Getting the most out of counseling

Thanks for joining us. The first in a long-series of blog posts centers around issues presented within psychotherapy. Namely, suggestions to get the most out of psychotherapy. I’ve been a practicing therapist for almost seven years and what follows are observations backed by research studies on the subject. Have you been in therapy for a while and are feeling stuck? Are you asking yourself, “What am I doing here?”. Therapy is a time for personal exploration and transformation. Sitting in the chair or couch does not make one crazy. Contemporary culture or our sociocultural upbringings have hidden rules against going to therapy. If you have decided to take part in some type of therapy, this article has potential to help to you.

Making a committment

Therapy is no easy task. Often clients meet me with the expectation that they will be cured or fixed quickly. I remind people I am no magician. Therapy requires a committment to stay with it despite the lacking immediate pay off. The often quoted cliché “Rome was not built in a day” fits well here.  The problems that bring someone into therapy often have developed over a time. The need for an immediate fix is something that turns some away from therapy. Insurance companies also drive the idea that therapy should correct issues quickly. This is a topic best left for discussion on a different post. To help end the need for a quick answer, remind yourself this problem did not start overnight. The time-table we have in our minds for a solution and the reality before us are not always aligned. Be honest with the therapist you are seeing about your wants and fears.

 Honesty and Trust 

Throughout my journey as a therapist I have lost track of the honesty conversation. Often I say to people who come to me “If you tell me a lie, you get counseling based on lies. If you are honest with your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, you may change”. Therapy requires honest reflection for the process to work. Fears of changing or losing what we once had keeps some from changing.

When I work with clients mandated by the justice system there is often a fear that one will go to jail. Remember therapy is confidential. Laws exist to protect all clients from disclosure of what occurs in therapy. There are some exceptions which may vary from state to state. Have an honest conversation about communications to other parties about you. Transparency as a therapist and client often helps to ease anxiety. Therapy can be a scary experience. Meeting a stranger and telling that person your deepest secrets or memories can be anxiety provoking.

Trust is the other part of honesty in therapeutic relationships. Early on I had clients who had trauma or bad experiences with men. Talking about barriers can help you to experience therapy on a whole new level. Therapy is sometimes a place where we can challenge our selves to grow. Transference is the process by which someone in therapy projects their world onto their therapist.

It is possible that a therapist reminds me you of a parental figure or even a side of you which did not materialize. Or seeing someone from a different cultural background might require you to confront racist ideas and beliefs. Experiencing this without speaking up can create discomfort within the session. Open your heart and mind to discussing these facts.  Avoidance is never the key to change. I often ask clients about dynamics related to gender, ethnicity, age, or other factors when I feel they may be a barrier to our success. The elephant in the room is a real thing.

Willingness to adapt

Adaptation is the fundamental piece to evolution the world over. At varying times we do not see the problem as it sits in front of us. For some a family member or closed friend is noticing an issue but denial presents the client from seeing what’s happening. Allow yourself to be open to the possibility that maybe there is a need to change. Drug use, compulsive sexual behavior, hoarding, anxiety, depression, isolating one’s self, impulse control issues arise at times when someone is unable to work within one’s environment. Therapy offers an opportunity to learn new tools which aid in adaption.

Come in with an open mind. Practice the skill taught in session. How can we make judgements that something does not work if we did not try it? Make the skills your own. Maybe you cannot find 30 minutes of peace to try body-scan meditation. Try 1 minute while sitting at lunch. See what happens. Have compassion for yourself and whatever schedule or tasks you complete daily. Changing a habit takes repetition. I often say to clients, “If you practice a fire drill, only when the building is burning, when will you ever learn to get out?” Take a lesson from elementary school practice skills taught and change is possible. Dr. Martin Luther King once said,

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Stay motivated. Do not give up because you cannot see the progress happening. Repeat the words of Dr. King. Remind yourself each step you take forward is important. Some will not like you because of the changes you have made. The unlike from others is natural when we change. Trust your gut and keep pushing forward.

Support Systems

Surround yourself with people who want to see you grow. Take a lesson from the garden. Plants that stay with sick plants stop growing if allowed to stay. Being around toxicity and negativity is contraindicated for transformation. Prune unhealthy people from your energy field. If this is not possible, then we need skills to adapt to our environment. Skills like assertiveness, boundaries, spiritual communities, and support groups are great resources to strengthen your resolve to change. Do not allow yourself to drown because people around you want that. Many of the people I see are their worst critics. Allowing someone into your life who puts you down or hinders you from growing is like drinking poison.  Learn early that you deserve supportive people in your life. We all need a tribe from time to time.

Self-Care

Show yourself compassion for what changes you have made by taking care of your needs. First and foremost good sleep hygiene is critical to success. How can we integrate anything well if we are sleep deprived? Remember Maslow’s hierarchy. Tend to your basic needs before advancing. I have sent my fair share of clients home when I have noticed sleep deprivation. You owe it to yourself, body, mind, and spirit to be nourished well. A supervisor taught me this lesson and I have carried it forward to the present. Sleep is critical for psychological wellbeing and physical health. Don’t believe me? Go four days without sleep and find out what I mean.

Self-care is more than quality sleep. Life too stressful? Ask yourself what can I remove? It could be beneficial to detox from things life social media, the news, and unhealthy people. You are knowledgeable about what you most need. Do not silence that inner voice that says “Maybe I need a day off.” Life can be a pressure cooker. Take the advice of your therapist and do something for yourself. There is a difference between selfish and self-care. The first is using other people for your own gain. The latter is fulfilling your needs so we can help others from a place of wholeness. Anyone who says you are being selfish for caring for your self has an ulterior motive.

Choices: We all have them

The last point I’d like to make is about choices. It can feel like are not in control of the situation. Two types of people exist in the world: People have either an internal or external locus of control. Internal locus of control attributes the person has agency over their problem. External locus of control attributes places, people, institutions, among other external forces as having agency for the problem.

Therapy requires us to explore our choices. I am a firm believer in forced choice. We do not have an infinite number of possible choices on which we can act. Therefore, we must make an informed choice given the limited number of choices. Accountability is a strong quality to own.

We each have personal power and agency to make decisions that will help or harm us. If you find yourself acting out of strong emotions, ask yourself: “Will this event or situation matter in 6 months time?” If not, then we need to find a different action that will move us forward. Surround yourself with people who help you make healthy choices.

For clarification, what I am not saying is that external forces are never at fault. Racism and social injustice are as real as the sun is shinning today. Within oppressive environments we have choices still; keep quiet and internalize or rise above and work to end oppressive systems.

If you have other suggestions for what might be helpful to succeed in therapy or a topic you’d like to hear more about please leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

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