How to get the most out of therapy

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This blog post was written by Pooja Shah, PsyD.

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Making the decision to seek therapy can be difficult, but once you have made the decision, a common question many clients ask is, how do I get the most of out therapy. In this blog I will attempt to answer this question.

The most important factor to remember is that therapy is a different experience for everyone. What may work for one individual may not work for another one.

Some of the factors that impact the outcome of therapy are:

  • The relationship between client and therapist
  • Client’s expectations and assumptions of therapy
  • Client’s understanding of therapy
  • The goals of therapy
  • Commitment to the process

Relationship between client and therapist.

When it comes to the relationship between client and therapist it is essential that the client feels comfortable with their therapist. The rapport between client and therapist has been shown to be the most important factor for outcome. Often, some clients become discouraged because they may see one therapist and have a negative experience. They then assume all other therapists are the same. I always tell individuals seeking help, that finding a therapist is like finding that perfect pair of jeans, you have to keep trying them on until you find the one that fits. When you look for a therapist you want to find someone you believe you can trust, but at the same time will guide you as you progress, with honesty, integrity, and professionalism. 

Client’s expectations and assumptions of therapy

As you begin your therapy you will want to ask yourself what do I expect of my therapist? What do I believe is going to happen as a result of therapy? What do I believe and assume should happen in each session?

When beginning therapy clients go in believing that everything will be fixed, and that the therapist will tell them what to do and after 1-3 sessions things will change. Most people seek therapy after realizing that their life has been strongly impacted by some stressor, such as, depression, difficulty with relationship, trauma, etc. Whether or not someone is seeking therapy for something that has impacted them for a lifetime or something that has been impacting them for a brief amount of time, it is important to understand that the pace of therapy will depend on the therapist, the client’s engagement in therapy, and the issue at hand. Often I might tell a client, if this is something you have struggled with for sometime, is it realistic to believe it will change after a few weeks?

Another common assumption is what will happen in therapy. Clients begin therapy believing that it will make them feel better. Yes that is true, but this will not happen right away. In addition, clients may find that after some sessions they leave feeling good and other  times feeling bad. After a bad session, it is common to feel as though therapy is not working and that maybe it would be better to quit than continue. Many times, the sessions that are most difficult are actually the most effective and begin to elicit change. Those sessions are when the client really begins to do the work on the problem and what contributes to it. 

Clients understanding of therapy

We all have assumptions of therapy; many of these assumptions come from the media portrayal of therapy. The first thing to know is; like many other industries and fields, psychology is built around different theories and modalities. Which theory a psychologist practices from will frame the therapy. When searching for a therapist it is helpful to know the basic premise behind a theory. You may find that the orientation of a psychologist does not matter to you, or you may find that it highly impacts whom you believe you will be able to connect with. You may find that the therapist’s orientation does not matter. The most common theories are psychoanalytic, person (client) centered, humanistic/existential, and cognitive-behavioral, family, couples, group and interpersonal. Within some of these are subsets. In addition there are specialties. Various disorders and difficulties may have more successful outcomes with one modality over another. This is something you can discuss with your therapist. 

In general, independent of theory or modality, it is beneficial to understand that therapy should be used to help you instill insight into your life and difficulties rather than create a temporary solution.

Goals of Therapy

The goals of therapy are extremely important. Without goals there is not an understanding of what one hopes to accomplish or see happen. Usually goals are included within the therapist treatment plan. Whatever your goals may be it is essential that you discuss and explore your goals with your therapist.

Often clients come in saying they just want to be happy. Some questions I may then ask in response are: How would you even know you are happy? What would that look like for you? What does it mean to be happy? When creating goals, it helps to know what it is that you are seeking and how you would know if and when the goal is met. It helps to have goals that are specific, measurable, realistic, achievable, and applicable.

Commitment to the process

When a client seeks out therapy it is good to evaluate for what reason. Why did you seek out therapy and whether or not you are ready for change? Change is something that most of us fear and often when faced with it, we walk the other way. In order to keep this fear from being a barrier, take time to evaluate and understand it. It may even help to speak with your therapist about it during the first few sessions.

When you commit to the process that means accepting the good, the bad and the ugly. Therapy will have great moments, positive moments, but also difficult and exhausting moments. Committing whole-heartily to the process will mean to put forth all effort and energy to change no matter what type of moment. In order to get the most out of therapy you want to be engaged in the process and honest with yourself and your therapist. A good sign of a negative outcome to therapy is when you are not being honest with yourself. The more honest and open a client is to the process the more successful the outcome.

Congratulations on your commitment to this process of change.