Therapy is a very important part of recovery from mental illness. It forms the basis with which to work from. Often emotional issues and past trauma can sit in our psyche festering and making us more susceptible to symptoms of our illness. So facing these issues head on when we’re feeling strong can pave the way for an easier ride when we are struggling. Therapists can provide invaluable techniques for managing your mental illness and give guidance on clearing out those emotional issues that always seem to compound our illnesses. But just going to therapy is not enough. There are several ways that you can supercharge your therapy sessions and really get the most out of your therapist.
Choose your therapist wisely
Not all therapists are created equal. Several years ago, following the great depression of 08, my son Jonah was in severe emotional distress. While we had attempted to shield him from the extent of my illness, he was unfortunately acutely aware that I was suicidal. He began exhibiting symptoms of trauma, unable to sleep and couldn’t stand to be alone and was sad and afraid. So we made the decision to take him to a psychologist. We chose a very experienced, well respected therapist. We thought we were in good hands.
We sat in his perfectly symmetrical office with all of its perfect shades of brown and grey and explained to him what Jonah had been through. He listened intently. He looked concerned when we explained that Jonah couldn’t be alone. He nodded supportively when we said Jonah was struggling to function. Finally he put down his notes, looked at us very seriously and said
“The problem is you have spirits in your house and Jonah is very sensitive to seeing them. You need to cleanse your house of ghosts and Jonah will get better.”
Now while I don’t know if ghosts exist or not I do know what trauma can do to a child. And Jonah was exhibiting all of the classic symptoms of trauma. We did not return to this therapist.
It’s very important that the therapist you choose to work with is on the same page as you. If you work best with more talk based psychotherapy rather than something like EMDR ensure your therapist can work that way. Talk to your prospective therapist. Have a conversation about how they feel therapy works and the way they approach your mental illness. And then decide if that fits with the way you see therapy. Always have an open mind and be open to new experiences but make sure your therapist is on the same page as you. It’s always okay to say to a therapist that you don’t feel that you are a good fit. A good therapist will refer you onto someone who may be a better fit for you.
Allow yourself to be challenged
While it’s imperative that you have a good rapport with your therapist, don’t mistake a challenging therapist for a bad fit. In successful therapy it’s vital that your therapist is able to challenge your thinking and your beliefs. Often to change our old patterns of behaviour we need to challenge the ways we have always thought and the beliefs that we may have about ourselves. Whilst it may be uncomfortable, even painful for us to face these challenges, it is most definitely in our best interests. A skilled therapist will be challenging yet gentle and supportive. Sometimes if this challenge is too much for us, we might immediately assume our therapist is not a good fit. My best advice is to talk to your therapist before jumping ship. Explain to them that you are uncomfortable and finding the process difficult. Ask them to slow down a little. And then question yourself. Is your resistance coming from a pattern of behaviour that you want to change? Can you be brave and face that change? Are you running away from an opportunity to grow?
Set up your Guidelines
When you’ve found a therapist you think will work for you, you need to set some parameters for your journey. Are you someone who knows all the right answers to a therapist’s questions? Will you tell them what it is they want to hear? It’s helpful to talk to your therapist in the beginning and give them permission to challenge you if they think you are on autopilot.
Are you someone who needs reflection time following therapy. Do you need to get your head around a concept before going down the path of exploring it?
Do you want your therapist to be direct and honest with you? Are you someone who can’t stand beating around the bush? Do you want someone to tell you exactly how it is no holds barred.
Set your parameters from the outset. Talk to your therapist and tell them what you need. Tell them how best to work with you. And negotiate your path forward.
Commit to being honest
One of my worst qualities is that I will tell my therapist exactly what it is they want to hear. I know what it sounds like to be well and I can produce the right answers without even realising it. Take some time during therapy to make sure that you’re not just going through the motions. Make sure you are being completely honest, not just with the therapist but with yourself. Challenge yourself. Be ready for change. And be honest about your feelings.
Do your homework
This is the most crucial part of therapy. Take the techniques the therapist gives you and put them into practise every day! Take your homework seriously and be committed to recovery. For some of us, recovery is a full time job. It takes total and utter commitment to get better. See therapy as part of that job and the strategies they give you as your research and development project. The more time you spend focused on your work, the better you may become.
While we had a terrible experience with our ghost therapist, I have also had ten years successful relationship with my wonderful therapist Alix. At the end of the day you need to find someone who understands and respects you but someone who also challenges you. If you are feeling uncomfortable with your therapist, ask yourself whether it’s because you are uncomfortable with parts of yourself that you are changing. It may take seeing one or two therapists before you find someone who really gels with you. Your relationship with them forms the foundation of a successful therapy journey which puts you on the path to recovery. Take control of your recovery, choose your therapist wisely and work hard to make therapy work for you.