It breaks my heart when I hear that someone had a bad experience in therapy. I know that people aren’t excited to call a therapist in the first place. People would rather go to the dentist or the gynecologist than to come see us. It’s not like anyone calls us when they are happy or having a fabulous day.
I know that by the time someone contacts a therapist, they have done everything they know to do. They’ve probably done it five times, thinking that this time, things will be different.
People contact me when they are almost out of hope. They are scared. They are clinging to a tiny ray of possibility. They fear being told that they are the problem. But they are willing to brave things anyway because something has to change.
So when they muster up the courage and go to see a counselor, and things just don’t go well, my heart just hurts for them. I imagine how scared they must feel. I ache that they may think this is as good as it gets. I worry that they may give up and just resign themselves to living life this way.
There are times when therapy isn’t a helpful experience.
In fact, I became a therapist because of a bad experience my family had when I was 15. I didn’t want others to come away feeling hurt, unheard, and not helped when they were ready for a change in their lives. That experience was profound for me, and it shaped how I designed my practice and every interaction I have with my clients.
So here are five tips that help you make sure that you have a good experience when you reach out for therapy.
1. Be Comfortable and Connected with Your Therapist.
Did you know that many studies show that it’s not so much about the technique used by the therapist, but the connection between the therapist and the clients? Building an alliance with you where you feel understood and supported is essential for therapy to be beneficial. Your therapist should understand what brought you in and what you want to make different.
They should listen to what’s important to you, instead of jumping in with their own agenda and quickly dismissing your views. Your therapist should know your experiences and beliefs. Even a counselor who may have different religious views than you do should still be able to support you and not attack or blame your religion. That should never happen.
You should feel comfortable that they “get” you. Our first session is a time for me to really understand more about you. I’ll ask you all kinds of questions about where you grew up and about the family you grew up in. I’ll ask you about who you live with now, and what things take up most of your time. We’ll start to outline the goals that you want for us to work on.
It is also important for you to feel as though you can be yourself around them. Often, clients say that some therapists are distant. Many sit quietly in their chair, constantly writing. Some clients even feel judged by them. In my office, I actually take my shoes off and put my feet in my chair. I usually have my Chapstick in my hand, so it’s impossible for me to write notes constantly. And if you say something and I want to remember how you said it, I’ll ask you if it’s OK if I jot it down.
Oh, and you can say anything. Whether it’s something you’re afraid others would judge you for sharing, or it’s a four-letter word, this is your time and your safe space to be yourself. No judgment from me.
Being able to be yourself allows you to feel relaxed and to share. This information can help your therapist to be even more helpful to you. So if you’re feeling stiff in your sessions, it may be time to find a new clinician who encourages you to be relaxed.
2. Be Active with Your At-home Assignments.
I know, homework is a bad word. It’s made up of two four-letter words, so why would you get warm fuzzies thinking about it?
But doing things outside of our sessions can help make a huge difference in how you feel.
I love when my clients share that they feel so much better after a session. It makes me feel so happy for them, and it lets me know what I’ve provided a safe place for them to open up. However, my goal is for my clients to send me a Christmas card to let me know how great life is. They may need to come back in for a “check-up” session. I want them to experience what they feel after a great session, all of the time.
That means for us to get there, they have to do some things between our sessions.
At-home assignments shouldn’t make your life harder. If you feel nervous about doing them, please share that! It usually means that the task is too big for where you are at right now, it doesn’t make sense, or it’s not something that fits with who you are.
Now, not all therapists will give at-home tasks. But if they ask you to try something, or to think about something, or to notice how you are feeling, give it a try. All of that information is helpful to them. It lets them point you in the right direction. Should your counselor not give you things to do at home, and you would like some, let them know. And if you don’t really want to do things outside of the session, talk about that, too. It will help both of you.
I like to call homework “personalized action steps.” In fact, at the bottom of my receipts, there’s a section for those things that we talk about trying, or making note of between our sessions. I use at-home assignments a lot when I’m working with individuals on anxiety and depression, or with families on parenting and problem behaviors from the kids. When I’m doing couple therapy, I don’t always give assignments to do at home. It depends on what’s happening.
