If you’ve been to enough therapy sessions, or seen enough therapists, chances are you’ve had some great experiences that produced feelings of gratitude and hope, and you may have also had some not so great experiences that resulted perhaps in frustration or disappointment.
What makes therapy a satisfactory, or even highly satisfactory, experience? Does it happen by chance, or is there more to it than that? Are there ways to intentionally enhance the experience?
Therapists have debated and researched these questions for decades. Time and again, research points to the significance of the relationship between the therapist and the person in therapy. Factors such as the type of therapy used to engage a particular problem and the experience of the therapist can also make a difference, but the connection between the therapist and client is paramount.
What does the therapist bring to the experience?
The therapist’s job is to bring focused attention to the person in therapy during a session. Careful listening, empathy, and a non-judgmental attitude are all crucial. A therapist also brings training, knowledge of different types of therapies, an ability to see the big picture, and helpful questions or feedback.
Ultimately, however, neither the therapist nor the person in therapy can “make” anything happen. There is no exact formula, because each therapeutic relationship involves two complex, unique individuals. The process is largely intuitive, and involves myriad subtle but important factors, such as communication cues, experiences in past relationships and values. Each session is a little like getting in a canoe together to travel downstream. The therapist knows something about canoes, paddles and how to navigate different types of water, but has not been down this exact river in this exact same way before.
What can the person in therapy can do to enhance the experience?
First and foremost, the person in therapy can trust their intuition. Listening to how the process feels and working from within this space is most beneficial. If therapy is flowing intuitively, “how to” suggestions may actually get in the way by putting us in our rational, thinking mode, rather than in the wisdom of the heart. If this is the case for the reader, perhaps this is as far as you will want to read this article!
Other times, however, we may feel a little lost or unsure of where we are in the process, or maybe we have fallen temporarily out of touch with our intuition and would benefit from some guidance. Or, we may simply be new to the process of therapy and would appreciate some thoughts from others who are more familiar with this territory. If any of these scenarios apply, the following suggestions may be of benefit.
1. Spend some time thinking about what you want out of therapy. Some of us want a safe place to tell our story or process a particular issue, and others want advice or suggestions. Some want help figuring out our own solutions to a particular problem, others want deep work in the unconscious, and still others of us want someone to witness whatever is happening in our lives, no matter how grand or routine.
If we know what is most important to us, we can endeavor to stay focused on this material during a session, and communicate this desire to our therapist. (To help us get in touch with what matters to us, the scale included in this newsletter might be helpful.)
2. If we feel like we aren’t getting what we want out of therapy, we need to say so! This can feel a little intimidating for some of us, but the reality is our therapist will welcome this information. Once this information comes out, our therapist will work with us to determine if a different course of action will work best, or if we would be better off seeing someone else or doing something else. Either way, we will have helped bring about a desirable outcome.
3. Pay attention to how you are feeling during sessions, and consider communicating this information to your therapist. Sometimes in therapy we may begin talking about an issue in our lives, and a feeling in our body may emerge that would not only like our attention, but may be giving us a clue as to what is going on inside us on a deeper level. This suggestion contrasts with suggestion number one above, but a general rule is, if something in our body or psyche is clamoring for attention during a session, it is worth checking out.
4. When you are contemplating what to talk about in a session, and you are trying to decide between a topic that feels safe and a topic that feels more scary and vulnerable, consider going with the more vulnerable option. Often the greatest healing and freedom comes when we reveal a part of our self that we think might not be ok, and then discover that it is not repulsive as we had imagined, but is either a hidden wonderful part of who we are or valuable information in understanding ourselves. This is called our “growth edge,” and we can benefit by gently pushing ourselves to take risks.
However, caution is also warranted. If something feels too frightening or your intuition questions how safe you are, it might be best to process the fear feeling first, without revealing any information. For example, you might say to your therapist, “There is something I have thought about sharing with you, but I feel very anxious when I think about saying it out loud.” You and your therapist can then process the risk versus the benefit of revealing the information. You may ultimately decide to disclose the information, or you may determine that the best course of action is to not share it or to wait and revisit the issue at a later time. Either way, you will likely experience the satisfaction of knowing you honored your feelings and allowed trust to grow between you and your therapist.
5. Practice self care between sessions. Therapy is an investment of emotions, energy, time and money. To get the most out of our investment, we need to take some time during the week to focus on our selves. Journaling and meditation are both great ways to stay connected to our deeper self during the week, and may yield important information to process with our therapist.
By choosing to invest in therapy, we have chosen to place a high priority on uncovering and polishing the jewel that exists in each one of us. Another metaphor that works is to say that we value keeping the window of our souls clean. Many of us are giving up material possessions or making other sacrifices to do this work. Engaging in therapy intuitively and/or consciously assessing how to get the most out of our sessions can enhance the therapeutic experience. How fortunate we are to be able to do this work.