Starting therapy can feel intimidating, but part of your therapist’s job is to make you feel comfortable and help you get all you can out of your time with them. You can get the most out of your therapy sessions by being honest with your therapist about your reasons for going and the emotions that come up when you’re in sessions.
Here are ten ways to make sure you’re getting the most out of your therapy sessions:
1. Make Sure Your Therapist Is a Great Fit
In order for therapy to be effective, you need to find a therapist who you like and trust. Therapy is a serious endeavor, so it’s crucial to consider carefully who you chose to work with. Your therapist should be someone whom you feel safe to speak to without any filters, sharing your inner thoughts and feelings without receiving criticism or judgement. You may feel most comfortable with a therapist who shares your identity as LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, or Latinx.
Whitney White, MS, LPC says, “The therapeutic alliance is a key to successful therapy outcomes. The relationship you and your therapist build determines how comfortable you are being open, discussing the things that matter, and working through things. Research indicates that the quality of the client-therapist alliance is a reliable predictor for positive outcomes; even more so than techniques or modalities used by the therapist.”
Don’t hesitate to say what you need to say, and don’t apologize if you cry. Remember, it’s your safe space to let it all out. Crying can be an emotional release, and after a few sessions it can be cathartic to get those heavy feelings off of your chest. You will start to look forward to your therapy sessions because it will feel like a weight has been lifted.
If you and your partner are seeking couples therapy, make sure you are both comfortable sharing with the therapist—if one of you doesn’t feel like it’s a great fit, you may not be able to fully share your feelings and issues.
2. Learn All You Can About Your Therapist’s Approach
Having a clear understanding of the therapist’s communication style, the type of therapy they practice, and how it will fix the problem you have decided to address can determine how therapy will work for you. If the explanation does not feel adequate, ask for more information. You also want to be clear about what your role needs to be for the therapy to feel like it’s working.
Therapy takes time and commitment, and you want to be certain that you and your potential therapist are on the same page and heading in the same direction. Therapy outcome research has shown that lack of understanding of how therapy can be effective often leads clients to discontinue prematurely.
3. Be Honest About Your Feelings, Not Just the Facts
People tend to experience the exact same situation with very different responses. Therefore, if you are only telling your therapist the facts of a situation or story, then they aren’t getting the full picture. An essential part of the therapy process is to share your feelings that are connected with the story or events. At the beginning of treatment, when you are building rapport and trust with your therapist, it might take time for your thoughts and emotions to come rushing out.
By sharing your feelings around the topic, you will assist your therapist in getting a full grasp of what you’re saying about the subject. Did the situation make you feel angry, sad, or anxious? Your therapist will not know how you felt in a situation unless you are candid. If you’re not sharing your feelings because you feel unclear about them, that’s normal too.
It is all right to talk about an experience with your therapist and to tell them that you aren’t sure how you feel about it. In fact, this can open the door for them to talk in more depth about it and for you to explore your feelings about it. Keep in mind that it is also okay for you to request your therapist to hold off on exploring a subject for a certain amount of time. Processing and healing should unfold at a pace that is comfortable for you.
4. Understand the Relationship: Your Therapist Is Not Your Friend
Boundaries start in the first session with your therapist and continue throughout the therapy process. Your therapist will discuss the limits and definition of confidentiality, the consent to treat form, HIPPA (including releases of information), and the client-therapist agreement. Therapists care about their clients and want the best for them, but it is important to keep in mind that it is a professional relationship with clear parameters.
You might see your therapist weekly, feel very comfortable with them, and share your innermost thoughts and feelings to them even more than you would to your spouse or best friend. But one thing needs to be clear: They’re not your best friend. That sounds harsh, but it’s essential to acknowledge that there is a difference. Even though your therapist can feel like a trusted companion, a skilled therapist will be able to provide the delicate balance of care and empathy along with setting appropriate boundaries.
5. Be Prepared to Step Out of Your Comfort Zone
Although your relationship with your therapist should be open and friendly, therapy is not synonymous with friendship. An effective therapist will challenge you and assist in the process of looking at things from a different angle. This might feel overwhelming at first, but an effective therapist will help you learn more constructive skills for managing difficult emotions or situations.
