December 11, 2016
By Danit Nitka, PhD, Psychologist
I love many things about my work, but what I love the most is seeing people rise to the challenge of creating meaningful change in their life. On a regular basis, I am reminded that as humans, we can be strong and resilient even in the most trying circumstances. Therapy can be a powerful aid in the journey of self-discovery and personal evolution. I spend time thinking about the specific ways people make the journey of therapy work so well for them.
Here are 5 of the things you can do to make the most out of your therapy (and life):
1. Face fear.
We have evolved to be sensitive to what might hurt us or threaten our well-being. This is a good thing—we’ve kept ourselves alive as a species! However, sometimes that radar can be too sensitive or off its mark, making us afraid to move toward things that will improve or enrich our lives. Fear may be what’s held you back from starting therapy until now, or yet what’s holding you back from fully engaging in therapy (or even your life). It may also be what’s stopping you from showing up to therapy on a regular basis, keeping a “safe” foot out the door. When we are afraid, we tend to avoid, and miss out on finding out that what we have been afraid of this whole time is not actually dangerous. Together with your therapist, challenge yourself to take a look. Lots of research has shown us that meaningful progress comes to those who face their fears (1) (Chambless & Ollendick, 2001).
2. Be authentic.
Authenticity means being aware of your feelings, and communicating them to yourself and others. It means being true to these feelings, and by extension, being true to yourself. We know that being authentic is linked to psychological well-being and healthy functioning (2) (Wood et al., 2008). The therapeutic relationship can be strange: You share so much about yourself with your therapist, perhaps even more than you do with those closest to you. While this can seem unusual, it is a unique opportunity to create a non-judgmental space to practice being your true authentic self with another person. This is a space to explore—to “say what you mean and mean what you say”. Perhaps you felt some unpleasant emotions after discussing something in session? Felt embarrassed by your response to something that was said? Maybe there was a point in session at which you may have felt misunderstood by your therapist? Fear not—bring it into session. Circumstances like these present unique opportunities for growth in therapy, so long as you speak your mind and invite authenticity to the conversation.
3. Apply therapy in your life.
Those who make meaningful strides in therapy and create positive life change all seem to be doing one crucial thing (among others): Extending therapy outside of session. The time you spend with your therapist can help you develop insight and guide you. However, stepping back, noticing, and purposefully making changes based on what you are learning is what seems to make the biggest difference. It allows you to apply what you learn to your life, where you want the change to happen. In the same way that you cannot become a piano virtuoso simply by attending a weekly piano lesson, you cannot create meaningful life change without practice. Among researchers, there is consensus that regardless of the therapy approach, working between session leads to improvements in both the short and long term (3) (Kazantzis & Ronan, 2006).
4. Choose change.
It’s common for people to sometimes feel “stuck” in life. That may even be the reason you choose to begin therapy in the first place. Oftentimes, change does not seem like much of a choice. In fact, most often, we would rather change the world than change what’s inside ourselves. It would be so much easier if our partners, friends, or family members changed instead! However, when we want the world to change or think others “should” change, we get stuck. This is because we are least powerful when we try to change others, and most powerful when we choose to change ourselves. Understandably, this can be scary, because we’re so used to being the way we’ve always been! Nevertheless, one of the most important ways to benefit from therapy is to voluntarily commit to choosing change. Often, the most challenging part of this is recognizing that we have the power to choose our individual actions, which together, determine what our life becomes. The more positive choices we make, the more positive our life experiences are. In fact, our freedom to choose is something to be celebrated rather than feared. Autonomy—the ability to choose willingly how you will behave has been studied extensively and recognized as an important ingredient in change (4) (Ryan & Deci, 2008). To make therapy work for you, show yourself what you are capable of doing different, even when it feels scary.
5. Stick with it.
Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. This is because therapy may be the place you take a look at something you’ve avoided for so long. Or perhaps you didn’t realize to what extent your difficulty affected different areas of your life, and so now it seems so much bigger. By experiencing your emotions in therapy, even the difficult ones, you can build your resilience and strength, and create meaningful long term gains (5) (Pascual-Leone, 2009). This process has been likened to doing an “emotional push-up”—while it feels straining in the moment, in the long run, you are increasing your strength and ability to “push yourself up” (in keeping with the analogy).
While our instincts may push us to do the opposite of these, practicing these principles leads to great reward in the journey of self-discovery and change. Remember that the only impossible journey is the one you never begin!
1) This article on what works in therapy, reviews the empirical evidence on using exposure (facing fears): Chambless, D. L., & Ollendick, T. H. (2001). Empirically supported psychological interventions: Controversies and evidence. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 685-716.
2) This article tackles how we can measure authenticity and highlights its associations with positive outcomes: Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385.
3) On using between session exercises in therapy: Ronan, K. R., & Kazantzis, N. (2006). The use of between-session (homework) activities in psychotherapy: Conclusions from the Journal of Psychotherapy. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 16(2), 254-259.
4) Deci and Ryan write about self-determination theory and autonomy—one of its most important tenets! Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2008). A self-determination theory approach to psychotherapy: The motivational basis for effective change. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 49(3), 186-193.
5) Scientific analysis of what feels like “two steps forward, one step back”: Pascual-Leone, A. (2009). Dynamic emotional processing in experiential therapy: Two steps forward, one step back. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 77(1), 113-126.