the winter blog

A-Z Therapy: 26 Essential Tips For Making It Work

counseling, depression, stress

The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.

Carl Rogers

Hi! Welcome back to The Winter Of My Discontent. Today I’m going to give you some powerful tips for making therapy work for you. Before I do, I want to re-address the elephant in the room. I’ve been away, with only the occasional random update or social media post. My break was productive toward the end and as I said in my last update post, I have a lot of new things going on at The Winter Of My Discontent!

But mostly, I just want to say that it’s good to be back. I’ll be back to posting as many times a week as I can,, but I’m hoping for 3 posts (Tue, Thu, Sat) and I hope that you all will be joining me now that I’m back on the path. I have to say, with everything else that I have going on in my life right now, it’s good to be back.

Make sure you check out the Merch Store and Download Library and stay tuned for an education portion of the site in the months to come.

Now, on to the main event…

Therapy Tips

If you read the blog regularly, it’s not secret that I’m a big fan of therapy. Even during my worst therapy experiences (and there have been a few bad ones), I still believed in the power of therapy. Thing is, I was approaching it all wrong. After many years, I started getting it right by accident and only then did I have that, “a-ah!” moment. This was how it was supposed to go. Finally.

Based off of that experience, here are 26 tips to help you make therapy more effective and to help you on the path to recovery. The A-Z’s of effectual therapy.

a. FIND THE RIGHT THERAPIST.

The rest of this list is ranked in no particular order, but this is THE MOST important part of making sure that your therapy works. All therapists have different mechanisms and modalities, not to mention personalities and biases. Not every provider is going to be a good fit for you and that is perfectly fine. If you don’t think it’s working, let them know and ask for a referral.

When I finally found the right therapist, everything changed. I saw her for a year before I trusted her enough to really open up. She has guided me through some of my biggest (and most traumatic) life events. I don’t know where I would be without her and I’m grateful that I walked into her office that day. Don’t stop searching until you find that for yourself.

b. Cultivate a trusting relationship with your therapist.

To be sure, your therapist is not your friend. They aren’t your mother or your life partner. They are your therapist. That said, you should be building a trusting and open relationship with them. They should be nurturing and supportive. Therapy is where you are at your most vulnerable and you need to be able to be your true self.

Be sure to give your therapist time and space to gain your trust. Like any relationship in life, this kind of kinship doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient with them. Make sure you are comfortable, but allow them the ability to earn your whole story.

c. Be honest in therapy.

Look. No therapist can really help you if you aren’t honest with them about everything. That’s hard to do, especially if you don’t trust the therapist (see above). If you are going to spend your time and your money on therapy, do yourself a favor and be honest with them. That’s what they’re there for. They won’t judge you. They generally won’t even chastise you. They are there to guide you.

Trust between you and your therapist goes both ways. They need to be able to trust that you are being open and honest with them about why you are there, what you are feeling, and what you’ve been going through. Even the bad stuff. Even the weird stuff. Even the scary stuff. All of it.

therapy

d. Be authentic.

Therapy is one of the only places that you can be your real, true self. You don’t have to mask your disorders or your weirdness or your sadness. You can talk about your faults and needed areas of improvement with fear of being belittled and bullied. It is so important that you show your true self to your therapist.

There are things about us that we may not even know are symptoms of something else. That was certainly the case for me. My therapist knew I had ADHD for a full year before I asked for a diagnosis…because she knew me. She knew my behaviors and my ups and my downs. I was always simply who I am when I was with her and so that’s all she knew.

e. Don’t hold in your emotions.

In therapy, emotions are accepted, expected, and important. It can be really freeing to just let it all out; the anger and the sadness. There is a reason that every therapist’s office has a box of Kleenex next to the chair. It’s because people cry in therapy. A lot. Expressing and acknowledging your emotions is key to recovery.

Let it all out. Don’t be shy or ashamed.

f. Don’t keep things to yourself.

This ties in with being honest and genuine. Your therapist needs to know what is going on in your life, no matter how “bad” you perceive it to be. Are you doing drugs or drinking too much? Are you being physically or mentally abused? Are you thinking of hurting yourself? These things are so scary to admit, but your therapist is a safe place and they can help you deal with the thoughts and emotions that you’re going through.

