Written by Dasan Sullivan-Moore
Therapy can be a powerful tool for personal growth and healing, but for many it is not always easy to know how to get the most out of the experience. We want to make sure that you are set up to make the most out of the time, energy, and money that you put into therapy. Here are a number of tips from professional psychotherapists for how you can maximize the benefits of therapy and make meaningful progress towards a happier, healthier life.
Have clear goals
Good therapy involves working with your therapist to identify clear goals that you want to work towards. These goals give direction and meaning to your journey, and the more clear and specific the goals, the easier it is to chart your progress and stay motivated. Using a method like setting SMART goals and breaking your long-term goals into easily attainable short-term goals can be especially helpful when the process becomes challenging or uncomfortable.
Remember that therapy can be uncomfortable
While the ultimate goal of therapy is often to help you reduce and manage distressing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the journey toward those goals can often be uncomfortable. Therapy can bring up difficult emotions and may require you to confront past traumas or current struggles. However, this is a normal part of the process, and we are trained to help you meet these challenges in ways that allow you to grow more wise and resilient as a result.
Know that everyone can benefit from therapy
When we think of the type of person who goes to therapy, we often assume they have a psychological disorder, but therapy is not just for people with a mental health diagnosis. Therapy can be helpful for people who simply want to manage their stress, work through personal issues, or talk through a recent life change with an impartial expert. Seeking therapy does not mean you are weak or “crazy”. In fact, going to therapy is a sign that you are willing to take control of and improve your life, and that is a sign of strength.
Give us feedback
It is really important that you feel comfortable giving feedback to your therapist. We may be experts about mental health, but you are the expert about you, and if something is not working for you, such as an exercise we tried together, homework we gave you, or simply something we said in a session, we want to know! Arguably, one of the most important signs that there is a good working relationship between you and your therapist is if you feel comfortable giving them feedback about how therapy is going, and the more you give us feedback, the more we can tailor our approach to your individual needs.
Unfortunately for us, therapists are not mind readers, and we cannot help you when we do not know what is happening in your life or what you are thinking. Therapists have heard it all before and there is nothing too taboo to bring into the session. We take seriously the idea that therapy should be judgment free, and we are bound by law to keep your information confidential (with a few notable exceptions), so your therapist is one of the rare people you will have in your life who you can truly tell anything. Take advantage of this unique relationship to say the things that you cannot share with anyone else.
Try to be patient
Research shows that effective treatment often takes somewhere between 15-20 sessions for about 50% of people, and that some people and their therapists report 20-30 sessions were necessary to make them confident the gains would last. Some research shows that certain short-term therapies can be effective for some conditions in less time, such as 12-16 sessions. That means that effective therapy is likely to take at least a few months, so try to be patient. Psychotherapy is a process of personal growth where old patterns are unlearned and new patterns are formed, and this kind of psychological growth takes time. Try to manage your expectations so that you do not get discouraged if the positive results are not readily apparent, and remember that going to therapy is an investment in a happier future for you.
Know that we won’t have all the answers
A common misconception in therapy is that psychotherapists are here to give advice. Ironically, the advice given to most starting therapists is to do everything possible not to give advice! The reason for this is that our job is not to tell you what to do but instead to collaborate with you to discover your goals, and then to help you develop the skills to overcome the barriers preventing you from being where you want to be in life. We are here to empower you to reach your goals, but not to tell you what those goals should be. If you ask us, “What should I do?” be prepared to hear, “What do you want to do?”
Find the right therapist
Research shows that one of the most important factors that makes successful therapy effective is the strength of the therapeutic alliance between you and your therapist. In other words, you and your therapist need to get along well in order for therapy to work. Finding a therapist who is a good fit for your personality and your goals is therefore essential. When you are looking for a therapist, think about what issues you want to discuss, and try to find a therapist who has the background and training to help you with those issues. And while it can be good to not give up on therapy too soon, remember that it is ok to switch to a new therapist if it does not feel like a good match, because finding the best therapist for you is important.
Do the homework
Long gone are the days where therapy involved simply laying back and talking about your feelings. In contemporary therapy, there is considerable emphasis on learning new skills and behaviors that you use to change the way you feel and act in your everyday life, and these can only be learned with practice. Just like learning an instrument, these skills become second nature when you take what you have learned in the session and put practice in between sessions, which could include doing homework assignments or activities that you and your therapist have agreed upon. The more willing you are to do the homework, the faster you will progress toward your goals.
Studies have shown that certain kinds of journaling can themselves be therapeutic, such as expressive journaling and gratitude journaling. Numerous studies have shown that journaling has a number of benefits outside of therapy, including improving mood, time management and goal attainment. Keeping a journal can also be an important part of psychotherapy, as well. Most types of therapy include doing some sort of homework, such as keeping a therapy journal where you can track your thoughts and feelings can be very helpful. By writing down your thoughts in your journal, you gain more awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and begin to notice the patterns that may be impacting your wellbeing. Once these patterns have been identified, you can begin to deconstruct these patterns and journal your way into new ways of seeing the situation, ultimately changing how you feel and react in the process. Use your journal to write down important insights that you want to bring to therapy, or jot down ideas and important concepts that you learn during sessions so you can return to them later. In this way, your journal will act as a document charting everything you have learned and the ways you have changed over the course of your treatment.
In conclusion, therapy can be challenging, but there are a number of ways to make sure you get the most out of the process. Find a therapist who is a good fit for you and be as honest and open as possible, including giving them feedback about how things are going. Try to be patient and remember that some discomfort is part of the process of personal growth. Set clear goals and put into practice the things you learn in therapy, using journaling to supercharge the process and chart your progress. Finally, remember that collaboration is a key part of the process, and even though your therapist may not have all the answers, you can find them together.