Making Therapy Work for You
Christie Kim, MHC
Opening yourself up to a relationship with a therapist is daunting no matter your experience in therapy. Not only are you sharing vulnerable and intimate parts of yourself, you’re inviting a therapist to hear all of it. It is important to feel like you and your therapist are a good fit, though even with a therapist you like you might feel something’s missing. Maybe they misunderstood you and you don’t feel like you can correct them. Or when you brought up a difficult subject they made a face or looked away. Or they outright said something that made you feel judged and you canceled the next session and never saw them again.
Like any relationship, the one between you and your therapist thrives on communication, honesty, and trust. Ideally, the therapy space feels safe enough for you to be your authentic self and provide feedback to your therapist when needed. If your therapist says something that feels off or confusing or invalidating, it can be intimidating to share that with them in the moment. Holding those feelings in can hinder progress in therapy and may snowball into resentment and added distance. Expressing such feelings or concerns can help create a more honest and productive therapeutic relationship.
Your therapy is for you. It has to work for you above anyone else. If it’s not working or you’re not getting what you need, it’s possible that you and your therapist are simply not the right fit, but the first step may be to bring up any issues to give your therapist an opportunity to respond accordingly. Your therapist should not only be curious about your reactions, but they should be able to handle what you share with them and seek to process it with you.
This collaborative approach is a tenet of multiple therapeutic approaches including feminist, relational-cultural, and multicultural therapy. Therapists who align with such values are considerate of the power differential in therapy and actively seek to neutralize it by inviting your feedback or acknowledging that you are the expert of your own life. They also take into account the many aspects of both your identities and theirs (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.) that influence what each of you bring into the room.
If you haven’t yet found a therapist, there are many ways to see if you’re a good fit before committing to long-term work. First, take advantage of the phone consultation. Most therapists will offer a free phone conversation to introduce themselves and discuss what draws you to therapy. Utilize this time to express what kind of relationship you’re looking to have with a therapist and ask about their style and approach. You may want to express that you don’t like getting advice, or that you’re seeking a therapist who shares your racial-ethnic background, or that you want to focus on building concrete coping skills in addition to processing emotions. It can be helpful to share about your past therapy experiences, if any, and talk about what worked and what didn’t. If you feel like the therapist is a good match and you want to move forward, feel free to continue expressing your preferences in the intake session and ongoing.
Remember that the purpose of therapy is to support and facilitate your authentic self. If there’s something in the therapy space that is hindering your ability to be authentic, honest, or feel understood, please share it with your therapist! We want to know. While it can be intimidating, honest communication is a muscle worth building for your life in general, and therapy is a good place to start.