A Guide to Making the Most of your Sessions

“Some changes look negative on the surface but you will soon realize that space is being created in your life for something new to emerge.”

Eckhart Tolle

If you only read one page of information on this website then make it this one.  It could be the difference between wasted time and a successful outcome.  There is a detailed guide lower down the page, and a brief summary here for quick reference.

Making the Most of your Sessions

1. Prioritise your therapy in your life: be motivated, committed, curious and open to learning about yourself and the relationship.

2. Be open to and willing to discuss uncomfortable feelings, the unknown, challenging questions and new ‘ways of being’. 

3. Keep a notebook: See post “Keeping your Therapy Journal”

4. Be as truthful, honest and as open as possible with your therapist.

5. Don’t abandon therapy: go to a session and discuss any difficulties, feelings or confusion.

6. Make the best use of session time by being punctual and at the start of each session ask yourself ‘what do I need from this session?’.  Take responsibility for asking for what you need.

7. Regular weekly attendance, a genuine commitment to the relationship, and doing agreed therapeutic tasks daily between sessions are essential to real change and new positive direction.

8. Empower yourself by cultivating your sense of responsibility and choice for how you use each of your therapy sessions; for your current way of being, your difficulties, talents, skills, decisions, values, personal qualities and ways of relating.

9. Remember that the therapeutic relationship is founded on truth, honesty, caring and goodwill, never judgement, manipulation, competition or rejection.

10. It’s important to see only one therapist, life coach or counsellor at a time, and to avoid engaging in different therapy approaches at the same time via courses or self-help books.

11. Be honest about your motivation, any mixed feelings about therapy, and what you want from the relationship: psychotherapy, counselling, or other kinds of personal development work?

A Guide to Making the Most of Your Sessions

Seeing a psychotherapist isn’t like seeing a doctor or a dentist.  When we see a doctor we expect him or her to do something technical to us, or for us: prescribe medication, provide a treatment, tell us what to do, whilst we occupy a largely passive role.  We don’t expect to engage with medical practitioners emotionally.  In fact, our emotions tend not to be a requirement of medical relationships.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

Carl Gustav Jung

1. Prioritise Therapy: Be motivated, committed, curious and open to learning about yourself and the relationship

Psychotherapists invite us to invest ourselves emotionally in the formation of a genuine relationship that can be transformative of our lives.  ‘Healing’ ourselves comes by sharing our true thoughts and feelings openly and honestly with the therapist and by being committed to the therapy relationship and work involved.  In psychotherapy the patient, or client, must bring the motivation, mindset and energy to engage in the work, with the psychotherapist providing his or her authenticity, understanding and guidance, according to his or her training, experience, creativity, insight and intuition.  Change comes from an active, open mindset, not a passive one.  Bringing your commitment to change, your perseverance and a genuine willingness to share your experiences, and being open to exploring them in new, creative or novel ways allows you to build the learning process and enable change to take place.

Without sufficient commitment and motivation, therapeutic change is very unlikely.  As with physical exercise or any form of study, attending regular sessions – usually weekly – is key in maintaining momentum and focus.  Skipping weeks and creating longer gaps between sessions tends to be counter-productive to change.  Psychotherapy, counselling and personal development, are all intrinsically about channelling your motivation into learning and personal discovery by forming new habits.  The learning process involves being open to new information, challenge, questions that invite new ways of seeing, and being curious about new experiences in order to effect personal change.  Change is the product of this regular learning process, which only you have the power to allow by choosing to be receptive or defensive, open or closed: open to new information, old and new experiences in yourself, the ‘unknown’, and new ways of thinking and doing things, new ways of relating to yourself and to others, and ultimately new ways of acting in the world.

2. Be open to and willing to discuss uncomfortable feelings, the unknown, challenging questions, and new ‘ways of being’.

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

— Thích Nhat Hanh

We can maintain our difficulties by adhering to old, familiar patterns of thinking and behaviour, our illusions and delusions, even though these can cause us problems that we want to overcome in therapy.  It can feel ‘safer’ to stick to the old ways and some people come to therapy expecting a false, self-defeating image of themselves to be reinforced and accepted by the therapist rather than the truth of who they are; truth that perceptive therapists will see and can help you see.  Often new ways of seeing oneself and doing things can feel uncomfortable, scary or anxiety-provoking, and so it is important that you are ready and willing to engage in work that may start off feeling a little uncomfortable.  Growth and change come from stepping outside your comfort zone and letting illusions and delusions go to be replaced by the truth. The good news is that you will be supported in your efforts to find your truth, with any initial discomfort usually passing quickly as you make a firm commitment to therapy and begin to integrate new ideas, behaviours and learning into your life.