If I keep something from my therapist, it’s usually because I just simply forgot to tell her. I want her help in sorting my life out. I need her help in sorting my life out. That means I have to tell her when I’m spending impulsively or if I’m feeling a massive amount of guilt for something that I’ve done. It’s never easy, but she is always kind and caring in her responses.

g. Put in the work!

Therapy will not work if you do not put in the work. Period. You cannot change your life in a significant way with some blood, sweat, and tears. Therapy work is often uncomfortable work. It’s changing the things that we couldn’t change alone, hence why we sought out a therapist. You have to work through the pain and anger to get past the pain and anger.

If your therapist gives you homework, I strongly suggest completing it. Even if they don’t ask about it in the next appointment, doing the homework will only serve you. If your therapist doesn’t give homework, ask for it. If they still won’t give it to you…find a new therapist.

h. Be patient with yourself.

We need to always remember that healing is non-linear. There is not direct path. No passing go to collect $100. It looks different for every person and there will be pitfalls. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Be kind, compassionate, and patient.

You didn’t get here over night and you won’t get better over night either. It takes time. It can be slow and agonizing, but it is well worth it in the end.

i. Keep a therapy journal.

Keeping a separate therapy journal is a good idea. I have one. I keep charts with my medication changes/dosages, thoughts and ideas that I want to share in my next session, and pre- and post-session notes. It can help you track the progress that you’ve made and remind you of things that you want to bring up with your therapist.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy and you can always jot these notes down in your planner, if you have time. Post-it notes are also great for remember things that you want to discuss in your next visit.

j. Remember that therapy is collaborative.

There are 2 of you and you are both just as important as the other. Without collaboration, therapy will not work. Not only in identifying the problems, but also in coming up with solutions. Your therapist is not there to tell you what to do or how to live; rather to guide you in the right direction and come up with the answers on your own.

My therapist often asks me things like, “What do you want this situation to look like,” or, “Where do you see this in 6 months…1 year…5 years…” because she needs to know what direction to steer me in to find the answers that I’m looking for.

k. Be curious about yourself.

“Seriously, why am I like this?” If I had a dollar for every time that I’ve asked myself this question, in therapy and out, I would be a billionaire! Before my diagnosis, there were so many things that I didn’t understand about myself, but I never thought to ask the questions out loud, even in therapy. It just never occurred to me. When I started asking was when I started getting real answers.

So, be curious about yourself. Wonder aloud to your therapist why you do what you do or feel what you feel. Discover new parts of your personality. Fix parts that you didn’t even know where broken. Try to really understand yourself for the first time.

l. Set milestones for change instead of setting therapy goals.

“So what do you want out of therapy? What are your goals for us?” Dr. W had no idea how much of a panic this would put me in. I just wanted to be “better.” That’s all I knew. I also knew that “getting better” wasn’t a tangible goal. Setting goals has never been my forte and setting therapy goals seemed terrifying, to say the least.

Instead of setting goals, set up milestones for change. Discuss what big changes you want to make with your therapist. Then, together, decide how those big changes can be broken down in smaller markers so that you can measure your growth as you go. It will help you to gauge whether or not therapy is working and it will help you to envision your progress.

m. Make therapy a priority.

This may seem obvious, but you have to go in order for therapy to work. That means making your appointments a priority. When it starts getting tough, your brain sometimes tries to talk you out of going. It uses perfectly reasonable explanations to try to convince you. You have to push through it. Be honest with yourself about why you don’t want to go and then go talk to your therapist about it!

This doesn’t just apply to keeping your appointments. You have to make the changes and do the work and it needs to be a priority in your life. It can feel big and scary, but you’ll feel more and more confident each time. Making therapy a priority is making yourself a priority.

n. Learn to grow from your challenges.

This is so hard. Especially while you are going through it. It’s hard to see anything other than the pain, anxiety, fear, and anger. But I truly believe there is a lesson in everything and you have to find the lesson. Learn from it. Grow from it. Let it make you a better person.

Your therapist can help guide you along to find them. What was there to be learned? What changes will you make going forward based on that information? What will you do to ensure that it doesn’t happen again or how can you prepare for it, whatever the challenge may be? Just be open to growing out of the pain.

o. Put the focus on bettering you.

For many years with different therapists, and for a couple of years with my current therapist, I never put the focus on me. How could I heal? How could I become the person that I dreamed of being? How could I change myself for the better? Nope. None of that. I would go in and I would cry about how much it hurt. I would talk about who hurt me. I would question why my life had to be this way.

