Attending therapy is a great way to improve your mental health, grow as a person, and develop your relationships. It can also be expensive, inconvenient, and draining, which makes it a self-care practice that can be hard to keep up, particularly if you feel as though you aren’t making progress.
As a psychotherapist who also attends her own therapy, I’ve sat on both sides of the proverbial couch; I know how it feels to not “click” with your therapist, but I also know what is going to facilitate growth within an individual.
You can make the most of your mental health therapy sessions with some proactive work on your end and clear, conscious communication with your therapist. If you’re starting to feel disillusioned by the process, there may be some steps you can take before calling it quits on therapy altogether.
1. Think about what you really want to get out of therapy.
Not all therapists have the same style and training. Some are more results-oriented, others take a psychodynamic approach that looks at naming larger life patterns. Depending on your treatment goals, one approach might be better than another for your needs.
Think about what you want from therapy and communicate that to your therapist. They’ll be able to tell you if their theoretical grounding and training align with your needs.
They may be able to adjust their approach for you, or if your desires really don’t align with their training, they’ll help connect you to resources that can better support your needs.
If the question of what you want to get out of mental health therapy feels overwhelming, consider starting with one of these journaling prompts:
- What is holding me back in life? Is this something I want to overcome? Why haven’t I addressed it yet?
- If I found out I was going to die tomorrow, what would I regret?
- Do I receive similar constructive feedback across different areas of my life? Is this something I want to improve upon?
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2. Be honest with yourself and your investment in the process.
Therapists are not magicians. If we could wave a magic wand and make your anxiety disappear, trust me, we would. A therapist can guide you toward new coping mechanisms, identify alternate patterns of thinking, and help you make connections, but any change ultimately has to come from you. The best work you can do on yourself happens outside your therapist’s office.
If you feel like you’re not making progress, take a step back and check yourself. Are you putting in the work you need to do to achieve change, even if it feels uncomfortable or impossible at first?
Your therapist can push you toward growth, but only you can start doing things
3. Take notes
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve left my own therapist’s office feeling like we really nailed an issue only to totally forget about it the next day. Similarly, I can enter my therapist’s office feeling like I don’t really have anything to talk about, only to remember hours after our session what I wish we’d talked about.
Therapy is an investment – get the most out of it by planning in advance for your sessions and noting what comes up for you during the week. Similarly, think about writing down key discoveries, new coping skills, or fresh perspectives that you and your therapist uncover during the course of your sessions so you can revisit them the next time things get tough.
Anecdotally, I do often find that my clients who take or bring notes seem to get the most out of their sessions and are more likely to tell me they feel as though they are making progress. If bringing a notebook to sessions feels daunting to you, what about taking some time to sit, reflect, and jot down notes after your session ends and you run off to whatever is next on your schedule?
4. Tell your therapist what isn’t working for you.
As therapists, we are trained to meet our clients where they are. If a new client tells me their last therapist pushed them too hard, I know I need to take a gentle approach and reflect delicately.
If I’m told they just didn’t feel like they were making progress with their last therapist, I will make it a point to, later on, discuss with the client what kind of progress they want to be making and how they are hoping to get there.
Information from the client about what works and doesn’t work for them is invaluable for both parties when it comes to establishing and maintaining a rapport that is conducive to healing.
If you feel like your therapist isn’t meeting you where you are, is pushing you too much, or isn’t pushing you enough, tell them. Your therapist works for you and will not be offended by you asking for what you need.
In fact, they might congratulate you on your self-advocacy skills! With your honest assessment out on the table, the two of you can then make a plan for moving forward in a way that works for you.
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5. Shop around.
Don’t forget therapists are people too; we have personalities. Just like you may not want to be friends with everyone you meet, a therapist’s personality may not be a good match for your own.
In graduate school, we are taught that one of the greatest predictors of successful outcomes in therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship; basically, the more you like your therapist, the better work you are going to do together.
Take time choosing your therapist – try out a few before committing to one. Legwork on the front end can dramatically improve your outcomes later on.
A therapist is an intimate and important choice; it is an investment in your greatest asset: yourself.
You are devoting your time and financial resources to becoming a better you. Treat therapy with the importance it deserves: devote time to finding the right therapist, communicating your needs, and asking questions of both yourself and your potential provider.