders, there are some things we can do to get the most we can from our sessions.
Why Are You Here?
It may seem simple, but one of the best ways to benefit from therapy is to know why you are going. What are your goals? What do you want to focus on? How will you know therapy is “working” for you?
Your therapist will guide you through these discussions when you start counseling, but you can talk or think about them anytime. Some goals are specific, like “I want to have fewer panic attacks about work,” or broad, like “I want to know myself better.”
Wherever your goals are on this spectrum, your work in therapy will benefit you most if you know where you are aiming. If thinking up or finding words for your goals is difficult, your therapist can help you come up with a way to set goals that work for you.
What Do You Want?
A popular joke goes, “How many therapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Just one, but the lightbulb has to want to change.” Although this joke may or may not tickle your funny bone, there is a reason why “you have to want to change” phrases are cliche in therapy.
It is true that change can’t happen unless you are open to it. The physical act of showing up for therapy sessions (although a step toward success) alone can’t get you to your goals. Therapy is for you and no one else.
Others may be impacted by changes you make, but ultimately, any progress you make is a result of the work you are doing for your mental health. You have to want to be open to feeling your feelings and thinking about your thoughts for therapy to be more than a 50-minute conversation.
Practice Makes Perfect
In my experience, the people who get the most out of therapy, who describe their experience as the most “successful,” are the ones who are willing to put in work outside of the therapy session itself. Think of it like learning to play an instrument: you have regular lessons with a teacher to learn new skills, practice playing pieces that challenge you, and get feedback or correction from an expert. That’s all very helpful, but if you don’t practice outside of your lesson, your progress will be minimal.
The same goes for therapy. Even if your sessions are incredibly insightful, you will become more skilled if you “practice” therapy regularly on your own. Since everyone is different with different goals, therapy “practice” will look differently for everyone.
Perhaps your therapist gives you “homework” through handouts or exercises to do between sessions. Maybe what’s best for you is to continue to do some of the things you do in therapy sessions, like meditating or using certain communication skills with your partner or coworker.
My favorite way to take what I learn in therapy into my everyday life is to notice examples of things discussed in therapy and be curious about them—for example, noticing my automatic thoughts about a life stressor and being curious about what prompted them or where I learned these beliefs.
Preparation For Therapy Sessions
Some people like to prepare for their therapy sessions. This is by no means a requirement for therapy to be effective, but in my experience as a therapist and a client, it can make therapy sessions feel even more helpful.
There are many ways to prepare for your therapy sessions, ranging from brief to more time and thought-intensive. Just jotting down a few thoughts in your notes app or on a piece of paper you want to discuss is enough. Other people find that journaling about what they want to discuss in therapy helps them sort through their ideas and decide what to focus on.
Whatever level of preparation you find helpful, speak up about what is important to you. Your therapist is here to support you and your goals, so if you have something that you want to bring up in your therapy session, your therapist can work with you to address what is on your mind.
Just like preparing before therapy sessions can organize your thoughts and priorities for your appointment, reflecting afterward can help you sort out your feelings even more. Sometimes, we will leave a therapy session feeling empowered and hopeful. Sometimes, we leave feeling heavy or still in our grief. Either way (and anywhere between), we may need some time after a session to wind down and feel ready for the next part of our day.
Journaling can be a great way to get out all the thoughts and feelings that you may still have after a session. If you feel any heightened emotions, engaging in a grounding, breathing, or meditative exercise might help you transition from the mental space of therapy to the mental space of daily life. There can be days when you feel as though you can’t “put away” what you discussed in therapy. This can be uncomfortable, prompt anxiety, or make you feel restless.
If there is a safe person in your life that you can process your processing with, perhaps reflecting on your therapy session with them can feel helpful. If you explore this route, make sure that the person you turn to understands and agrees to hold an emotionally charged conversation with you.
Your Therapist is Your Teammate
However you engage with therapy, remember that you and your therapist are on the same team with the same goal: your mental wellness. If you want to get the most out of therapy, working with your therapist and communicating openly with them is the best way to reach your goals. If there is something you feel is important to focus on, tell them. If something isn’t working, communicate to figure out what will work. It is ok to disagree with your therapist.
As much as I want to appear ever-wise, we are not all-knowing beings, just people armed with tools and the desire to support our clients. We don’t know if something isn’t helpful for you unless you let us know. Work with your therapist to come up with a game plan for your time together and adjust that plan as needed.
I may be biased, but I think therapy is the best tool for us to understand ourselves, grow as people, and learn how to engage in meaningful relationships with others. Investing time and energy into therapy is investing in your well-being.
If you can benefit from starting therapy or think there are ways to grow even more in the work you are already doing, we would love to support your success!
Thoughts Are Not Facts
We all have thousands of thoughts each day. Some of them are more obvious, like “I’m...
Wading Through Life’s Transitions
Life can be thought of as a series of transitions as we move from one phase...
Managing the Winter Blues
The winter season can take a toll on individuals’ mental well-being. The shorter days, colder temperatures,...