Sometimes, I felt like I was just shooting the scene with an old friend. While that can be nice and comforting, it’s not very effective as far as therapy goes. I finally got a point in life where I realized that I wasn’t happy with who I was and I needed to work on me. When I made that decision, and shared it with my therapist, the trajectory of my therapy shifted. It suddenly had meaning. We suddenly had a plan. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the negative things that have or are happening, but try to keep the focus on yourself.

p. Forget the clock.

Knowing you only have 45 minutes to an hour to get it all out can be very intimidating, but don’t worry about how much time you have. Being aware of the time will bring you out of the therapy experience and will only serve to give you anxiety. You want to be relaxed and calm and focused on your session.

Trust me, your therapist will let you know when your time is up. They are usually pretty good about steering you toward a stopping point in the last 15 minutes. They’ll start telling you what to focus on and can give you homework to that end. Leave it in their hands.

q. Move on when you’re ready.

There are many reasons that you might be ready to move on from therapy or a particular therapist. For instance, if you no longer held trust for that therapist. I had an incident recently where something happened with one of my therapists which caused me not to trust them anymore. After that, there was no point in going anymore, so I moved on.

That said, therapy isn’t meant to last forever. A therapist is there to help you reach all of your milestones, or at least get you well on your way, and then send you out into the world with your newfound way of life. You’ll know when you’re ready and it will feel hard. Our therapists become our deepest confidants. Just make sure to move one when it’s time.

r. Be realistic.

Therapists are not magicians. They are human beings that are moving within science. They can only do so much for you. You have to take a collaborative approach. You have to put in the work. You have to be open and honest. You can’t sit back and do nothing and expect therapy to work for you. It won’t. Trust me, I’ve been there and I suffered for more years than I needed to because of it.

I see so many people say, “Oh, I tried therapy once. I didn’t work and I’m never trying it again!” Therapy didn’t work for them because they didn’t work for therapy. You have to put the work into finding the right provider and you have to put the work into finding the right solutions to your problems. Don’t give up on it before you’ve ever even given it a chance.

s. Don’t pretend to be okay if you aren’t.

I start every therapy session out the same way. She asks me how I’ve been and I always answer with a smile, “Things are good! I’m doing okay! I’m making it.” Then I usually immediately dive into all the ways that things are not, in fact, good. Still, I repeat the process the next time I go in.

Pretending to be okay when you’re not is expected of us most places. We’re told to put on a brave face or to “leave it at the door.” Tears are frowned upon. Anger is shunned. Most people don’t really want to know how you are when they ask and, if they did, it would be too complicated to explain anyway. So we just say, “I’m okay.” We put a smile one. We keep it pushing. You don’t have to do that in therapy.

brain, heart, concept

t. Don’t be afraid to take risks.

We’re looking for life-altering change, here. You have to be willing to take risks. In therapy and out of therapy. Tell your therapist that thing that you’ve never told anyone. You never know how they might be able to help you. Let them know your biggest fear and then watch them help you to get over it, “holding your hand” the whole time.

This goes for off the couch, too. Take risks in your life. Take the chances you’ve always been afraid to take. Make the decisions that you’ve been putting off for years. To see big results, you have to go all in and that is risky, my friends. Just go for it.

u. Don’t give up when things get tough.

If you’re doing therapy right, things will get tough. The whole point of therapy is to help you get through the hard parts. Our bodies are programmed to steer us away from pain and sometimes therapy hurts. You start to feel better and it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s as far as you need to go. There’s no point in dredging up anymore pain, you’re all better now.

Truth is, the pain is just buried. Like I said, you have to go through it to get past it. You need to allow yourself to feel your emotions and then deal with them. Once and for all. So keep hanging in there even when the going gets tough. When you get through to the other side, you will stronger and more capable than you ever have.

v. Acknowledge your wins.

This is so hard for for many of us. It’s hard to even see the small wins, let alone celebrate them. That said, it’s important to measuring your progress and knowing that you’ve made progress is important to your healing. It’s easy to look around you at the big stuff and say, “Nothing’s changed! I still hate my job. I still have a crappy marriage. Yadda, yadda!” However, if you break it down and see the small successes, it tells a different story.

