Going to therapy can stir up a range of emotions. On the one hand, you’re probably intrigued and optimistic that you’ll be able to overcome whatever it is you’re struggling with. But on the other hand, you’re probably very aware that you will have to talk about some pretty distressing times in your life and experience some very raw and unpleasant emotions.
Being told that you will need to talk about traumatic events and actually doing it are two very different things, and sometimes you don’t know how you’re going to react. Have you ever been talking about something that you didn’t think affected you, and then you suddenly find the words catching in your throat and your eyes welling up with tears? That happened a lot to me in therapy, and it makes you realise that truly opening up and allowing yourself to be vulnerable in front of a stranger is very scary.
So I’ve decided to put together a little list of helpful tips that can help you to open up more in therapy.
*Based on my experience of cognitive behavioural therapy and may therefore not be applicable to other forms of therapy*
1. Sitting back to back
My therapist recommended this to me when he could see that I was trying to use humour to ‘laugh off’ my feelings and avoid feeling the raw emotion. When you sit back to back, it can take a lot of the pressure off. You no longer have someone looking at you as you try to tell them your innermost feelings. Instead, you can look at the wall, your lap, the corner or whatever your eyes rest on and gently start talking. It almost feels as though you’re alone in the room just voicing your thoughts out loud.
Many people take a notepad to their therapy sessions because not only does it mean they can jot down anything they want to remember from the session, but they can also doodle if they’re feeling nervous. A lot of people will play with their hands or pick at their clothes if they’re feeling nervous, and it feels comforting to keep you hands busy if you’re unsure. By taking a notepad and doodling as you talk, you’re releasing some of that nervous energy.
You’re also looking down so you’re getting the same benefit of sitting back to back because you can’t see the person you are talking to. Be careful not to use this as a distraction though. If you become too engrossed in what you’re drawing so you can ignore how you’re feeling, then that’s a bit counterproductive!
3. Remind yourself: They’re not there to judge
Therapists are definitely not there to judge you or anything that has happened in your life. They are there to guide you and to help you to work thought difficult emotions and thought processes.
As an example, in my sessions we have started talking about anxiety and how it plays a huge role in my life. I’ve had to talk about certain things that I do that sound crazy to someone who doesn’t have anxiety. Does my therapist judge me when I’ve finished talking? No. He sits there with a neutral expression and listens to everything I have to say and then we discuss it in more detail. There’s never an opinion given on what I’m saying.
4. Remind yourself: They have probably seen this before
Therapists have a lot of clients, each with a different and unique struggle and a different diagnosis. I can guarantee that you will not be their first client to break down and cry. You won’t be their first client to feel embarrassed about your problems. You won’t be their first client to feel like you’re overreacting or ‘not sick enough.’ You won’t be their first client to have trauma to work through. They have experienced a lot and they are trained for a lot.
5. Remind yourself: Why are you there?
Opening up can be extremely daunting, especially if you’re not the type to show your vulnerability. But ask yourself this: what’s the alternative? If you quit therapy then you will still be struggling and you’ll still be stuck in the same mind set. If you allow yourself to open up then you’re opening yourself up to lots of positive changes.
6. Talk to someone else first
If the idea of opening up to a stranger is too scary to even comprehend, then try talking to a friend or family member first. A lot of people who are struggling with something tend to do so in their own heads, and they don’t vocalise their thoughts. Telling a friend or family member what you’re struggling with and how it makes you feel will give you a good idea of how it feels to actually say the words out loud. Sometimes it can sound strange when you say something out loud that has always been in your thoughts, so getting some practice in can be really positive.
7. Imagine it’s a friend
In one of my sessions, when I explained that I felt weird telling people what I was struggling with because I was worried that they would judge me, my therapist asked me: what if it was them telling you, would you judge them? The answer is no. It’s actually quite helpful to visualise this when you’re worried about how opening up will make you look to others. For example, if you worry that opening up about depression because you think it will make you look weak, ask yourself: if my friend told me they were depressed, would I think they were weak? Hopefully you would be there to support them and tell them they’re really brave for getting the help they need.
8. Tell your therapist you’re worried
Telling your therapist that you’re worried or nervous about opening up can make a big difference. Not only do you feel a little bit lighter because they’re now aware that you’re nervous and you don’t have to pretend you’re not bothered, but it also gives them a chance to try and make it as comfortable as possible for you. They will probably have a few tips for you to make you feel a bit better and they will be able to make the process easier.
9. Write it down
If you can’t bring yourself to say out loud what you’re thinking and feeling, they try writing it down and showing your therapist. That way, you can tell them everything that you need to say but it takes a lot of pressure off. Once they’ve read everything, they can then start asking you questions about what you’ve written and breaking it up into manageable chunks.
10. Find a new therapist
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just don’t feel comfortable with your therapist. I think this often gets overlooked because people feel they need to stick with the first person they see. But its important that you feel safe and comfortable with your therapist, or how are you supposed to tell them how you’re really feeling? If you don’t feel like you connect at all with your therapist, then you are allowed to look elsewhere.
I hope you found some of these tips helpful. Opening up in therapy and allowing yourself to feel unpleasant emotions isn’t a nice experience, but it does lead to change and better things. If you’re currently in therapy then I wish you all the best. If you’re currently struggling with your mental health and feeling too scared to get help then I hope this list can encourage you to get the help you really do deserve.