As a licensed clinical psychologist and a therapy patient herself, Avigail Lev knows “doorknob comments” — aka mentioning something important or concerning at the last minute in a therapy session — all too well.
These are remarks about difficult subjects you may not feel ready to get feedback on or discuss. Once when Lev made such a comment to her therapist, she later realized that “a recent trigger occurred that I hadn’t fully formulated, and I didn’t want to be subconsciously influenced by my therapist’s reaction.”
Doorknob comments are quite common. Perhaps you mention you’re thinking about getting back with an ex. Maybe you say you experienced a traumatic event, or that you self-harmed in some way. Perhaps it’s even just a remark about an unhealthy behavior. (These are just examples and don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what they might be.)
Several Twitter users have talked about their tendency to share these comments. On “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a character’s therapist noted that, right before leaving, she mentioned her that her abusive father had called. Many therapists on TikTok have created videos about what doorknob comments look like, too.
If this rings true for you, don’t fret. While throwing in a doorknob comment is understandable — it can be tempting and seem to lessen anxiety — it can also sabotage your session, preventing you from having adequate time to talk about your concern. As a result, you may leave feeling unsatisfied.
To stop making these types of comments and to ensure you get all your needs met in therapy sessions without feeling too uncomfortable, here’s what to keep in mind:
Figure out where the urge to make doorknob comments comes from
Knowing what causes you to make a doorknob comment can help you handle it more effectively. One potential cause is the fear of being judged.
“In my experience, it is often because [patients] are feeling timid or unsure about sharing with their therapist,” said Brittany Morris, a licensed clinical social worker from Thriveworks in Chesapeake, Virginia. “Individuals may feel like dropping this kind of information at the very end of the session will keep the clinician from being able to give a negative response or make a judgment on the information they have shared.”
You may make doorknob comments for other reasons, too. “[Patients] may feel the need to ‘warm up’ before they feel ready to talk about something … It could also be a last ditch effort to squeeze just a little more time out of session,” added Marina Harris, a licensed psychologist in North Carolina who runs a newsletter with science-backed tips for self-improvement and mental health. “All of these reasons are valid.”
Make sure you’re comfortable with your therapist
Finding a therapist who’s affordable and who you’re comfortable with is a crucial step to take as early as possible.
“Therapists are there to help you as a client,” Morris said. “They are an unbiased source whose only objective should be to help you grow and heal. Clients should know that being comfortable with your clinician and [feeling] like you can share information is absolutely necessary to make the desired progress.”
“The relationship is key because [of] the client’s needs to feel safe enough to broach challenging topics and feel heard and understood,” Harris added.
Remembering therapists are (or should be) unbiased, nonjudgmental third parties can be helpful. When you tell a therapist something, you’re probably going to get a different response than you would from a friend or family member. Plus, therapists’ knowledge about psychology and mental health means they’re typically more understanding and don’t believe in stigma.
But if your therapist seems judgmental, communicate that with an “I statement,” which looks like this: “I feel ___ when ___ because ___. Can you ___ instead?” Or you can find a new therapist who fits you better.
When vetting a new therapist, look for one who specializes in what you’re experiencing and has a similar identity. Psychology Today has a great database to simplify this process. Then, ask potential therapists about a free phone consultation, which can help you determine if they’re a good fit.
Make a plan for your session
Your therapist should acknowledge your doorknob comment and follow up as necessary. But to avoid making it in the first place, you can work with your clinician on a plan to make sure you get what you need.
“Therapists can reduce this tendency of clients to only disclose important information at the very end of their session by working with them to make a plan or agenda for the session and finding ways to help them feel comfortable sharing,” Morris said.
“An agenda is basically a road map for session,” Harris said. “I introduce an agenda by saying, ‘What do you want to prioritize in our session today?’ or ‘I wanted to make sure we talk about X, but what do you want to add to the agenda?’”
You’re allowed to pose similar questions as a client, too. “If your therapist doesn’t start with an agenda, ask if you can implement one,” Harris said. “It keeps the session on track and helps get needs met in an effective way.”
Not sure what else this “plan” may entail? You can brainstorm your biggest and most timely struggles, as well as how long you want to talk about each topic.
Harris recommended talking about the “big stuff” early. “I am very certain you’ll feel a lot better if you bring up your concerns early and get your needs met, rather than waiting until the last minute,” she said.
You can still set boundaries. Consider informing your therapist about the topics you don’t feel comfortable talking about for long, so they can ask the most vital questions in that time frame.
Planning your coping strategies is another helpful tool. Do you want to play with a fidget toy while you share? Or avoid eye contact? Do you want to write it down instead of saying it out loud? Is there a certain response you’re looking for or wouldn’t find helpful? These are examples of ideas to think about beforehand to lessen your discomfort.
Remember that avoidance can worsen how you feel
While leaving hard updates until the end seems easier, it can unfortunately exacerbate negative emotions. “This just makes the anxiety or shame worse in the long-term,” Harris said. “What actually helps is talking about it.”
If you’ve undergone exposure therapy, you’ve seen how this works. The longer you avoid something, the scarier it seems. Conversely, when you expose yourself to your fears and realize they aren’t as awful as you think, you become less afraid.
Be self-compassionate through it all
While trying to avoid making doorknob comments, don’t forget to give yourself grace. “I want clients to know that we, as therapists, know it’s really hard to broach difficult topics in session,” Harris said.
Being understanding and giving yourself compassion can improve your emotional well-being and increase resiliency. It’s linked to motivation, confidence and better relationships.
Self-compassion is more helpful than you may think. And you deserve it, too.