Dr. W recently did this with me. We were going down a list of things that are going horribly awry in my life, big things, and she said, “Yes, but look where you ARE compared to where you were. Look what you’ve accomplished.” She started listing off things that I’ve achieved in the last year; the blog, learning to network, learning about my disorders, becoming an advocate. That’s not even to speak on the personal growth spurt I’ve experienced in that time. I’m almost a whole new person! Pat yourself on the back whenever you get the chance…you deserve it.

w. Don’t treat therapy as “just a chat.”

I touched on this before, but this is really important. This was a mistake that I made for so many years and it really had me spinning my wills. I could have gotten better a lot sooner in my life if just one of the therapists that I saw had asked the right questions, given me the right guidance. Alas, they did not so I just kept treating it as a chat. I got nowhere in improving my mental health. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was also a sign of avoidance, which is my go-to unhealthy coping mechanism.

It wasn’t until I started realizing that I needed to change but didn’t know how. I needed to find myself again, but I didn’t know where to look. I went to the right therapist and she asked me the right questions and it led me to where I am today. Sometimes you just just need to use therapy to vent and that’s okay, but make sure that you’re working together to make progress toward something.

x. When they suggest you take actionable steps, take them.

Seriously. If you aren’t going to do what the therapist suggests, why are you in therapy? The things they want you to do won’t always be pleasant or easy, but they will always be in your best interest. Your therapist is on your team. They should want what is best for you and that includes by sending you in the right direction.

Actionable steps are the hardest part for me, I think. It’s not easy for me to put myself out there in a lot of ways. I lived my whole life just skating by on my mediocrity…flying under the radar as much as I possibly could. I don’t want to make waves. I don’t want to be noticed. I’m working on it, though. Therapy has helped me a lot in that respect.

y. Keep a sense of humor.

Especially in our circumstances, it’s really important to be able to laugh at yourself. I often make jokes at my own expense. I use self-deprecating humor more than I should. I always tell people that I can laugh about it or I can cry about it and I’d rather laugh.

Your sense of humor will get you through many, many things and therapy is one of them.

z. Be open-minded.

When I first heard about EMDR, I was extremely skeptical. It seemed to be akin to hypnosis (is is not, at all) and I was really skeptical of that too. Then they started telling me how it would help me. It would greatly lessen my anxiety, some people had none afterward. It could literally cure my C-PTSD. I would no longer have intrusive memories that brought me to tears at random moments. This seemed like magic in me and I just couldn’t buy into it completely.

BUT, I kept an open mind. I said, “I want to get better and I’m willing to try any means necessary to meet that end.” You know what? It was amazing. It did all the things they said it would do. I still have some memories left to process, but it has already worked wonders. Keep your mind open to different possibilities. You never know what could end up changing your life.

BONUS TIPS!!!

mental health, mental, health

* Be brave.

In my opinion, going to therapy and putting the work in is one of the bravest things you can do. To face your fear, pain, and trauma head on. To stand up and decide that you will no longer be controlled by your illnesses or your tormenters. So brave.

*Be vulnerable.

Let yourself by vulnerable with your therapist, assuming that you have built that kind of trust with them. A therapist’s office should truly be a safe place. Let yourself be raw there.

*Show yourself compassion.

If you met someone else in your shoes, how would you treat them? Would you be kind to them? Tell them to forgive themselves? Would you hug them and show them empathy? If so, why aren’t you treating yourself like that as well? Be self-compassionate.

*Be creative.

This is the rest of our lives that we’re talking about here. Get creative. Think of new ways to do things, research different therapy techniques, and talk to other people who have had positive experiences with therapy and see what they recommend. Think outside of the box and then discuss it with your therapist and see what you can come up with.


Y’all. This was a long list. If you made it to the end, I really do hope that it helps you get the most out of your time in therapy. The relationship that I have with my current therapist has been one of the most fulfilling and beneficial relationships I’ve ever had. She takes her job as my provider seriously and I take my job as her patient seriously.

Finding the right therapist is essential in finding your own path to recovery. Good luck and I hope you find what you’re looking for.

Love and light! Keep fighting the good fight!

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Love and light. Keep fighting the good fight! 💜💜

Amber Corinne

Writing about living with ADHD and mental illness and my journey down a thriving path forward. Breaking stigmas and creating community, one post at a time.

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2 Comments

    1. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it. I’m a huge proponent of therapy as well. I have a long and storied history with therapy and I’ve learned that how you approach therapy makes all the difference in the world!

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