My first glimpse into therapy came from one of Hollywood’s most ubiquitous clichés: an aloof therapist scribbling away as their client reclined on a couch, and talked up at the ceiling. “And how does that make you feel?”, the therapist would ask. Without another word, they’d “hmmmm” predictably, and maybe rub their chin. End scene.
Not until college did I venture into the office of an actual therapist, and thankfully, my first encounter didn’t mirror media stereotypes in the slightest. In fact, I couldn’t remember feeling so unconditionally accepted and supported since childhood. And the longer I remained in therapy, the better I treated myself and those around me.
Still, I took a while to learn that the enduring value of therapy––beyond the affirmation during session––required me to engage deeply in the process. My therapist could not live my life, and I had a lot of personal work to do on my own to make progress outside of our time together.
Here, you can find some of my most pivotal revelations about therapy. While I gleaned much of this insight from my perspective as a therapist (who, by the way, still goes to therapy), I also speak from my own experience on the receiving end. I hope that these pointers clarify questions and concerns that you may have, and ultimately help you make the most of your healing journey!
Despite our best professionalism, the deeply interpersonal nature of therapy makes it impossible for us therapists to compartmentalize the core of who we are. Therefore, I can not overstate the importance of gauging compatibility with your therapist, from the very start. Compatibility encompasses everything from temperament and communication style, to lived experience and views about oppression and social justice, just to name a few ingredients in the mix.
Discerning which dimensions of compatibility matter most to you is especially important. Many first-time clients do not heed this advice until their therapist inevitably falls short of the mind-blowing, mystical powers commonly projected onto those of us in this profession. Then they quit because of disappointment.
With that said, anticipate that you might not “click” with a therapist initially, or even after several sessions. Finding a compatible therapist demands patience, but it isn’t impossible. Just know what you’re looking for, and give it time.
Patience Serves You.
I’ve worked with quite a few clients who, before even fully introducing themselves, jumped right into the “what, where, when, why, and how” of a pressing problem. Though cutting to the chase is paramount in a mental health crisis (where immediate medical attention and/or safety are urgent), in therapy, we heal through self-discovery, not one-size-fits-all, reactive solutions.
In fact, a therapist’s insight would be neither credible nor ethical, without first understanding how you’ve evolved up until now. Every nuanced dimension and intersection of your background––from cultural identity and family dynamics, to personality and spiritual views––informs this understanding. In therapy, your story defines and informs everything.
Building this foundation with your therapist can’t be rushed.
Humility Catalyzes Growth.
Therapy’s ultimate gift is greater self-accountability, or the self-awareness needed to take responsibility for one’s past, present, and future. There’s only one catch. Getting the hang of self-accountability is a lot like proofreading your own writing: no matter how much you concentrate, you’ll almost always miss a typo. That’s where an “editor” (re: therapist) comes in.
Just as an editor’s fresh perspective catches errors that you overlook, a therapist’s objectivity and distance from your everyday life can reveal your blind spots. And just as constructive feedback helps you polish up a cringe-worthy rough draft, a humbling but tactful reality check in therapy can hold you accountable to fulfilling your potential.
If you struggle with receiving criticism or feedback, remember that without loving reminders, we can only preach self-accountability, not embody it. And when we neglect to own and reflect upon our shortcomings, we cheat ourselves of the self-awareness and willpower required to change and thrive. Instead, we find ourselves stuck in the same unhealthy and unproductive cycles, habits, patterns, and ruts, again and again.
By embracing humility with open arms, we free ourselves from the chains of the past.
Resurrect Your Emotional Body.
The first time that a therapist prompted me to explore my emotional body, she said, “Take a deep breath from your belly, then tell me what you notice in your body when you speak of him.” During that session, I discussed my father. Asked how I felt in his presence, I replied with what immediately popped into my head, not with what rose within my body. “I mean, we get along.”
But that was an explanation, not a feeling.
More often than not, we’d rather intellectualize our feelings, especially the heaviest ones, instead of sensing and sitting with them while they communicate with us. It’s much easier to circumscribe feelings with rational interpretation than to let them flow throughout our bodies––through tears, through nerves, through a pulse. But as a result, we miss out on lessons that our emotional body can teach us.
To be sure, there’s no use in being controlled or overwhelmed by emotions constantly. Part of our humanity comes from the ability to self-regulate. However, we must also acknowledge that every feeling we experience––whether exhilarating or excruciating––has the power to teach us something profound about how we relate to the world, for better or worse.
The emotional body guides us to and through our wounds. Follow its lead. In the words of Rumi, “The wound is where the light enters.”
Don’t Do “The Dance”.
Soon after beginning my first stint in therapy, I noticed that in between sessions, my anxiety skyrocketed as the next session neared. I couldn’t put my finger on why, until I finally brought it up to a close friend over brunch.
“You and your therapist are doing ‘the dance’,” she said. “You’re saying what he wants to hear. He’s saying what you want to hear. Except he’s getting paid, you’re not.”
And that’s when I realized how much of a reflex it is to face the world with a mask every day, even in safe spaces like therapy, where we don’t intend to. From a very young age, we’re conditioned to value etiquette and social expectations over genuine connection and vulnerability, and society’s stigma of mental health doesn’t make unlearning this mentality any easier. We operate in this mode so often, that it’s almost inevitable that it carries over into therapy.
Yet, a skilled therapist will know how to transition from friendly banter and chit-chat, to the issues at hand. They will reassure you that you can never overshare in their presence. They will be able to hold the heaviness that you fear unloading. They will encourage you to revel in the lightness that comes from communicating directly and openly. A skilled therapist will redirect you when you try to entice them into “the dance”. Because you are not in therapy to entertain or impress.
Just remember: All therapy requires is that you be present.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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