This is the fourth in a series of posts explaining how to get the most out of depth psychotherapy. For an introduction see my post 10 Tips to Make Therapy Work for You, and for a complete description of these ten tools see my book: I'm Working On It In Therapy.
The research is quite clear that the quality of your relationship with your therapist is a crucial factor in how effective your therapy will be. This means that choosing a therapist who will be a good fit for you is important. But even with a potentially good fit it will take two to tango. No therapist can make a good fit without your collaboration.
That collaboration involves being direct, exploring what you imagine about them, and eventually allowing your therapist to be important to you. These three tools will lead to insight and healing. Using them will probably take time, but that's the direction to head in.
When your therapist has misunderstood you, tell them. When you feel they aren't really paying attention, tell them. When you feel offended, hurt or disappointed, tell them. It would be quite unusual for a therapist to never disappoint his or her client: The question is, how well does that disappointment get processed? On the simplest level, being direct with your therapist helps them to help you. Don't expect them to read your mind. And pushing through your own fears of being direct helps you to be more authentic outside of session also. But perhaps most importantly, working through disappointments and having an experience that's different from what may have happened to you in the past may be one of the most healing things you do in therapy.
Being direct in this way will also lead to insight: Observing and discussing how you relate to your therapist will help you to better understand how you relate to other people. This involves noting patterns of interaction (for example, I try to make others feel guilty, I blame myself for everything, I idealize the other person, or I take everything they say as a criticism), and being very curious about why you respond to your therapist as you do. If you have an outsized reaction to a well-intentioned comment on their part, ideally they can take responsibility for how they said it, but you may also learn a lot about yourself if you can identify the button that got pushed by their comment. Be willing to consider that an emotionally sensitive place in you could have lead you to misunderstand them, too.
Use Your Imagination
You can also discover things about your personality by talking about what you imagine is going on inside of your therapist: We all imagine certain things about our therapists--some of them accurate and some of them not so accurate. Talking about what you imagine they think of you, who you think they are, and what you imagine they are feeling and thinking, could all well reveal assumptions that you habitually make about other people. What happens between the two of you could be repetitions of patterns that developed with your family when you were young. These reenactments can then be remembered and reworked with a different outcome. It may also help you to discover healthy aspects of your own personality that have not been allowed to surface before.
Allow Your Therapist to Be Important To You
There is another way that the therapeutic relationship helps which is at least as powerful as insight, but more subtle and difficult to observe. It's known as the corrective emotional experience. Your experience with your therapist--their understanding, caring, acceptance and empathy--ideally heals old wounds and open the way for a less constricted way of living. But this takes more than showing up. It takes opening up.
This experiential aspect of therapy might appear to require nothing but passively coming to sessions and letting your therapist work their magic. But there is work here for you to do: being direct, as I've described already, but also being emotionally open. If you keep your distance, your therapist can't have as much impact.
Depending on your personality style, this may make you uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable isn't all bad: a moderate amount of intensity in the sessions is an important ingredient in change.
People sometimes have reservations about seeing their connection with their therapist as a "relationship". Underneath these reservations may lay concerns about becoming dependent or vulnerable, or being disappointed or dismissed. Others believe that because they're paying their therapist, the relationship couldn't possibly be "real" anyway.
These reservations should not be dismissed, but rather taken seriously and explored. It will take time to build trust, safety and comfort. That's to be expected. But do speak directly about your reservations (or perhaps your lack of reservation if you trust too easily). This is taking the relationship seriously, and that's what's transformative. You don't have to love them and you don't necessarily have to depend on them (though for some a period of dependence can be helpful)--but if you try to make them irrelevant, you're limiting what you'll get out of therapy.
Taking an active role in forging an authentic connection with your therapist has lasting rewards. It will help you to gain insight into your patterns of interaction, and, if you allow your therapist to have some importance in your life, it will allow deep healing to occur. Though it may seem paradoxical, allowing yourself to enter into a therapeutic relationship will leave you stronger in the long run.
My next post for this series will be about observing the themes, patterns and stories of your life, and about how connecting the dots between the various episodes of your life is essential to getting the most out of therapy. If you want to make sure you see that, click "fan" next to my name at the top of this post.