Therapy can be a super rewarding way to sift through the emotional baggage that’s holding you back. But because it involves being vulnerable and diving into some pretty murky subjects and feelings, you might find yourself indulging in self-sabotaging behaviors that halt your progress and you may not even realize it. Therapists call these therapy-interfering behaviors (TIBs), and the fascinating thing about them is most of us don’t realize when or why we’re getting in our own way. Don’t be quick to make excuses, and slow to recognize patterns of behavior in yourself.
How to make therapy work best for you
1. Try and cope with problems in between your therapy sessions
While therapy is a space for you to receive guidance on coping with your problems as well as make important changes, it’s meant to empower you to eventually do these things on your own. One of the reasons people can become overly reliant on their sessions is they’ve lost trust in themselves and believe that an outside source will have all the answers,
When problems or roadblocks strike between sessions, reflect on what you’ve discussed in therapy, including suggested coping techniques. Taking what you’ve learned for a spin can help you move past old patterns that you’re stuck in, and rebuild self-trust in the process.
2. Share Important details with your therapist
Even if your therapist offered a thorough intake assessment with tons of questions (everything from family dynamics to trauma), being forthcoming about sensitive information you’d rather not dig up can be challenging and you may not want to go there. Or perhaps you might think the issues you’re seeing a therapist about (panic attacks, social anxiety) have no connection to certain experiences you’ve had. But it’s crucial to not withhold important information. Therapists don’t necessarily need to know all the details of your story, but it’s important for them to know the essential parts, such as the parts that bother you and may even cause shame, sadness, or other painful emotions. If your therapist doesn’t know the essential highlights, they may use interventions or exercises that may not be the best fit for your issue, since they don’t have the full story. It takes time to get comfortable with a therapist, but once you feel ready, it’s important to be fully honest about the issues you’re struggling with, and any backstory that might help shed light on your situation.
3. Speak up when something happens in the therapy that upsets you
If you have difficulty being honest in your relationships, you might struggle to let your therapist know if something isn’t working or if they said something that rubbed you the wrong way. Decide if your discomfort with speaking up has to do with your own patterns, or if it’s because you’re not jibing with your therapist and if it’s the former, let them know what’s on your mind. This can be an incredible growth opportunity, and a great way to practice communicating your needs and preferences in your relationships.
4. Be on time and do not cancel sessions
There are times when missing part or all of a session is nothing more than a scheduling snafu, but if it happens often, it might reflect an attempt to avoid therapy, the therapist, or the feelings that are coming up in therapy, If the urge to avoid is triggered by a fear of facing your emotions or feeling spent after sessions, chat with your therapist about how you might organize the sessions so that they feel less heavy. Making your therapist aware of how intense the sessions are for you gives them the chance to scale things back to a pace that’s more comfortable.
5. Do what your therapist tells you to do
Failing to apply the skills you’re learning in therapy to your daily grind is usually a result of dysfunctional beliefs. (Think: that the situation is hopeless, that it’s other people who need to change, or that you’re a lost cause.) Don’t believe your hypotheses about yourself or the world without testing them, Pretending you’re a scientist running a bunch of mini-experiments to determine what works and what doesn’t. Through trial and error, we’re able to refine our beliefs about the world, and ourselves, the data you compile from experimenting outside of the session is just as, if not more, valuable than any one outcome.
6. Do not use therapy sorely to vent
Therapy is a healthy place to vent your frustrations about the issues you’re struggling with, but that’s only one part of a much larger process. Venting is productive if you’re experiencing an ongoing situation ripe for process, however, it can also turn into a means to ignore or avoid the deeper process. To avoid getting stuck in venting mode, keep in mind why you started therapy in the first place. What were your overarching goals? What patterns do you want to unravel? How do you want to feel different? Focus on exploring your ultimate objectives with your therapist, and do your best to hit the brakes on venting when you notice it getting in the way of your goals.
7. Do not omit things that make you look bad
Your therapist might not catch your omissions each time but will eventually get an overarching sense that important details are being left out. Bottom line: Nobody has that much bad luck with their boss, wife, kids, friends, and co-workers. Experiment with presenting the worst version of yourself on a relatively benign issue, like that time you flipped off someone for stealing your parking spot at Makro. You might be surprised by how validating your therapist is, or how helpful it is to get some feedback about your less-than-glam moments. Therapy costs time and money ― it’s worth finding out how effective it is to share the ugly stuff and to keep practicing until you and your therapist find your groove.