White mentions, “Therapy is often a transition process, which implies change. Change can be uncomfortable, and it may mean doing things in a new way, trying things for the first time, or experimenting with new ways of thinking and doing to find what is most helpful to you. Treat techniques and ‘homework’ exercises your therapist may recommend in the same way you might try a new food – you may land on something you like that helps you get the results you want.”
They may give you homework tasks that you might not always like, but that can be essential if positive shifts are to be made. The real work takes place not in the therapy session, but rather during the other days of the week when you can apply the new tools and strategies.
6. Make a Plan & Set Specific Goals Together
Therapy involves talking about problematic issues, negative patterns, and moods, but more importantly it is about moving in a direction. An effective therapist works with you in formulating a plan that will help to achieve the final goal.
During the beginning phase of therapy, you and your therapist should come up with SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) that will provide a “road map” for the direction you have both decided to take.
7. Set Up a Process Monitoring Your Progress
Improvement in therapy is not linear. Things can get worse before they get better. Your therapist can help you monitor your progress with objective tools like the PHQ-9 for depression or asking that rate your symptoms on a scale of 1-10 for those with anxiety.
8. Track Your Changes Over Time
A clear sign that therapy is working for you is that you start to feel better. For example, if you’re focusing on reducing panic attacks, you should have fewer of them and less frequently. They will probably not stop overnight, and having a setback may occur, but gradually there should be a noticeable decrease in the issues you’re working on in therapy. Even if you are still experiencing panic attacks, you should have a strong sense that you and your therapist are heading in the right direction and symptoms are reducing.
If, however, there are not any noticeable changes, you should take a look at the game plan and possibly come up with a new one. Also, if you feel that your progress has stagnated, it’s crucial to bring that up with your therapist and discuss it. Ask to review the treatment plan and see if the goal(s) need to be revised or updated. A good therapist will not be offended by you bringing this issue up. In fact, they will take it as a good sign of how motivated you are to make the most of your therapy session.
Journaling is a great way to record progress for yourself, write down your thoughts, and track any frustrating situations.
9. Don’t Be Afraid to Tell Your Therapist What’s Not Working
Remember, you’re the one who hired your therapist. You can and should ask questions, and do not hesitate to disagree with your therapist if you are not satisfied. It’s crucial to verbalize what’s working and what is not. If a therapy technique or homework task doesn’t make sense, say so.
The best way for your therapist to get to know the real you, and to help you, is for you to be authentic and forthright about what you’re thinking. If you’re nervous about being judged, remember that a skilled, supportive therapist will not place judgement. In fact, they will appreciate your honesty and take it as a sign of motivation.
10. Be Patient: Positive Change Takes Time
Therapy forces you to take a long, hard look at what has not been working in your life and learn to replace those things with more adaptive coping strategies and behaviors. As beneficial as therapy can be in the long run, it can be frustrating at times. If you feel frustrated, it’s a good idea to address it with your therapist so that it does not become a barrier to your goals.
There’s a lot you can do to prepare for your first therapy sessions, and reading these tips is a positive sign that you are motivated and willing to do the work to get the most out of your therapy sessions. Therapy is an investment in yourself and your future, and a strong therapeutic relationship which makes you feel safe and supported will make all the difference in bringing forth benefits that will impact every aspect of your life.
What to Do If You’re Not Getting the Most Out of Therapy Sessions
If you feel that your therapy has plateaued or isn’t working, the first person you should talk to is your therapist. They may decide to change their approach/style to treatment or maybe pursue more “homework” options for you. If things still do not feel like they are progressing, then it could be possible that you and your therapist are simply not the best fit. That’s perfectly OK.
Sometimes personalities simply do not mesh. If this is the case, don’t hesitate to make a change and search for a new therapist who will be a better fit. Even when you end the relationship, the content covered could still be useful for you with your next therapist. Therapy can be very effective, but it isn’t always a linear process. Like many things in life, you get out of it what you put into it.