3. Keep a Notebook and Make it Meaningful

Our psyche tends to focus on the familiar and to obscure the unfamiliar.  Like forgetting a dream a few minutes after you wake, we can forget key insights in therapy shortly after the session.  Keeping a notebook in which you record your insights, memories, dreams, things you want to focus on, questions that come up, new ideas, feelings or ways of seeing things can also be very useful and contributes to the experience of actively participating in a project of self-exploration.  Applying this learning process from your sessions to everyday life is essential for new ideas and experiences to translate into greater awareness and real change.  Change isn’t merely thinking differently.  It’s about doing things differently.  Often people begin to change with therapy without fully realising how or why.  They can assume that their changes are coincidental or unconnected to the therapy sessions they have engaged in: to their medication, to recent luck, or circumstantial change, or even changes in the weather.  A notebook can help you connect the dots and begin to value the therapeutic work you are doing that is bringing about change instead of attributing it to some external force acting upon you.

4. Be as truthful, honest and open as possible

In order to make the most of your sessions, it can be helpful to prepare yourself for taking responsibility for your learning by reminding yourself that your psychotherapist’s role is to support and help you discover your deeper truths.  Each question, comment, or observation he or she makes is offered to you fundamentally as a means of inviting you to take part in a learning and discovery process.  Being honest and speaking openly about yourself and your experiences, being willing show yourself openly and to face yourself squarely, is what you bring in order to make any work possible.  This can sometimes be uncomfortable and scary, but is liberating as a pathway to personal development.  Withholding relevant information or concealing lies in your therapy is ultimately self-defeating and it is important to ask yourself what you might be attempting to achieve if you are tempted to do so.

5. Don’t Abandon Therapy

Most people make a serious commitment to therapy and stay with it until they get what they want.  But occasionally a patient feels tempted to abandon therapy without discussion or giving any notice. Abandoning any caring relationship is self-defeating.  It is always a destructive act and sends a message of disrespect to someone who is trying to help you, which you may or may not intend.  The psychotherapy relationship is no different and is not based simply on an exchange of money and information.  Considering that your therapist is someone who invests their time, thought, emotions, genuine caring and energy into your wellbeing both within the sessions and outside of them as part of the care and thought process, it is respectful to discuss any ending during a session rather than abandoning the relationship without a discussion.

Reasons some people might choose to abandon their therapy:

  • Some people lack sufficient motivation or are not seriously commited to therapeutic change
  • Some are unwilling to accept the discomfort or work involved in looking at difficult feelings or truths that emerge
  • Patients who have not clarified their understanding of the therapeutic process with the therapist (or read the essential information on this website) and are acting on assumptions that they haven’t discussed openly
  • Some patients act out passive-aggression or negative transference*.  They may not have been open about their true feelings, facts or thoughts, or may even blame the therapist for something unsaid
  • Some people are particularly sensitive to feelings of shame, humiliation, envy, anger or anxiety and can attribute these feelings in therapy to something unintentional the therapist may have said or did
  • Some people might have started with unrealistic ideas of what the therapeutic process and change involves and how many sessions may be required to achieve what they want
  • Some have lost interest in the therapeutic work they started and may not realise that it is ok to admit this

There may be other reasons people use to abandon therapy, but they are never beyond discussion.  In any case, it is important to attend a session to talk about any concerns or reservations before ending. This at least gives both people a chance to understand the reasons for the ending, to resolve any issues or simply to end on amicable terms.  If you genuinely wish to end earlier than expected then you will be met with goodwill and without argument, rejection or attempts to change your mind.

6. Make the best use of session time….

Making full use of the session and not rushing to get there will help you be relaxed and ready to work.  At the start of each session ask yourself ‘what do I need from this session?’. Then be responsible for declaring what you need, and actively taking what you need from the session, asking for help to get what you need.  You should also raise any important issues or information at the start of a session, not at the end e.g.  significant events or facts, changes to your regular session time, session frequency, proposed endings etc.  This allows time for discussion and planning.

7. Regular weekly attendance, a genuine commitment to the relationship, and doing agreed therapeutic tasks daily between sessions are essential to real change and new positive direction

Like a college or university course, psychotherapy is about committing to a process and persisting with it regardless of how you feel.  It’s about consistently attending weekly sessions with active participation in your learning and personal development.  Cultivating and adopting an open, learning mindset and doing agreed therapeutic tasks every day is crucial if you are to make the most of any therapeutic process and form new habits.  This process is seldom easy and is never passive, but it can be liberating and engaging, and mean the difference between a limited, repetitive, scared way of living, and one that allows you to live much more freely and fully.  Adopting a passive role whereby you expect change to happen as a result of the psychotherapist’s power to motivate you or ‘make you change’ or simply approve of or sympathise with self-defeating behaviour will be frustrating and ultimately a waste of your time and money.  Irregular attendance also tends to be self-defeating.

“If you take responsibility for what you are doing to yourself, how you produce your symptoms, how you produce your illness, how you produce your existence – the very moment you get in touch with yourself – growth begins, integration begins.”

