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October 11, 2023

How to Get the Most Out of Therapy

Kristie Plantinga
woman of color journals in a coffee shop; how to get the most out of therapy, how to make therapy sessions productive
October 11, 2023
17 min to read
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If you’re asking “how can I get the most out of therapy?” you’re on the right track, my friend.

You may not know it, but because you’re already researching how to get the most out of therapy, you already see yourself as an active participant in the therapeutic process. That alone suggests that you will get more out of therapy than others, but I’m here to provide a few more tips (as a therapy-goer myself) on how to make the most of therapy.

Want more information on getting started with therapy? Read our guide.

How to make therapy sessions more “productive”

If you typed “how to make therapy sessions more productive” into Google, I guarantee that you’ve been referred to as an “overachiever.”

Do you feel called out, a little bit?

I can totally relate.

I LOVE this question, but the therapeutic process is a bit more nuanced than that. And actually, hyperfocusing on “productivity” places unnecessary pressure on a not-so-straightforward process.

Instead, I encourage you to reframe how you think about what makes therapy productive. We typically think of productivity as efficiently moving forward on a project, but therapy can be anything but that definition of productivity. Sometimes it takes months (or years!) for something to really settle in. The process also isn’t linear; one week, you might feel like you’ve made a ton of progress, but the next week you feel like you’re regressing back into old habits.

Give yourself grace. Don’t think about therapy as something you can “optimize” to get every dollar’s worth. Think about therapy as a transformative process that can’t always be measured or tracked like our sleep or social schedules. Trust the process, and commit to it wholeheartedly while removing unrealistic expectations.

12 ways to get the most out of therapy

If you take these tips to heart, I can almost guarantee that you’ll get more out of therapy than other people.

These tips are from my experience in therapy throughout the years. One of the things that made therapy as transformative as it was for me was because I learned how to be in therapy.

Here are my recommendations.

1. Take your time to find a therapist

In our society, we’re used to everything being immediately available.

Although that immediacy works for some things, like Googling “how to fix a flat tire” and overnight shipping from Amazon, that kind of turnaround isn’t realistic (or beneficial) for everything.

@plantmami5 When Detroit floods but u still gotta deliver those prime packages #detroit #amazon #boburnham #jeffbezos #fyp ♬ Bezos I - Bo Burnham

Finding a therapist may take a few weeks or even months. It’s alluring to go for the Better Help’s of the world that guarantee therapist matching within 48 hours, but I encourage you to use common sense when finding a therapist. Do you really think AI and algorithms can match you with your soulmate therapist? It might get you started, but heavily-funded mental health startups remove our souls from the process. A company cannot optimize upon your intuition.

Find a high quality specialist who works with people like you. Ideally, you can vet the therapist by finding reviews online (at Best Therapists, we do this for you with our vetting process–learn about it here). Working with a high quality therapist often means that they won’t be in-network with your insurance company, because insurance companies pay therapists unsustainable fees. These low fees often force in-network therapists to take on more clients, which can lead to burnout. If your therapist is burnt out, you will likely receive inferior care.

Note that you can still get reimbursed for out-of-network therapy sessions (check your out-of-network mental health benefits with our free, HIPAA-compliant calculator). This is an excellent route for people looking to get the most out of therapy.

Once you find a few therapists that fit your criteria, consult with them to get a sense of personality fit. Although your therapist is a stranger to you at first, you should sense some type of chemistry or comfortability.

During the therapist-finding process, take care of yourself–the process can be exhausting.

2. See yourself as an active participant

Therapy isn’t a passive activity; it’s not something you attend once per week, get “therapized,” and leave. You’ll get out as much as you put in, so see yourself as an equal participant in the therapy process. In other words, don’t expect your therapist to do all the work.

On top of that, follow your therapist’s advice! If they recommend that you cut down on screen time, cut down on screen time. If they recommend that you set some boundaries with your parents, set the damn boundaries! The last thing you want in therapy is to hold yourself back by hindering the process. Therapy isn’t just talking–it’s work. Embrace this attitude: that’s how to get the most out of therapy at the end of the day.

