Supportive Practices: 7 Strategies to Help you get the Most out of Your Therapy.
The bottom line is that therapy is about changing ourselves in some way. For example, it might be changing to better respond to situations and events that are happening or have happened to us, reducing the intensity of certain symptoms (like anxiety, irritability, or depressed mood), changing particularly troublesome behavior, changing the way we think about things, or changing how we interact with other people in our life. Many people approach therapy with the mindset that if they just go to their therapy session and talk that things will improve. I sometimes refer to this as the “magic room mindset.” While I can’t say that this never happens, the reality is that most of the time in order for real and meaningful change to happen and to stick, more work is needed than just showing up and talking with your therapist. I often tell my clients that while the therapy session is for work on the presenting problem, the majority of the work happens outside of the therapy session where the client is putting into practice the insights and skills we work on during the therapy session.
Here are seven different strategies that can help you gain the most value and progress from your investment of time in therapy.
Make notes about your therapy session. What did you learn? What do you want to remember? What insights did you gain? What practices or behaviors do you want to change, implement, or keep doing? Although this can be done after your therapy session, making notes during your session is even more helpful. Look at your notes several times between your sessions to help you keep in mind the things you want to remember and the things you want to work on.
2. Talking with a Supportive Person
Many people view therapy as a private experience between themselves and their therapist only, but consider sharing your insights and your work with someone close to you that you trust and who supports you. This not only helps with keeping you accountable to yourself, but also has the added benefit of you explaining what you are learning to another person, which can help with your own processing and insights, and may create opportunities for them to support you in ways you need. Additionally, your supportive person, who may know you on a more intimate and personal level than your therapist, may offer you questions or insights that you hadn’t previously considered.
A journal can be used as a dialogue with yourself. It can allow you to delve more deeply and privately into difficult shadow areas in a time and place where you are ready to do this. You can ask yourself questions that you then answer. For example, someone might ask and answer the question: “When are times that my anxiety doesn’t show up, and what is different about these times than other times?” You can also write freely about difficult experiences because journaling helps with processing thoughts and emotions and helps you gain clarity and insight, which can then lead to ideas about changes you want to make for yourself. It can also help you identify topics that you might want to bring into your therapy session for further exploration and processing.
4. Reflective Time
This is some quiet time set aside where you can reflect on the work you are doing, and look at your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. We often lead such busy lives that we never slow down and allow ourselves this opportunity to just go within and look at our interior world of thoughts and feelings from the role of the observer. We also sometimes create very busy lives because we are afraid of what we will see if we slow down. But if we never slow down and face our interior self, then we can never really make the changes we want to make. Reflective time can help us do this. You can also use this time to reflect on your note-taking and any journaling you’ve done, challenges and progress you are seeing, and any areas of practice or growth for you. It can also be done to help you identify what you might want to journal about or bring to your next therapy session.
Therapists often invite their clients to implement new skills, reflect on questions, or complete certain tasks or “homework” before their next session. This goes back to the idea presented earlier that most of the real work of therapy happens outside of the therapy session. Unfortunately, many clients don’t take advantage of these invitations, thus, slowing down or robbing themselves of the opportunity for growth and healing (remember the magic room mindset?). If you have any homework or tasks suggested in your therapy session, make sure you make the time to complete them before your next session and be ready to discuss at your next session. Be clear about what it is you are supposed to do before leaving your session, and don’t wait until the last moment to complete them. In order to change and grow we must be challenged, and these tasks are a way of challenging us and promoting growth and change.
6. Celebrate Your Successes
Therapy is hard work; I say this all the time! So make sure you take the time to look for, appreciate, and celebrate the successes you have- even the small ones. As humans, we respond infinitely better to positive rewards and praise than we do to punishments. So, reward yourself when you succeed (even if it’s just saying to yourself, “I did well with such-and-such today”) instead of beating yourself up when you fail. Your celebrations should be something you do for yourself, and ideally it should be meaningful, uplifting, and possibly something you enjoy but don’t often give yourself permission to do. If you have difficulty coming up with a list of ideas, work with your therapist to create this list.
7. Identify Topics for your Next Therapy Session
Be prepared with any questions, insights, successes or challenges, or feedback on the work you’ve been doing to your next session. Try to avoid the trap of just showing up to your session and wait for your therapist to just lead you on to “the next thing.” Expecting your therapist to completely guide the process puts you in the role of a passive participant in the therapy process and is part of the magic room mindset. Remember that therapy is a collaborative effort between you and your therapist and often is not based on a specific protocol or regimented program with all of the steps neatly laid out, so bringing this kind of information to your sessions will help your therapist continue to craft their approach to your specific needs, and help you make better progress, faster.