Therapy tends to be mysterious and confusing, because it’s one of those things that until you experience it for yourself, you’re not really sure what to expect. Which makes it that much harder to know how to make the most of it.
It also means that we rely on sources like movies and shows to fill in the information gaps. It also means that we rely on our preconceived notions, cultural beliefs, or other experiences—such as going to see the doctor. And that can sometimes lead us astray.
This is why we asked two seasoned therapists to share actionable strategies readers can use in their sessions to build on and bolster their experience. Below are five surprising and vital ways you can make the most of therapy.
Talk about therapy in therapy. It might seem strange—and super awkward—to talk about what’s happening between you and your therapist in therapy. But it’s actually critical. According to Tara Fairbanks, Ph.D, a therapist in Santa Monica who works with adults and couples, “these dynamics and interactions are a gold mine of information about what happens in relationships in the rest of your life.”
For example, Fairbanks noted, if you feel slighted by something your therapist said, absolutely share it. “A good therapist will welcome your authenticity and use that information to learn more about how you see the world and experience other people.”
It also helps your therapist adjust and pivot, so that therapy becomes more helpful for you. Of course, giving anyone, including your therapist, any kind of seemingly negative feedback can feel very uncomfortable (especially if you tend toward people-pleasing behavior).
Remember “it’s not your job to worry about offending or upsetting your therapist,” said Stephanie Dobbin, LMFT, a relationship and group psychotherapist who specializes in helping busy healthcare professionals have happier relationships and less stress in Rochester, N.Y. She shared these helpful statements to bring up a concern:
- “I notice that I often leave our sessions feeling worse than when I came in.” (This happens frequently in therapy, and isn’t a bad sign, Dobbin said. But it’s “definitely worth telling your therapist about and exploring together.”)
- “Sometimes I’m worried I’m not using our time the way I want to or getting to the things I really need to talk about.”
- “So, I was thinking about our last session and realized that I felt frustrated when you said ________. Can we talk about it?”
- “I find myself wondering what you’re thinking about during our sessions. I feel anxious when you’re really quiet or don’t respond right away after I speak.”
- “Is it OK if I tell you about something that has been bothering me about our sessions together?”
- “I’m not sure if it’s OK to say this, but I really don’t like it when you ________. “
Lean into your pain. “People often think that making the most of therapy means getting away from pain as quickly as possible,” said Fairbanks. After all, our natural instinct is to move away or avoid what’s hurting us. But facing your pain, moving toward it and trying to understand it helps to truly change it.
Fairbanks has seen this with her work with trauma survivors. For example, a person who was in a terrible car wreck becomes terrified of driving, so they start walking to work (even though it takes a lot longer), only leave the house for essential errands, and stop socializing with loved ones when it involves driving. While this helps the person to feel safe (in the short term), it only strengthens their suffering, leading to depression and anxiety.
“Effective therapy would involve facing all those fears and anxieties associated with driving in order to help this person reclaim [their] life, build new associations with driving, and increase [their] self-trust behind the wheel,” Fairbanks said.
Be open to seeing your “problem” anew. Dobbin noted that there’s usually more to a problem than clients initially think. That is, “what you think is the primary concern may actually be a symptom of a larger or underlying concern.” What you think needs a behavioral fix—stop yelling, boost your focus, learn to relax—actually is more nuanced, requiring further exploration and perhaps different solutions.
For example, Dobbin said, you start therapy because you’d like to work on controlling your temper. As you delve deeper, however, you discover that “you may be miserable in your job, or reliving traumas or frustrations from childhood, or struggling to identify other emotions beneath your anger.” So, addressing your anger becomes getting to the bottom of all these issues.
Or you start therapy because you really need to sharpen your focus at work. After taking a closer look, it turns out that your lack of focus stems from suppressing thoughts or feelings of inadequacy, fear of failure, or dissatisfaction with your career, Dobbin said.
Zero in on your own contribution. It’s not uncommon for people to go into therapy seeking solutions to deal with other people, or to want to figure out where the “fault” resides, Fairbanks said. However, what’s more helpful is to explore your own contribution to the problems you’re facing. Fairbanks pointed out that this is very different from blaming yourself. Rather it’s about using “interpersonal experiences, however difficult, as learning ground for the self.”
For instance, distraught after your breakup, you spend some time in therapy stewing over your ex’s hurtful behavior. Which is absolutely natural and understandable. But, Fairbanks said, these conversations are more helpful to have with loved ones.
“What therapy uniquely has to offer is the opportunity to look inward and ask the question: ‘What is it about myself, my background, my needs that drew me to this person? Can I learn something about why this relationship didn’t work for me that will help inform a subsequent choice in a partner?’”
Similarly, instead of seeking to deal with your frustrating parent, you focus on understanding your own role in the conflict. You and your therapist explore these questions, Fairbanks said: “What emotions, below my anger, does my parent’s behavior bring up in me? What do those emotions tell me about what I am yearning for, what I value? [How can I] respond to the conflict in a way that is more in line with my values and the kind of person I desire to be, rather than responding reactively?”
Notice the small, subtle shifts. Many of us go into therapy wanting a major change, or wanting help with navigating a major transition. Which means you’re hoping to experience a transformation. However, change happens in stages and shifts. “Change may happen in a slower or more erratic fashion than you imagine,” Dobbin said.
She recommended tracking these smaller shifts in your thoughts, perceptions, and overall sense of well-being by journaling the entire time you’re going to therapy. It’s also helpful to ask your therapist to let you know when they witness such changes. “[S]ometimes your therapist might notice more subtle shifts or improvements than you’re able to see on your own.”
“Making the most of therapy involves feeling seen, heard, and understood by your therapist, and moving toward your goals,” Dobbin said.
By practicing the above five strategies, you can help therapy become truly transformative and life-changing for you. One honest word, one deeper exploration, at a time.