8. Do not Rely on substances to get through therapy
People relying on substances, like marijuana, to help them get through sessions, is more common than you might think. Regardless of whether addiction is an issue, the consistent use of substances pre-therapy usually functions to blunt or mask difficult feelings like anger or shame, and sometimes behavior like yelling or arguing can impede progress.
Don’t use substances in the hours prior to your appointment. If the urge to use always increases prior to your sessions, open up to your therapist about it. You and your therapist can work together on other ways to manage difficult emotions before, during, and after your therapy sessions.
9. Avoid changing the subject when a painful topic is brought up
People often go to great lengths to avoid painful feelings because, well, they’re painful. Some people, they’ve been repeatedly dismissed and invalidated by others in their lives, so they may fear the therapist will do the same thing if they open up, others who are used to bottling up their feelings might fear that once they go there, the emotions will be too overwhelming to cope with. It’s OK not to be ready to share your most painful feelings, and you can explore what’s holding you back with your therapist as a way to practice. Seeing how your therapist responds to your concerns and lessens your fear of what might happen if you open up can help you feel more comfortable about doing so when you’re ready.
10. Avoid frequently arguing with your therapist
It’s your therapist’s job to challenge you and point out patterns that might be getting in the way of your growth. And when they do, your knee-jerk reaction might be to deflect, crack jokes or get angry. This is because it’s not easy to acknowledge when you’re getting in your own way. “You may feel shame or disappointment, and instead of letting yourself feel these emotions, you avoid them or become defensive. If you’re feeling a strong reaction to something your therapist has said, pay attention. This feeling is trying to communicate something important to you. Take a minute before reacting and let yourself process how you’re feeling ― slow down, observe the feelings and physical sensations, thoughts that bubble up, and then decide how to proceed.
It may not be fun, and it may take a lot of practice, but odds are you’ll end up learning valuable information about your own patterns, which can ultimately lead to greater self-awareness and growth.
11. Avoid exaggerating how you feel
When you’re upset, exaggeration can be a go-to way of communicating how awful you feel. It can also function to increase the probability that you’ll get the response you’re seeking from the other party. Therapists see this a lot in clients who’ve experienced significant invalidation ― say, because their emotions are frequently dismissed or overlooked by others.
“Remember that an exaggeration is a subtle form of self-invalidation, Fleck said. You’re basically communicating to yourself that your problems or experiences don’t warrant the reaction you’re having. Besides clearly telling your therapist what happened, practice telling your therapist (and, eventually, others) exactly what you need from them at that moment in order to feel heard or understood. This can take time to figure out, but therapy is the perfect space to identify and learn how to communicate your needs.
12. Stop over-relying on therapy validation
Validation’s an important part of therapy and often involves the therapist highlighting the client’s strengths and helping them acknowledge the progress they’ve made, as well as the growth they’ve experienced, The goal is to help the client learn how to trust themselves and strengthen their inner validation. If you find that you don’t feel good when positive things happen, like reaching an important goal, because your therapist isn’t there to validate them, this could be a sign that you’re relying too heavily on therapy for external validation.
Perhaps you don’t feel that you’re getting validation from other relationships in your life, so you seek it primarily from your therapist. If you notice this happening and are concerned about it, bring it up with your therapist, who can help you explore the underlying reasons for this pattern, and work with you to establish ways of validating yourself.
You can also work on this pattern between sessions by taking note of each time you make progress or changes. Ask yourself, if a friend told me about these changes they’ve made, how would I respond? Then practice applying these supportive statements to yourself.
13. Do not use therapy to fill in a relationship void in your life
Your bond with your therapist is one of trust and safety, but it’s also tricky to define. It’s not familial. It’s also not a friendship or romantic relationship ― yet your therapist is who you turn to when you’re lonely or find yourself emotionally isolating yourself from others.
Naturally, your mind attempts to fit your connection into a category it’s more familiar with (friend, partner, co-worker), and this can lead to feelings of confusion or wanting more out of the relationship. Be honest with yourself. Are you getting enough social time outside of therapy, or are you using your therapist as your primary source of emotional connection?
Bringing up any feelings of closer-than-client connection you might be having can be great fodder to learn more about any missing needs in your day-to-day life.
If you need to speak to a professional counsellor, don’t forget to get in touch with Psyche and Beyond.
Whatsapp: +2761 853 0124
You can also follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, and Tiktok for more mental health tips.