People often spend months or years in therapy unnecessarily because they don’t know how to make the most of their experience. The wisdom on this list is common knowledge amongst therapists, but sadly very few clients have ever been let in on the secrets.
1. If something important is going unsaid during therapy; nothing else happens.
Therapy needs honesty. If there is something big on your mind that you are not sharing, therapy becomes a matter of “going through the motions”. People waste months or even years avoiding talking about something difficult. Warning signs of this are intrusive thoughts or images repeatedly coming to mind while you are talking about a different topic in therapy.
On the other hand, if something is extremely difficult to talk about, you may want to wait a while. You don’t want to bring up something that will make it hard for you to come back to therapy next week. When you do feel safe, the magic phrase to use is, “It is difficult for me to talk about, but…”
2. It’s normal to fall in love with your therapist.
You share the most personal details of your life with your therapist. For many, their relationship with their therapist is the deepest and most fulfilling of their lives. Because of this, it is common and normal to experience romantic feelings towards your therapist.
Additionally, most people visit a therapist at the lowest point in their life. The therapist often is seen as the “knight in shining armor” who rescues them – a situation bound to bring about romantic feelings.
For some, these feelings can be embarrassing. The loving feelings may even be difficult to acknowledge to themselves. All therapists should be comfortable talking about these feelings. Again, refer to rule one.
3. It normal to have sexual feelings towards your therapist (but never okay to actually have sex with them).
It is equally understandable and normal to have sexual feelings towards your therapist. At the right time, these feelings should also be shared with your therapist. It is probable that these are just normal feelings that develop between two adults. Between two adults, sharing physical intimacy with someone you share emotional intimacy, is a natural part of being human.
It is important to note, that it is never okay to actually have a sexual relationship; with your therapist. Sex between a therapist and a client is unethical and always damaging to the client.
4. The therapist-client relationship is a sandbox
We all develop characteristic ways of relating to others. Usually these patterns emerge in early childhood and rarely change. It can be scary or difficult to experiment with new ways of relating. Your relationships your therapist can be an opportunity to experiment with new ways of relating in the safe environment of the therapist’s office. Once you are comfortable with these new relationship patterns, you can use them in all of your relationships.
5. Therapy is hard.
Therapy is a time for looking at the parts of your life that are not working as you would like. Inevitably, these are the most painful, scary and shameful parts of your life. Unfortunately, healing these hurt parts requires spending time looking at these difficult feelings. Sticking with therapy during this requires maturity and commitment.
6. The therapy is in the repair of the therapy relationship.
Inevitably, something your therapist says will hurt you. Don’t hesitate to let your therapist know about your hurt feelings. There is probably no more important time in your relationship with your therapist. If you are not used to having your hurt feelings validated, this will be a wonderful opportunity to see conflict resulting in a stronger (and not a weaker) relationship. Your therapist should be able to hear anything you have to say, without becoming defensive.
7. When you run out of “things to say”, the real work begins.
Intimacy can be hard, but creating healthy intimacy is vital for a healthy mind. A way of avoiding intimacy with your therapist can be to come to therapy with a list of, “things to talk about” and then simply recount a list of what happened during the week. A sign this is happening, is if you find yourself driving towards the therapist’s office anxiously wondering, “Oh no, what am I going to talk about today?” As much as possible, I encourage my clients to leave the list of “things to talk about”, and let our time together spontaneously occur. Only when you are spontaneously in a relationship with another person, can a relationship be built.
8. Your relationship with your therapist may (and should) be awkward.
People who seek out therapy usually do so, because their close personal relationships are not working as well as they would like. One of the most important things a therapist can offer is an experience of a new form of relationship. This new relationship is warm, accepting, respectful and non-judgmental. If your personal relationships are not this way, then this type of relationship will feel very strange.
Sometimes you will be able to pinpoint why this relationship feels strange, but often it will just leave you feeling very uncomfortable and anxious. Talking about this is important in reducing your discomfort with your therapist and also in helping you improve all of your relationships.
9. You will want to quit therapy early and often.
Anyone who has owned a gym membership knows how hard it is to consistently work towards a long term goal. Similarly, most clients struggle to stay in therapy. Most people don’t leave therapy because they have achieved their goals. Rather, they leave because the strong feelings and awkwardness described in item 8 become intolerable. Tragically, just at the moment when a client may have confronted an issue causing them pain, they leave.
In spite of this, your therapist will not try convince you to stay on. This is because there is a conflict of interests: therapists are in a position of trust and can not use this for financial gain. Thus, a therapist can not push you to stay – even if staying is in your best interests. The most important thing you can do when deciding to end therapy is to discuss your reasons for leaving with your therapist. When you have clarity on your reasons; and you feel comfortable with those reasons; then is the best time. All therapists receive training on how to end therapy in the way most beneficial to you.
10. Progress in therapy happens in waves.
It is normal that there will appear to be no progress for weeks or months. Often things build for some time, before coming to resolution. Symptoms may even become worse before getting better. Hang in there!