We can all benefit from a little therapy once in a while. Heck, many of us make a culture out of it and use therapy as a means of personal growth. Some of you have never been in therapy, but have maybe thought about it. Regardless of your relationship to therapy, let us guide you on how to get the most out of a therapy experience, as written by two therapists who see the full-spectrum of how people use therapy.
The first thing to know about therapy is that despite particular methods laying claim to being better than others, meta-studies of why therapy is effective point to common factors that have little to do with the method. That’s not to say method is irrelevant. It can be a factor and even an important one under certain conditions. But most of the time, the things that make that therapy magic happen are not method-specific.
In much of the research, the most significant healing factory in psychotherapy that contributes to successful outcomes is the quality of your relationship with your therapist. You want to choose a therapist that you feel ‘gets you,’ someone you relate to and like, and someone you trust to help you with your problems. Choosing a therapist is a little like choosing a best friend. You’re going to tell them everything, so you should feel at ease with them and safe sharing your secrets.
Another important factor that contributes to positive outcomes in therapy include the being and presence of the therapist, meaning how the therapist shows up, the therapist’s own ability to be fully present, empathic and available, and whether the therapist walks their talk and does their own personal growth work. You can get a sense of this when you meet with a therapist — are they distant, overly intellectual or standoffish? Or are they open, down to earth and seemingly available to going deep with you?
Besides the being of the therapist and how well the two of you connect, there are things you can do to get more out of a therapy experience. The first of those is to take therapy seriously. Therapy can help you solve immediate problems, like depression and anxiety, and can help you troubleshoot more complex issues like ADD, childhood trauma and how your brain processes information.
Therapy can also help you with longer term goals like having better relationships, developing a sense of purpose and developing healthier communication skills. But a truism in therapy is that you tend to get out what you put in. If you dedicate yourself to learning about yourself, practice what you learn and engage in the recommendations of your therapist, you may find yourself on a lifelong journey of deepening yourself, maturing and gradually getting more of what you want out of life. If you treat therapy as a quick fix of just a few sessions and hope to get results that way, you may not get nearly as much out of it.
Seeing your therapist weekly is the standard approach that allows for momentum and continuity in the work. Every other week is fine if you’re not in crisis and the issue you’re working on does not require significant restructuring. If you’re trying to change habits and adopt new behaviors, every two weeks may not be frequent enough to provide for sufficient learning, practice and accountability in new behaviors. Anything less than every two weeks is maintenance mode and only recommended after a period of focused work.
Beyond choosing a good therapist and sticking with it, the success of therapy also depends on your openness to change. Changing as adults is hard enough, but therapy can assist you in developing new skills, opening up parts of yourself and helping you gain insights into why you are the way you are, which then gives you more access to choose who you want to be. As you mature in therapy, your therapist may recommend new and additional methods that fit the next phase of your growth. For example, your therapist might introduce a specialist for a period of time to work on a sticky trauma, or recommend group therapy so you can practice those new social skills you’ve been working on, prepare for dating or be a better partner to your spouse.
Therapy fans (yes, they exist—hey ya’ll!), who continue in therapy because they get a lot out of it, sometimes rotate between modalities, like individual therapy, couples therapy and group. This mix of modalities allows you to work on different things at different times and keep your personal growth work fresh.
When you choose to engage in psychotherapy, we recommend that you show up with an open mind, humble and curious. Let the goal-setting for your work be a collaboration between you and your therapist, as your therapist may flag a few things that weren’t on your radar, but that will help you reach your goals faster. Do your best to be respectful and polite with your therapist, as they have to continually choose to work with you as well, and they need to feel like they have a good relationship with you to be in the work with you.
One more factor to consider is the therapy method, and perhaps even more significant, the proposed treatment plan. You should feel that your therapist has an expert grasp on what you’re dealing with, is aligned with your objectives and knows how to efficiently help you get from A to Z, with Z being your goals. Your therapist should be able to explain the treatment plan to you in a way that inspires confidence and makes sense to you.
If the plan feels fuzzy, then the therapy may feel circular and not very focused at times. Deeper forms of therapy may not have a specific objective other than to continue learning about yourself, but in such cases, that deeper exploration is the plan and it fits your goals for the therapy. What you don’t want is a mismatch between your objectives and the way the therapist is viewing the work.
Finally, when you feel ready to cycle out of therapy, let your therapist know and they will initiate a closure session with you. Closure sessions are an important way to process what you’ve done, clarify your gains and pat you on the back for the work you’ve done. They also help you identify next steps you can choose to engage in down the road, or that you can be practicing after therapy ends.
As therapists, we don’t hold your feet to the fire to continue. We know people cycle in and out of therapy. But just like you wouldn’t ghost an important significant other when ending a romantic relationship (or, we hope you wouldn’t!), we don’t recommend you ghost your therapist when you feel done. If you do, you’ll miss out on some important integration work that honors the investment you’ve made in yourself, so go for that closure session!
With proper planning and these tips, you can have a positive experience in therapy, learn about yourself and develop valuable skills for self-management and for your relationships.
If you’re considering trying therapy, you might interview more than one to get a sense of who you like the best. Choosing well at the outset can make a significant difference, so it’s completely fine to do an initial session with a few different therapists while you’re in the selection process. Remember the therapist has to choose you as well — a therapy relationship goes both ways — so be honest in terms of what you’re hoping to get out of your experience.
Don’t be afraid or shy to reach out for therapy! Jump on in and experience what many others have — that therapy is a powerful way to learn about yourself and develop valuable tools for life.
If you’re nervous about it, we get it. Therapists know that trying therapy can be a little scary, so we help you through that. Don’t just live with issues that hold you back or put off making your life better. Find a professional ally that can team up with you and enjoy!
John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They offer individual, couples and group therapy to help their clients achieve healthy minds and thrive at life.