Frederick Salomon Perls

8. Empower Yourself

Cultivating an awareness of your choices and responsibility, your strengths and weaknesses, allows you to recognise that you are the author of your own life, your change process and development as a person.  This awareness of your way of being as a series of choices that you make is not only empowering to you, it is the only way that psychotherapy, counselling or personal development can actually help you.  If you bear this in mind every time you attend a session then you will be in the best position to make the most of your time with your psychotherapist.  This includes taking responsibility for how you use your session time, what you focus on and discuss, what you explore or choose to avoid, whether you do therapeutic tasks in between sessions or choose to avoid doing them.

9.Remember, Therapy is Founded on Goodwill

Remember that the therapeutic relationship is founded on truth, honesty, caring and goodwill, never judgement, manipulation, competition, punishment or rejection. It’s important to say something if you feel something is wrong, as old feelings from unfinished business and past relationships will naturally – often unexpectedly – emerge in the therapy relationship.  It is easy to confuse these old, unexpressed feelings, expectations and ideas that you had for someone in the past with your therapist.  This is called transference*.  Your therapist is trained to work with transference, so speaking openly and honestly about your feelings, annoyances, frustrations, grudges, or anything else you begin to feel towards your therapist is a crucial part of this work, whether the feelings and ideas feel ‘positive’ or ‘negative’: both are acceptable when spoken about openly and worked with in regularly attended sessions.  Conversely, not speaking openly about such feelings will invariably cause you problems and can seriously compromise the therapy itself as unspoken feelings are often then acted out destructively.

10. One Therapy at a Time, One Step at a Time

Some people make the assumption that if they see a second therapist, life coach or counsellor or start reading self-help books or doing a therapy course whilst engaged in psychotherapy then this will speed up or enhance the change process: it won’t.  All it will do is create a conflict of purposes, diffuse your energies, and undermine the endeavour, energy and integrity of the therapeutic relationship.  So as a general rule it’s important to see only one psychotherapist at a time and to give the relationship time to work with your full commitment and attention.  If you are frustrated, unclear or unhappy with your progress then it’s important to discuss this openly with your therapist before it becomes a problem.  This will help you form a clear and realistic picture of therapeutic change, how it works and how long it takes.

11. Be honest about your motivation, any mixed feelings about therapy, and what you want from the relationship

It’s essential that you clarify any mixed feelings about doing psychotherapy or counselling right at the start.  Failure to do so usually means the work becomes shaped by ambivalence and your inner conflicts: this tends to be undermining and destructive to our efforts to bring about positive change.  Discuss mixed feelings and motivation openly with your therapist to resolve these conflicts and to decide whether this is the right time for you to be undertaking the work.

Be aware of the differences between psychotherapy and counselling and other types of personal development work that your therapist offers.  They aren’t all the same thing.  You may just want a space to talk about things and feel heard (counselling) rather than a place were you can work at a deeper level, resolve conflicts, make significant changes, deal with trauma, or clear up unfinished business from the past (psychotherapy).  Personal Development work can include meditation and yoga tuition, psycho-education and life coaching.  Speak openly about what you want in each session to avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

If you need to clarify more about what is involved in psychotherapy, counselling or personal development work, please feel free to ask during your next meeting.

 

*negative transference involves a patient bringing old emotions, expectations and ideas from previous experiences and attributing them to the therapist when, in reality, they are not about the therapist.  Typically transference feelings are connected with significant people from our past.  The patient ‘projects’ these feelings onto the therapist and it can feel like they genuinely belong there, even when there is no hard evidence to support this.  It is crucial to speak openly about such experiences e.g. anger, resentment, fear, envy, confusion etc towards the therapist, as they can rapidly undermine the therapy if not addressed and successfully resolved.  Your therapist will sometimes recognise transference before you do and will point it out to you and invite you to explore it with a view to resolving the old situation from which these feelings arise.  Positive transference, as the name suggests, involves feelings of caring or affection etc.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. LovingSummer says:

    This was a helpful read. My main take home message is to be so completely honest , which I had a niggling suspicion was the best policy but reading this has somehow helped motivate me to want to chance it even more.
    Thanks for that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Thank you LS. If you’re in therapy with a therapist you trust then being open and honest is a good rule of thumb for getting the most from your sessions. Our truth has a way of revealing truth about our relationships too, so it has a double benefit of helping you affirm yourself and develop your courage to be who you are, plus revealing who others are in response to you.

      All the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. LovingSummer says:

    Ah, wasn’t expecting a reply, but thank you! Reading your words about “if you’re in therapy with a therapist you trust” touches a longing… I don’t think I really trust anyone yet but as far as I think I could trust a therapist I think I can trust this one. Certainly he seems pretty switched on, and I wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else as I don’t think I’d have the heart to, so I hope it counts as a starting place in the whole trust-game. I reckon you guys do a pretty valuable job out there for the likes of people like me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Trust is partly about refining your ‘radar’ whilst also being prepared to risk yourself, your truth etc. It helps build self-acceptance, confidence, courage. Sounds like you’re on the right road with your therapist. Wishing you all the best.

      Liked by 1 person

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