When many of us seek therapy, we have a nagging sense that our current challenges somehow link to the past, but the connection doesn’t quite feel clear.
Certain types of therapy have the power to help unlock those connections, which can free us from repeating the same unhelpful patterns over and over again.
But finding those keys can be tricky, especially if our defenses are up and we’re not sure how to make the most of our therapy experience.
As a licensed psychologist who loves to help people do this transformative work, I want to share some tips that can help you deepen your understanding of yourself and get the most out of your experience.
Don’t plan too carefully for sessions. People sometimes arrive to session with an agenda in place or ideas of what they might want to address. This is totally fine, but there’s also an opportunity that opens up when we allow the session to unfold naturally.
Consider having a loose list of items you might want to discuss, but also bring openness to following the path however it unfolds for you. Sometimes it ends up being unexpected but leads to a meaningful place.
If you find yourself suddenly talking about conflict with a work colleague when you actually planned to talk about something completely unrelated, get curious! What does this topic mean to you? What are some of the ways it has impacted you? Does it feel familiar to other situations in your life? What does talking about this topic help you with? Does it allow you to avoid what you initially planned to discuss? Talk it through with your therapist; you never know what nugget of self-discovery might get uncovered.
Let your mind wander; your thoughts don’t always have to seem connected. We really can trust our mind and brain to guide us! Our memories are stored in our brain in a complex network and sometimes the things they are linked to or associated with don’t make logical sense, but offer a great opportunity for deeper self-understanding.
Do you find yourself thinking about a seemingly random memory from the past when you’re processing a recent argument with your partner? Follow that memory! Check it out: does that past experience feel similar in any way? Are there any common threads? Is there something about your relationship with your partner that makes you feel like a younger version of yourself?
When we make a connection from our present self to our past self, we deepen our understanding of current symptoms and conflicts and the reasons they might be so distressing to us. A greater understanding of these links allows us the flexibility of finding new ways to respond to our current situation.
Ask your therapist what they’re thinking and challenge the story you’re telling yourself. Just like many other relationships in your life, your relationship with your therapist is going to bring up thoughts and feelings, some more comfortable than others. What’s unique to the therapeutic relationship is that it offers a chance to talk more directly about topics that might feel unapproachable in other relationships.
Find yourself worrying that your therapist thinks you’re “crazy”? Ask them about it! Hearing how your therapist perceives you gives you can give you clarity around the ways others see you as well as help you challenge the particular story you’re telling yourself.
Notice that you’re suddenly thinking your therapist reminds you of your mom? Talk about it! Our most significant relationships tend to make an imprint on us that we then carry into other relationships. Often, that means bringing past conflicts and difficulties into our current relationships and transferring them to the other person. When we talk about this openly in therapy, it’s an opportunity to work through past relationship conflicts.
Talk about time and money. Find yourself stewing if your therapist is a few minutes late to session? How about if they need to cancel a session? What’s it like to pay for therapy sessions? These experiences are a chance to understand yourself and your relationships better.
In my own therapy I felt very concerned when my therapist ran a few minutes late. I wrestled with worry that I was “too much” so he didn’t want to see me. I second guessed whether my phone clock was right. I felt angry and that I wanted as much time as I could have.
Talking about those thoughts and feelings helped me look at other relationships in my life where those same thoughts and feelings came up. My interpretation that I was “too much” for my therapist ended up being inaccurate. If I’d skipped the chance to talk to him about it, I would have missed learning that I tend to assume the worst about myself when someone’s behavior doesn’t follow the pattern it’s “supposed to.” I also would have missed an opportunity to practice speaking up when I didn’t like something that was happening.
Similarly, it’s common to have feelings about canceled sessions, paying fees for treatment, etc. It’s all relevant!
Consider approaching your therapy like an archaeological dig. You and your therapist are standing side by side, digging and sifting through the dirt, looking for meaningful items. Sometimes, the valuable finds are going to be apparent—bright, shiny jewels that are easy to spot and clearly of value. Other times, the finds are going to be smaller, or less shiny; we have to be willing to clean them off and be curious about what they might teach us in order to learn that they offer a precious window into our past and tell a story about our life.
Sometimes the least exciting artifact will crack open a new way of understanding history; similarly, when we commit to talking about whatever comes up in therapy, we offer ourselves the chance to learn our own story in a new and meaningful way.