3. Be gentle with yourself

The times we’re in therapy are tender. You’ll likely be extra sensitive, and your mood may be lower some days than usual. You may also be more introspective than you were before starting therapy, so you may find yourself a bit more distracted.

The good news is that these are all signs that you’re growing.

Be gentle with yourself while in therapy. Rest a lot, make time for self care, take space from triggering relationships, and be kind to yourself. Let this period of your life be one marked by rest and patience.

4. To make therapy more “productive,” be honest with your therapist

Discuss how you think things are going with your therapist. Good therapists thrive on feedback!

Let them know what’s working for you, what’s not working for you, anxieties you have about the process, if you feel like you’re getting “worse,” and anything else that comes to mind.

I did this once in a couples therapy scenario. I felt anxious before every session because it seemed like we were always focusing on what was going poorly, but we didn’t discuss the good things in our relationship or the progress that we’d been making. My therapist thanked me for the feedback, and she immediately adjusted our treatment plan so my husband and I felt more encouraged in the process.

5. Trust your therapist to hold the process

Although you’re an active participant in therapy and responsible for giving feedback to your therapist, know that your therapist is the expert. Trust them to hold you throughout the experience–it’s not your job to “manage” your therapeutic journey.

Exhale and remove that pressure from yourself–your only job is to show up, be vulnerable, and do your best (whatever that looks like on that particular day). You’re not a project manager!

6. Focus on the process, not just the results

As overachievers, it’s easy to hyper-focus on the results to get the most out of therapy. How quickly will I feel better? Which of my symptoms have specifically improved, and at what rate? Have I efficiently removed all the toxic relationships for my life? Have I officially cured myself and resolved all my traumas?? You get it.

Therapy isn’t just about the results. Although experiencing transformation is the ultimate goal of therapy, the process itself is valuable. Embrace the messy middle, and know that sometimes it will feel like you’re just muddling through and not triumphantly marching.

That being said, I recommend having a system in place with your therapist to ensure that you’re hitting your therapeutic goals within a realistic timeline. Since you’ll be focusing on heavy stuff, you might feel a bit weighed down sometimes. If you feel like you’re making progress, you’ll gain momentum again.

7. Learn on your own

There are so many incredible resources on mental health.

While you’re in therapy, read books and listen to podcasts on mental health–especially anything recommended to you by your therapist!. Don’t underestimate the power of a good book; it can be life changing.

Not only will you expand your knowledge on mental health, you’ll be more engaged with your mental health outside of sessions.

8. Invest in your physical wellbeing

According to renowned psychiatrist Phil Stutz, 85% of his patients’ early therapy gains boil down to lifestyle changes, like sleep, diet, and exercise. This is NOT an encouragement for you to lose weight–in fact, improving your lifestyle with the goal of weight loss would be missing the point entirely. The point is to make yourself feel physically better, not look better. 

Increase your energy, improve your digestion, and experience the self esteem boost that comes with taking care of yourself. 

If improving your sleep schedule, diet, and exercise routine seem overwhelming, just pick one of these areas to focus on, and pick the one that you know will come easiest to you. When you feel yourself making progress, you’ll be more encouraged to keep going.

9. Let therapy spill over into other areas of your life

Don’t compartmentalize your experience in therapy.

Feel the impact of your therapy sessions spilling out from the confines of your therapist’s office (or online meeting room). If you restrict your growth to occur within therapy sessions alone, you’ll miss out on valuable insights that you can only glean from seeing your everyday life through a therapeutic lens.

Plus, if you’re thinking about therapy outside of sessions, you’ll be more likely to make it a priority, consistently attend (avoid cancellations whenever possible; don’t see therapy as optional!), and do your homework.

10. Get curious about your vices

In therapy, you’ll generate and unearth a lot of emotional energy. After a session, you may find yourself not knowing where to put it all!

