Updated June 30, 2019
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 guide for quick reference.
A Brief Guide to Making the Most of your Sessions
1. Be motivated, curious and open to learning about yourself and the relationship. Change comes from good motivation, full engagement and commitment, and from attending sessions regularly – usually weekly.
2. Be open to and accepting of uncomfortable feelings, the unknown, and new ‘ways of being’. Discomfort is a feature of stepping outside your comfort zone – your familiar way of being – and a requirement for personal growth. When you grow, your comfort zone expands and the initial discomfort soon passes.
3. Keep a notebook: each session is an opportunity to learn and discover more. Note down what is important, including insights, questions, dreams, affirmations, appreciations and gratitude, therapeutic writing, achievements, observations etc. Therapeutic change can happen without your being fully conscious of it, or how it works, or why it has happened. A notebook will help you understand. See post “Keeping your Therapy Journal”
4. Be as truthful, honest and open with your therapist as possible, expressing feelings or thoughts about your life, relationships (including the therapeutic relationship) as they arise: it keeps the relationship genuine, in goodwill, avoids destructiveness, builds trust, and is the essence of therapeutic discovery and personal maturity. Withholding relevant information or lying in your therapy is ultimately self-defeating.
5. Don’t abandon therapy: go to a session and discuss any difficulties or confusion or ask for clarification on the process openly, even if you want to finish or take a break. Abandoning, without discussion, any caring relationship that involves someone investing their time, thought and energy in you, instead of discussing the ending openly, is always destructive, and a lost opportunity for personal growth and an amicable end.
6. Be punctual to make the best use of time, and 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 do so when you need it.
7. Make a genuine commitment to the therapeutic relationship and do agreed therapeutic tasks daily between sessions: they are central to real change and new positive direction. Psychotherapy is not a quick fix and takes patience, perseverance, commitment and diligent work to make it successful. The more you invest in the relationship the more you will get out of it.
8. Empower yourself by cultivating your sense of responsibility and choice 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 caring and goodwill, never judgement, manipulation, competition or rejection. It’s important to say something if you feel this is happening as old feelings from unfinished business and past relationships will naturally – often unexpectedly – emerge in the therapy relationship.
10. It’s important to see only one therapist, coach or counsellor at a time, and to avoid engaging in different approaches at the same time via courses or self-help books, for example. Instead, make a firm commitment to only one therapeutic relationship. Make regular use of this website, the blog posts and information in each page. The information is free and is based on 20 years of professional experience.
A Detailed 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.
1. Be motivated, curious and open to learning about yourself and the relationship
Psychotherapists, by contrast, invite us to invest ourselves emotionally in the formation of a genuine relationship. ‘Healing’ ourselves comes by sharing our true thoughts and feelings openly and honestly with the therapist. In psychotherapy the patient, or client, must bring the motivation and energy to engage in the work in this way, with the psychotherapist providing his or her honesty, acceptance and guidance, according to his or her training, experience, creativity, insight and intuition. Change comes from an active mindset, not a passive one. Bringing your commitment to change 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 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. Psychotherapy, counselling and personal development, then, are all intrinsically about channelling your motivation into learning and personal discovery. The learning process involves being open to new information and being curious about new experiences in order to effect personal change. Change is the product of this learning process, which only you have the power to allow by choosing to be 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 new ways of acting in the world.
2. Be open to and accepting of uncomfortable feelings, the unknown, and new ‘ways of being’.
People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. They prefer suffering that is familiar to the unknown.
— Thích Nhat Hanh
We can maintain our difficulties by adhering to old, familiar patterns of thinking and behaviour, even though these can cause us problems. It can feel ‘safer’ to stick to the old ways. Often new ways of 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. The good news is that you will be supported in your efforts, 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 learn. Each question, comment, or observation he or she makes is offered to you fundamentally as a means of inviting you to take part in this learning and discovery process. Being honest and speaking openly about yourself and your experiences, being willing to face yourself squarely, is what you bring in order to make any work possible. This can sometimes be uncomfortable and scary, but is often liberating as a pathway to personal development. Withholding relevant information or lying in your therapy is ultimately self-defeating.
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 notice. Abandoning any caring relationship is always a destructive act and sends a message of disrespect. The psychotherapy relationship is no different and is not based simply on an exchange of money. Considering that your therapist is someone who invests their time, thought, genuine caring and energy into your wellbeing both within the sessions and outside of them, it is respectful to discuss any ending rather than abandoning the relationship.
Reasons some people might choose to abandon their therapy:
- They are unmotivated or not seriously commited to therapeutic change
- They are unwilling to accept the discomfort or work involved in looking at difficult feelings or truths that emerge
- They have not clarified their understanding of the therapeutic process with the therapist
- Passive-aggression or negative transference*: they have not been open about their true feelings or thoughts
- They have unrealistic ideas of what therapeutic change involves and how many sessions may be required to achieve what they want
There may be other reasons people use to abandon therapy, but they are usually unfounded. In any case, it is important to attend a session to discuss 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 there will be no argument, rejection or attempts to change your mind.
6. Be Punctual and ask yourself ‘What do I need?’
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.
7. Make a genuine commitment to the therapeutic relationship and do agreed therapeutic tasks daily between sessions
Like a college or university course, psychotherapy isn’t just about attending sessions and hoping something will stick, it involves active participation in a learning and personal development process. Cultivating and adopting a learning mindset and doing agreed therapeutic tasks every day is crucial if you are to make the most of any therapeutic process. This process is seldom easy and is never passive, but it can be liberating and engaging, and can be the difference between a limited, 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’ will be frustrating and ultimately a waste of your time, and money. This is always true in any form of psychotherapy, even when you have a psychiatric diagnosis.
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 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 work. 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.
9.Remember Therapy is Founded on Goodwill
Remember that the therapeutic relationship is founded on caring and goodwill, never judgement, manipulation, competition or rejection. It’s important to say something if you feel this is happening as old feelings from unfinished business and past relationships will naturally – often unexpectedly – emerge in the therapy relationship. It is easy to confuse 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 towards your therapist is a crucial part of this work, whether the feelings and ideas feel ‘positive’ or ‘negative’: both are acceptable.
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 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.
If you need to clarify more about what is involved in psychotherapy, 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. The patient ‘projects’ these 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 to prevent them undermining the therapy and so that they can be successfully resolved.