As a therapist, I have worked with a number of patients in the past. With that experience, I have that there are certain mindsets that some patients come in the door with that serve them well during the course of treatment.
None of these strategies require an excessive amount of time or preparation. For example, there’s no need to read up on twenty books on different therapies or anything like that.
Rather, they are simply specific mindsets and behaviours that help ensure that time in therapy is positive, fulfilling, and gets you closer towards your goal. Below, I list six different ways to get the most out of therapy.
#1 Be open and honest with your therapist
To get the most out of therapy, being open and honest with your experience and feedback with therapist is essential.
The therapist needs to have a good sense of your presenting problems and your goals to understand what may be causing your psychological challenges and how to best get you to where you want to be.
In doing so, you and the therapist may actually have a stronger and more positive working relationship, and they may be able to reinforce your strengths and validate your struggles better. This outcome is perhaps contradictory to how some patients might feel – which is that the therapist will not understand them or will judge them if they told the truth.
Moreover, being honest about feedback (whether positive or negative) about the therapy can be helpful for the therapist to work with you to adapt the treatment in a way that feels right for you. A good therapist will never judge you for being honest with them; if anything, they will encourage it.
#2 Be curious and open-minded about therapy
A second tip to get the most out of therapy is to be like a scientist – curious and open-minded about the potential benefits of therapy. Generally speaking, you have little to lose and a lot to gain!
Therapy can sometimes challenge previously held worldviews and can be quite illuminating in terms of how psychological challenges are maintained. Therefore, going into therapy with an open mind can be a great way to really get as much out of it as you can.
#3 Give the strategies an earnest attempt
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), among other types of therapies, typically ask the patients to engage in some form of intersession practice (a fancy term for homework) between sessions to consolidate the skills they learn in therapy.
Sometimes, patients are somewhat reserved or unwilling to try out the recommendations: “I don’t think it’ll work”, “It doesn’t seem like it would be helpful for me”, “It might be too tough”.
Although it’s the clinician’s job to make the home practice or technique right for the patient, it’s up to the patient to really apply these strategies to their lives. Their negative beliefs about the effectiveness of the strategy may be correct, but it’s important to give them a chance to see if they will work. When it comes to therapy, ‘what you put in is what you get out of therapy’. Give the strategies an earnest attempt knowing that we are just experimenting to see which strategies are most helpful. If they work – great! If not, let’s put them by the wayside and pick something else that feels better.
#4 Clarify your reasons for change
To successfully get the most out of therapy, it’s important to figure out your own reasons for change. That is, why is it important to put yourself through therapy and its associated work to change from where you currently are?
Reasons for change can be based on our values – life-concepts that are important to us. For example, a person who is depressed may see a reason to fight their depression to be able to enjoy meaningful activities again, spend more time with their friends and family, and/or find employment.
Ultimately, the most important value is completely up to you. It’s much harder to have intrinsic motivation when we are doing something because other people think we should or because society tells us we should live in a certain way. Reflect on your own values and what is important to you in your own life.
It should also be said that it’s okay to be ambivalent about whether you should change or not when you go to therapy. Your therapist will be very helpful in working with you to talk through the pros and cons of change (also known as motivational interviewing)!
#5 Reinforce small victories
For many patients, their attentional processes make them focus on the negatives rather than the positives. In depression, this type of ‘thinking error’ could be called discounting the positives – we notice the bad and explain away the good.
For example, a patient being treated for their insomnia may have improved their sleep substantially over treatment. However, they may hone-in on one day where their sleep was not the best and disregard all the improvements they have made. One bad apple spoils the bunch.
Although it’s important to notice areas to continue working on, laser-focusing on these areas can make you neglect all the great work you have done. Therefore, it’s important to reinforce victories (big or small) as evidence that the work you are doing is moving you along the right direction.
#6 Give therapy a shot!
Many people are skeptical about the usefulness of therapy. Because of that, they may decide to avoid therapy and potentially missed out on a positive experience.
Although therapy is certainly not for everyone, the experience itself should be generally positive if you are working with an empathetic, compassionate, and knowledgeable clinician.
That being said, I recognize that therapy is not always an available option and can be financially burdensome for many people. There are some practices that operate on a sliding scale or treatment that can be provided in a medical setting for reduced/less cost. Alternatively, self-help books on therapy can also be another more accessible avenue.
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