We all have our vices: online shopping, drinking, binge watching TV, doomscrolling TikTok, etc. In the past, those types of activities are likely where you channeled emotional energy. When you feel the instinct to turn to your vices, get curious. Ask yourself questions like…

  1. What just happened that made me feel the need to turn to online shopping, drinking, smoking, etc.?
  2. What negative emotions am I feeling at this moment?
  3. What is it about this vice in particular that temporarily relieves negative emotions?
  4. How do I usually feel after I take up my vice?

Awareness is the first step to subbing out your vices–or unhealthy coping mechanisms–for healthy coping mechanisms.

You may be asking yourself: but Kristie, why would I stop using my vices if they make me feel better? To paraphrase myself (check out this article I wrote on unhealthy coping mechanisms), unhealthy coping mechanisms don’t provide lasting relief. They temporarily relieve negative emotions, but there’s almost always some kind of fall out, whether that fallout is physical (a hangover) or emotional (guilt for blowing your shopping budget).

Be curious about your vices, but don’t judge yourself. In fact, if you’re craving your vices, love yourself a little extra that day. Remember that you are NOT weak for indulging in your vices–you’re in therapy, for goodness sake! Facing yourself is the ultimate act of bravery, and eventually, you’ll learn how to turn to healthy coping mechanisms like talking to a friend, going for a walk, or journaling, instead.

11. Be vulnerable

This may go without saying, but… talk! Be vulnerable! You have absolutely nothing to gain by being cagey with your therapist.

If this is your first time in an emotionally vulnerable setting, it can be difficult, to say the least. You’ll likely experience “vulnerability hangovers” after sessions (I can’t believe I said that! Was there snot all over my face while I was crying?? Etc.). Although vulnerability hangovers are uncomfortable, they’re a sign that you’re on the right track. You’re getting the most out of therapy!

But just because you should be talking during therapy doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be listening, too. The best therapists are wise as hell, and they have their own experiences beyond their therapeutic training that can help you.

Some of the most impactful moments I’ve had in therapy were when my therapist disclosed things about her own life. Not only did our relationship improve, but I learned things that were best explained via my therapist relaying her own experience.

TLDR, your therapist is not a blank slate. They’re a whole-ass person with a life, and you have the privilege of learning from it. How awesome is that?

12. When things get tough, remember your why

In therapy, there will be some loooooow moments. You’ll feel overwhelmed by your past, and you may lose hope altogether. When we confront our traumas, it can feel like we’re staring up a mountain that we’ll never be able to summit.

But here’s the thing: you can do it, and you started therapy for a reason. Take time to write out (yes, literally write out) your why for starting therapy in the first place. After a rough session (or before you’re considering canceling your next appointment), reread your why statement.

If you need some inspiration, here’s a why statement that can apply to all of us: I’m in therapy because I want to live life as fully as I can, and I know–that with help–I can make the world a better place.

And that, my friends, is worth all the discomfort and pain we experience in therapy. Because what else is there, really?

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Written by
Kristie Plantinga

Kristie Plantinga is the founder of Best Therapists. Along with being on the client-side of therapy, Kristie has had the honor of working directly with therapists in her marketing agency for therapists, TherapieSEO. While working alongside therapists, she learned about the inequities in our mental health system that therapists face on a daily basis, and she wanted to do something about it. That’s why Best Therapists is a platform designed to benefit not only therapy-seekers, but therapy providers. Kristie has a Masters degree in Written Communication and a Bachelors degree in Psychology and Music.

Reviewed by
Katelyn McMahon
Registered Psychotherapist, VT #097.0134200

Katelyn is a therapist-turned-writer with a passion for mental health. She has a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of England and is a Registered Psychotherapist in the state of Vermont. Katelyn has professional experience in aging care, addiction treatment, integrated health care, and private practice settings. She also has lived experience being on the client side of therapy. Currently, Katelyn is a content writer who’s passionate about spreading mental health awareness and helping other therapists and therapy-seekers Do The Work.

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