Written by Philippa Walsh
If you've never had counselling or psychotherapy before, the prospect of baring your soul to a complete stranger can feel quite daunting. Understandably, you might not know how to behave - what you can or cannot say - who's supposed to do the talking and all of those other interpersonal issues that could crop up within the therapy relationship.
This article has been written to dispel any myths you might have about therapy and to help you get the most from your therapeutic journey.
Therapy: Hollywood style...
You might be familiar with the classic portrayal of a therapy session - we've all seen it in popular TV shows and movies: the client lying on a couch, while the therapist peers over their glasses asking the cliched question "So how does that make you feel?" (every time the client makes a seemingly innocent observation). Perhaps that still happens stateside, but this is not how I choose to work.
Of course I will discuss how you feel and admittedly I have a rather comfy, but regular sofa in my therapy room - but this is for you to sit on so that we can maintain good eye contact and talk to each other not at each other. Lying down might be appropriate for a physical health examination, but I prefer my clients not to play a passive role in therapy and nothing could be more passive and dis-empowering than being horizontal.
The power dynamic: you're already an expert!
No matter how much I strive to empower my clients, there is one fact that can't be overlooked: people come to me for support when they are feeling vulnerable. This in itself makes the concept of equity and balance within the therapeutic relationship tricky. My help is sought not because clients want me to be their equal, but because they want guidance from someone with professional expertise. The relationship that exists between myself and my clients can therefore never be completely equal.
I mention this why? Because whilst this is true, I must dispel the myth that the therapist knows you better than you know yourself. You might be experiencing emotional pain and looking for a new perspective or better coping strategies, but I can never know you like you do. In other words, I might be an 'expert' in helping you reach a new level of awareness by navigating with you through your thoughts, feelings and behaviours - but ultimately, the aim of therapy is to facilitate meaningful change by fostering your autonomy and independence.
Therapy is about helping you to harness your inner expert. If therapy makes you feel belittled, judged or dis-empowered - change your therapist.
What therapy is....and what it isn't
Tips to get the most from therapy
Now that we've covered what therapy is / isn't (and hopefully dispelled a few myths), here's how to get the most from your therapy sessions:
- Make therapy an important part of your life. Take what you've learned and use it between sessions. The more you play an active role in therapy, the more you will gain from it. Try keeping a reflective journal between sessions and make notes in session to jog your memory when you're at home. If you pay attention to your thoughts and feelings throughout the week, you will have more to bring to your next session
- Don't worry about the time. It is your therapist's role to keep an eye on this - you have enough to think about without worrying about the time.
- Be honest with your therapist. If you're thinking about ending therapy or feel angry or confused about how it is going, say so. Relationship issues should take top priority - if left unspoken these things can impact negatively on your progress.
- Ask yourself what you'd like to achieve from therapy. This will help you focus and allow you to track your progress as you go along.
- Challenge scientific psycho-babble. Some therapists forget that not everyone has trained in their profession. If you don't understand the jargon, ask them to explain what they mean in plain English. Therapy should empower you not make you feel devoid of intellect!
- Be aware of any judgments you might make about your therapist - how do these impact on your therapeutic relationship? Discuss anything that you feel is important to your progress in therapy.
- Be prepared to talk about things at a deeper level.
- Don't avoid talking about the end of therapy. An ethical therapist will never keep you in therapy beyond what is needed. From the beginning, discuss what signs might tell you that you're ready to leave therapy.
- Be open-minded and willing to embrace change - change is a sign of growth and is why you're in therapy in the first place.
- Schedule sessions at a time that fits in with your routine. Cancelling last minute usually incurs a charge and can impact on the therapeutic relationship. All therapists accept that life gets in the way and can overlook a missed appointment every now and then, but repeated cancellations, no shows and lateness is indicative of a lack of commitment and may result in therapy having to be terminated.
- Try and be authentic - as a therapist I judge no one and have heard just about everything in my therapy room. Being a 'good' client is not just about turning up on time, its about being genuine and not trying to be someone you think your therapist will like.
- Evaluate your progress with your therapist. What are the signs that you are making progress? It is important for your therapist to know if you are not making sufficient progress so that they can review their techniques and make any changes. Don't pretend you feel better if you don't - you are only cheating yourself out of alternative approaches and deceiving your therapist into believing that their strategy is helping when it isn't.
- Be open to challenges. Therapy takes work and if something's worth doing then its worth doing well. A good therapist will not collude with you, rescue you or cajole you. Their role is to gently challenge any thoughts or behaviours that are maintaining your issue so that you can adapt and achieve emotional wellbeing.
- Understand that silence can be golden. Some clients believe that every minute of the session should be filled with dialogue. It is healthy to sit with difficult emotions in order to make sense of them. How can you process how you feel if you or your therapist talk nonstop each time you meet?
- Enjoy the journey - you initiated it so get from it what you can. If you go into it feeling motivated, you are more likely to find it helpful.