10 Things I’ve Learned about Doing Therapy
[A blog like this needs to come with informed consent. I graduated with my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology back in 2000, and I have had a private practice in addition to teaching/consulting since that time. Although I was trained primarily in Rogerian, non-directive therapy, I regularly use cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness based techniques, and I specialize in short-term counseling.]
Four things I was told by supervisors that I use to this day:
- Who the hell do you think you are that you have the answers to someone else’s problem?
This is self-explanatory, but it is an easy trap to fall into. I remind myself that as tempting as it is to make things cut and dry, things are rarely cut and dry.
2. You are not rent-a-friend.
Loneliness is abundant, especially these days with so many divisions, fears, and so much time spent on electronics. It makes sense that folks come to therapy to find connection, but connection alone isn’t therapy. People can easily become dependent on therapy appointments for socialization, and this is not healthy. Therapy is not a place to simply vent. That is a friendship.
3. Be a calm presence.
So many times we wish we could alleviate pain for the people we see, but we can’t directly do that. What we can do is bring a sense of peace, calm, and acceptance. Be assured that is healing.
4. People are often doing the best they can with what they have at that moment.
Let go of the judgment. Since you haven’t had the other person’s life experience, you will never see it the exact same way. Meet the person where they are, and pick it up from there.
Six things I learned on my own:
- The person across from you is on a journey.
Don’t try too hard to fix because you will rob the person of a growth opportunity. Walk alongside the person. Do not make therapy more about alleviating your own anxiety than the other person’s experience.
2. Non-directive therapy and reflective listening are useful tools, but there are many people who want feedback.
Don’t be afraid to give feedback couched in terms of “these are things to think about” or “these are some of the concerns I have.” Although I don’t think people desire the judgment of being told what to do in therapy, they are hungry for answers. Our job is to challenge and support them in finding those answers, and I think there is some elitism in the notion that reflection alone will provide the environment for accomplishing that. In my opinion, holding back information increases the power differential. It is how you share the information that is essential. Information is merely data worth considering and not an absolute truth.
3. Give homework.
I like giving the message that healing involves doing work outside of session. It conveys ownership. What kind of homework? Reading. Reflecting. Writing. Exercising. Socializing. Therapy is not a passive experience.
4. Consider therapy to be primary care.
Just like a primary care provider sees people as needed throughout life, so should therapists provide developmental care. People benefit from episodes of therapy across the lifespan. It is not a one-and-done proposition. Tell folks your door is open after they leave. It will help alleviate the anxiety of “what if I am not done?”.
5. The most important healing tool at your disposal is YOU.
It is essential that you refresh yourself and manage your workload. I consider myself to be an expert at boundaries, but even so, I am exhausted after a day in the therapy office. As humans, we cannot help but absorb the pain around us. Vacations are not enough. I recommend daily exercise, socialization, and journaling to cleanse. Be careful of over-scheduling to meet the needs of others. If you are not well, you are not able to provide a healing environment. Time with you is not enough to be therapeutic. It must be healthy time with you.
6. Psychology research is endlessly fascinating; however, we do a crappy job of translating that research into practical messages the average person is interested in and can apply to daily life.
When you read some new discovery or learn of new data, think about how you can weave it into everyday discussions or homework in your practice. This is why I write self-help books. I want to make psychology accessible to the average person and talk about it in a way that is funny and relatable. I think this takes away the stigma and mystique.
Check out some of my books — available wherever you buy yours.