“Am I doing therapy correctly?” is a question I’ve heard more than once from many of my teen and young adult clients in my psychotherapy practice in Washington, DC and nearby Bethesda, MD. My answer is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do therapy. Honoring your own process and journey is important. Although your therapist may challenge you at times, they will work with you at your own pace. With experience, therapy will feel more familiar. Even for individuals who have been in therapy before, it is normal to still feel unsure of “how to do therapy”. To be honest, the whole concept of therapy is a bit unusual- you meet a potential stranger trained as a professional listener with whom you share personal stuff without really knowing them. Of course, that’s not all there is to therapy, but when you think about relationships in general, you both usually share to get to know each other. So, feeling unsure of the therapy experience is OK, and it’s OK to tell your therapist about it. And while there is no right or wrong way to do therapy, there are some things that usually help make the experience a bit more helpful to you.
Before giving you some tips on how to make the most out of your therapy experience, it’s important to keep in mind that the therapy experience is different for everyone and everyone has different levels of motivation, different needs and goals, as well as different levels of readiness to engage in therapy. Progress is not linear and having bumps along the road doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made (it can actually signal progress in therapy!). Even when you achieve the amount of progress or goals you wanted, it is important to still find ways to maintain that. For example, after you recover from a cold you might get a cold again, which is why it is important to still practice healthy habits like consuming Vitamin C or wearing a jacket when it’s cold outside. Mental health is similar–-you might go to therapy to find better ways to manage your stress, for instance, but after you learn how to do that it will still be important to practice what you learned.
Whether you’ve been to therapy before or are thinking of going for the first time, here are some things that may be helpful to maximize your therapy sessions:
- Think about what you hope to get out of your therapy sessions: It’s OK if you are not 100-percent sure about what you need or want. Your therapist will work with you to figure out goals, but it does help when you reflect on what you hope to get. If someone suggested you seek therapy, think about why they encouraged you to do so.
- Be honest: Your therapist wants to help you and being honest even when it might feel challenging can really help your therapist better understand you and what you might need. Try to be aware of your response/reactions to questions or comments, many times those can be hints to topics that are worth exploring even when you are unsure of sharing. If you find yourself saying “I don’t know/I’m not sure” frequently, challenge yourself and try and see if you can dig a little deeper within yourself.
- Embrace your feelings: Whatever you feel during therapy, allow yourself to feel even if it might feel uncomfortable for you. Being vulnerable can be scary and that’s normal. Treat feelings with curiosity and compassion.
- Listen to your thoughts: Thoughts can be tricky and they can sneak up on you before you know it. Therapy can be helpful to increase your awareness of that mind-heart connection and it can be quite powerful. When engaging in therapy, try to be aware of what you think throughout your days and what you experience during therapy; many times, therapy can be the pause you need in the week to be more mindful of your thoughts.
- Communicate: It’s OK to tell your therapist what works and doesn’t work for you. You can both brainstorm ideas that fit your needs and you are welcome to also make suggestions. If talking about some topics is difficult, it’s OK to let your therapist know. You can try to write and then read (or have the therapist read) what you wrote. If you want to include art, poetry, or music lyrics to help communicate what you need it is OK to be creative.
- Take care of yourself during therapy: Feeling emotionally and/or physically exhausted after therapy is quite normal and common. Depending on what you work on, it might be a good idea to have some buffer time before and/or after sessions. Therapy is hard work and having self-compassion for your journey is just as important. Honor your process and give yourself breaks as needed. For example, you can try engaging in something that is soothing for you after a session like listening to music, talking to a loved one, watching a video, writing down your thoughts/reactions after a session, or just standing and doing a couple of stretches.
Remember, it may take a while to get where you want to be, so being kind to yourself is very important. Think of a child who is learning something for the first time–do you think they will learn best if they are yelled at and scolded every time they make a mistake, or if they are treated with patience and kindness while they are explained what to do? All things that grow require time, and so do you. So, if you (or someone you know) are thinking of going to therapy for the first time, or returning to therapy after a long hiatus, keep some of these tips in mind and think about what you would like to work on in between sessions so you have an idea of where to start for the next one.