Within the client portal system that I use, there’s a section for journaling. My clients can journal there anytime they want. They can decide if they want to share certain entries with me or not. Many will reflect on their personalized action steps here, or they will make note of topics they want us to discuss during our next session.
3. Be Committed to Your Growth.
You’re probably thinking, “I’m already committed to my spouse/child/family/etc. If not, I wouldn’t be here.” Usually, being committed to your significant other or children or to your marriage isn’t a problem. It’s often that you may feel guilty for being committed to your own happiness and growth. That can feel selfish.
There’s a phrase, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” Well, the reverse is true, too. If you’re happy, then the others around you are happier, too. You’re worth it. It’s OK to focus on improving yourself. Oh, and you don’t have to a mom, either. 🙂 We’re all in need of personal happiness.
One thing that often happens with growth is what I call the “see-saw effect.” Often the changes start out smoothly. Things go well for a day or so. Then, about three days to a week later, BAM! Things get wobbly again. It feels like you’re back where you started from, and you may start to wonder if things will ever be different- and if they can stay that way.
This back and forth can be part of the process. It doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong. As you change, others adjust, and there’s a ripple effect. Just because things get tense again, or feel like they have gone backward, it doesn’t mean that nothing is ever going to get better.
4. Modify Your Time Table.
While patience may be a virtue, it is definitely in short supply now that we can download information in seconds and have food ready in minutes. When things are tense and it feels like the bottom is going to drop at any minute, time can feel like an enemy. The therapist is “joining” your situation and it will take some time to not only bring them up to speed, but for each party to feel like they’ve had a chance to get out their side of the story. To you, this is old news and it can feel like a waste of time. However, if everyone involved doesn’t feel like they’ve had a fair chance to share and they don’t feel like the therapist understands them, it can hinder the process.
The therapist is “joining” your situation and it will take some time to not only bring them up to speed, but for each party to feel like they’ve had a chance to get out their side of the story. To you, this is old news and it can feel like a waste of time. However, if everyone involved doesn’t feel like they’ve had a fair chance to share and they don’t feel like the therapist understands them, it can hinder the process.
I often see clients come in expecting a “one-session miracle.” After doing what they knew to do, giving things time at home, and then mustering up the courage to come see me, they are geared up to come see me one or two times, and then things should be better.
But this isn’t like strep throat. In fourteen days things may still feel pretty lousy. It didn’t get tough overnight, or even over a month or two (especially when it involves a relationship). This doesn’t mean that therapy will take months or years.
Please try not to get discouraged if things are taking longer than you had hoped in your mind. Adjust your time expectations. The best things in life take time- and they are worth it.
If you are feeling deeply depressed or completely on edge, typically within 3-4 sessions, you have started to feel things shift around some, with better moments mixed in. For couples who come in at their low point, usually after 5-6 sessions you can start to feel some improvement. Again, there will be some good moments mixed in during that time.
Don’t stop after things start to feel better. Just like with strep throat, you still need to take all of the medicine, even if your hurt doesn’t hurt anymore. This keeps the infection from coming back. The same thing is true in therapy. When things start to feel less tense and happier, this is the time when we do our work to prevent things from going backward.
Share your time expectations and fears with your counselor. They will be able to give you some insight.
5. Ask Questions.
If you are not comfortable or don’t understand what’s happening in your therapy session, ask! To you, this can feel like a whole new way of looking at things. One of the big roadblocks in things changing is not understanding. So please don’t be shy!
I actually share with my clients that we are a team, and questions and concerns are welcomed. Many of my clients have a hard time speaking up at home or at work or with family members. When they are able to ask me a question, I celebrate! It means they feel safe. It means they are growing. It means their confidence is improving. If they can ask questions to me, then it’s going to be much easier for them to speak up and ask questions to others. It’s a big sign of growth!
If you’re ready to reach out to someone for therapy, please know that my thoughts are with you. I hope that you have a great experience and that you’re able to make the progress you are hoping to achieve. It is my hope, that these tips will help make your experience successful.
And if you have any other tips or ideas on what makes therapy helpful, please comment below! I’d love to hear your thoughts.