What is Therapy Like?

I want to write to those people who have thought about going to therapy, but have not done so before, or haven’t had a full experience of therapy where you feel like you accomplished what you were setting out to do.

What therapy is like depends on the personality of the therapist, the personality of the client, the style of therapy being done, and what you’re trying to work on. Having a clear goal for therapy will make it easier for you to be able to tell if you are making progress. (If you don’t have a goal, that’s ok, but you may find the process more nebulous that way. Some people appreciate or even prefer this, and that’s fine.)

Those who are new to therapy may have questions such as, will it hurt? How will I know it’s working? What if I don’t like something that is happening or not happening in the therapy relationship? What if I feel torn about attending therapy? Why am I having really strong emotions about my therapist? How can I make the most out of the therapy I am paying for? I’ll tackle these more common questions.

Will it hurt? It just might. Therapy is a process of transformation. If you enjoy growing and changing, then you understand that sometimes growing involves temporary pain. When a child has a growth spurt, they have a period of time where they are much hungrier than usual, and may experience headaches or vertigo. By the end of it, they are bigger and stronger. It’s a bit like that with therapy sometimes. Sometimes therapy means uncovering truth about ourselves or our lives that is painful or uncomfortable.

How will I know it’s working? This is going to depend on what you are trying to work on. If you have a history of lots of trauma, then it may not always be easy to see the progress. Maybe you will notice that you start to feel less reactive in certain situations, your negative self-talk seems quieter, or you become better able to stay fully grounded and present in situations you used to escape mentally. Remember, as well, therapy is a process of facing the ways we learned to deal with difficult experiences and emotions, and in some cases learning new ways to deal with those things. It doesn’t happen overnight. If you learned to deal with problems by avoiding them, you probably figured out that was the best way for you to handle it over a period of many years. So, you won’t learn to face problems head-on immediately.

What if I don’t like something that is happening or not happening in the therapy relationship? I believe the best way to address this situation is to communicate. If you aren’t used to communicating with someone who can hear you and respond in a way that maintains emotional safety for you, this can be very intimidating! I respect that many of us do not learn that it is safe to speak our minds and ask for what we want and need. One of the best things about therapy is that you have a person ethically obligated to be a safe person for you, to help you find your voice in these kinds of situations. In my experience, the person that gets the most from therapy is the person who learns to share how they are experiencing the relationship, if their needs are being met or not met, and shares what they would prefer. Sometimes you don’t know what you’d prefer, but you know what you’re getting doesn’t feel good. This is the kind of thing you can also say to your therapist – “something isn’t working for me here but I’m not sure what it is.”

What if I feel torn about attending therapy? The professional term for the experience of feeling torn is ambivalence. Ambivalence is when we feel “of two minds” about something, or “have mixed feelings.” We both want and don’t want it, or we want to move towards something but part of us also wants to move away from it. It’s very normal and common to feel like this about therapy, especially if you have never had a strong therapy experience that left you feeling satisfied. Therapy involves a lot of unknowns. We know that we are seeking a change but we cannot predict every step of the process and for many of us that’s quite scary. Remember at the end of the day, it’s your choice to participate or not. Change isn’t easy. It takes guts to show up for your own growth.

Why am I having really strong feelings towards my therapist? This question might come up once you have found a therapist and seen them a few times. The strong feelings could be like a crush, or irritation, annoyance, even anxiety. Now, sometimes the answer is practical. Maybe that particular therapist keeps changing your appointment, or said they would send you something but didn’t, or overcharged you, in which case your feelings are probably a normal reaction to a frustrating experience! But if the therapist has been “fine” or great, and you still have these strong feelings, something else might be going on.

If you are experiencing a crush on your therapist: It is super common for people to develop crushes on their therapist – few people listen to us as well as our therapist does. All that attention can be very attractive! Remember that your therapist is ethically obligated to respond respectfully if you share feelings of attraction towards them, and your therapist is also ethically obligated to not engage in physical intimacy or a romantic relationship with you.

If you are experiencing other strong feelings about your therapist that aren’t about attraction, sometimes that can mean that the relationship with the therapist is stirring up unfinished emotional business in your mind and heart. I encourage you to share with your therapist if you are having strong emotions like this so that they can help you find freedom and growth.

How can I make the most out of therapy? Therapy takes a lot of time, emotional and material resources. Some people value personal growth and emotional healing above other ways that they would spend that time/money/energy, and some don’t. While I think everyone can benefit from therapy, it’s understandable that not everyone is drawn to it. So if you ARE drawn to therapy, if you realize what you gain from good therapy is worth the sacrifices and commitments you make, you might want some tips to make the most out of it.

(1) Think about what you want to get from therapy. It doesn’t have to be some earth shattering goal, but if you clearly articulate for yourself what you hope to gain, it’s easier to know if you’re on track.

(2) Keep your appointments, and develop a routine to your schedule if you can. Therapy is less helpful if there is a chaotic environment. We need stability to experiment with new ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. If you cancel sessions regularly or keep moving your appointments, your deeper self may not settle into the process, which will make changes more difficult.

(3) Find your voice, and use it to provide feedback to your therapist. I try to ask my clients for feedback regularly, but I am human so I sometimes forget. I promise you any good therapist will appreciate whatever feedback you have, even if it’s not positive. It’s not your job to cater to your therapist’s feelings. It is your job to make the most out of the time and expertise you are paying for. It’s your job to be there for yourself, and it’s the therapist’s job to support you in that. If you know that you struggle to find your voice, I would recommend that you explain this in your initial appointment.

(4) Curiosity. I find an approach of curiosity can soften what could otherwise be a brutal process sometimes. Curiosity lends itself to mindful awareness of our patterns, rather than attacking ourselves and shaming ourselves about our patterns. Curiosity helps us get to the core of things, and without it we might block our own progress with defensiveness. (Defensiveness is normal, but without having ways to notice when we are contracting, the process of growing and changing may be more jagged.)

5) Understand how therapy works. Sometimes people new to therapy say it didn’t help so they stopped, but then I discover that they didn’t ask for anything specific and didn’t tell the previous therapist when they found things getting off track. Therapy can’t help under these circumstances. Therapists are often very empathic or even intuitive, but we aren’t true mind-readers. Therapy can help only to the extent that you are an active participant. Similarly, if you use therapy to “vent” and don’t try out new ways of thinking, feeling and doing between appointments, then not much is going to change. Sometimes people go to therapy specifically to have a safe space to vent, and that’s a perfectly reasonable goal. But if you are hoping to change something in how you experience yourself and your life, then you’ll need to be ready to work a bit. The mere act of talking about stuff isn’t going to change any of it.

How I See My Role

Ultimately, I think of myself as a multi-tool. I will offer various tools for the job based on the need of the moment. Sometimes most of what I do is educate my clients, and help them understand what they are experiencing. Sometimes my job is to help clients understand that what they are feeling is normal and valid. Sometimes I am a teacher, helping clients learn things to help themselves outside of sessions with me. And sometimes, clients treat me a bit like a confidant, a place to unravel their mangled thoughts and experience a space of nonjudgment where they can be themselves or fumble around until they figure out better who exactly that is.

What other questions do you have about the process of therapy? Feel free to contact me to share your questions.

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