Written by UKCP psychotherapist John-Paul Davies
Based on the unfortunate reality that you’re probably going to struggle to resolve your psychological distress using only the brain that sustains it, it’s great to see therapy’s growing profile in popular culture. If you’re going to invest the pretty significant amount of time and money therapy is likely to need though, how do you make sure you’re getting the best from it?
It might seem ironic based on the rest of this blog but bear in mind there are no right or wrong things for you to say in therapy. Try to relate to whatever happens with curiosity rather than judgement. When you’re curious, you’re putting more energy into the observing part of you that’s so key to wellbeing. Everything and anything you bring to therapy is of significance, it’s all part of the picture. The more you bring, the more helpful it is. Some people find that keeping a journal during the week can help with this.
Go past your ‘edges’
Despite knowing how beneficial, at least in theory, talking can be, many of us come into therapy with an inner critic who believes some things are unsayable. If you feel anxious or ashamed about saying something, you’re at an ‘edge’. This is often a good sign that it’s important for you to do what you can to say it. As Ann Voskamp says, ‘shame dies where stories are told in safe places’ and therapy can be this safe place.
Talking about others
You may spend a lot of time talking about others in therapy. Although this might help you relate to them better, hold in mind you can’t change others, only yourself. Other people see, say and do things differently to you because, well, they’re not you. When you’re talking about other people, look at your own part in whatever’s happening. Are you taking full responsibility (and I don’t mean blame) for your own behaviour and responses? As well as thinking about the impact of others on you, it’s often interesting to try to imagine your impact on them too.
Use the relationship
For the important ways therapy has to be different from other relationships, it’s also just you relating to another human being. Whatever happens outside of therapy is therefore likely to happen in it. For example, if you tend to use humour to avoid distress, struggle with boundaries, or hand over your power to other people, you might notice this happening in therapy. The key here, as ever, is just to be curious about what you’re experiencing and try to talk about it.
Notice limiting beliefs
Keep an eye on beliefs which might limit therapy, such as:
- ‘There’s no point looking back in life’: you’re going to need to look back, at least initially, because your past isn’t actually past – it determines your present. You’re made up today of every experience you’ve had to date. By looking over it again now, you can place responsibility for unhelpful childhood patterns where they belong, as you work out more helpful alternatives.
- Focusing attention on yourself is ‘selfish/self-indulgent’ – try to reframe therapy as essential self-care.
- ‘Not feeling better fast enough’ – internalising what therapy provides, and actually bringing it into life, often takes time. Your patterns might be decades old – be patient with yourself when forming new ones and try to trust the relationship.
- ‘Mine are first world problems, other people have it much worse’ – maybe this is true, but does the fact other people are in distress as well mean you shouldn’t do what you can to profoundly improve the quality of your own life?
Build resources too
Bear in mind that whatever you give your attention to grows. Of course you need to talk about your pain for as long as you need to. After all, it’s not necessarily the degree of trauma experienced that determines your distress today, but the extent to which you’ve formed a compassionate narrative about it and the effect it has had on you. You don’t want to ‘bypass’ your pain, but if walking the same path each week is all that ever happens in therapy, you might just be ingraining it more deeply.
Nothing changes if nothing changes, so perhaps try to think about how something might actually be different this week. Also spend some time paying attention to those things you wouldn’t change about yourself and your world and any ways to both acknowledge and grow your inner resources.
Trust your instincts
Every therapist is as different as every client and there’s a wide range in both, ‘types’ of therapy and training courses. As soon as we’re in private practice, how we practice, the supervision we get and how and whether we develop professionally, is to a significant degree left to our own discretion. Being well-intentioned doesn’t mean a therapist has what you need. Some also won’t have worked through their own difficulties as well as they might.
If you’re not getting what you need from therapy, if you’re not finding it easier to access your own internal wisdom over time, it might be repeating an unhelpful childhood pattern to override your feelings and stay on the basis you’re somehow not ‘getting it’. Maybe it doesn’t feel right to you because it isn’t right for you. The key, as ever, is to talk about it, communicate your needs and, if things don’t improve, then you can choose to end and look for someone else.
Lastly, we have a tendency to want to avoid endings. Whatever the reason for it, take time to process the ending in therapy rather than doing it suddenly. You may find this is one of the most helpful and healing experiences you get from the whole process.
If you are interested in finding a UKCP accredited therapist near you then you can search for one on our website.
Read our previous blog that discusses the risks of stopping therapy suddenly.
You can also find support by contacting:
In an emergency, call: 999
NHS (England), call: 111
NHS Direct (Wales), call: 0845 46 47
The Samaritans 24 hour helpline, call: 116 123