Man talking to therapist on laptop

"Therapy can be truly transformative, but it’s important to know how to approach it in order to maximize its potential."

Starting therapy for the first time can be a little nerve-wracking. Therapy is something that’s unfamiliar to most of us and it’s not clear what we’re supposed to do once we begin. The unknowns of therapy can cause some men to feel that they’re not making any concrete progress, causing them to leave therapy before they get to experience all of its benefits. On the other end of the spectrum, not knowing how to make the most of therapy can lead some guys to stay in therapy for too long without reaping many rewards.

Therapy can be truly transformative, but it’s important to know how to approach it in order to maximize its potential. While the content of your therapy sessions will be unique to you, there are a number of tips to consider that can help you get the most out of your therapy sessions:

1. Find the Right Fit

Finding the right therapist for you is important for your success in therapy. Therapists are diverse in their approach to treatment, personality, and interpersonal style. Not every therapist-client relationship will be a good match. Start by honing in on what you are seeking help for and search for therapists who specialize in whatever that may be.

Once you begin therapy, it may take a little time to get a sense of whether you’ll be able to work well together. Try attending at least two or three sessions with your therapist before you think of jumping ship; you might find that your first impression changes after a few sessions. If you ultimately decide it’s not working, it’s okay to let your therapist know, and ask for a referral.

2. Prioritize Therapy

You will get the most out of therapy if you set a regular appointment. Typically, this will be once a week, although you and your therapist might decide that something more or less frequent will be appropriate. Missing appointments frequently will impede your progress. If you commit to regular attendance, you’re likely to reach your goals more quickly and effectively.

3. Set Some Goals

One of the first questions most therapists will ask you – “What do you want to get out of therapy?” This might seem obvious because it’s a given goal of therapy to simply “get better”. Try asking yourself, “what will it look like when I am feeling or doing better? What will be different?”

Your therapist will work with you to set attainable goals for therapy. By setting specific goals, you’re better able to track your progress along the way, and in turn, more likely to reach your goals.

Do you have general relationship issues you want to work on?

  • Or are you more concerned about improving a specific relationship?

Do you want to have more joy in life or feel that your life has more purpose or meaning?

  • Or are you lonely and want to develop better social skills?

Whatever your goal is, taking the time to specify it will help you and your therapist get to work. And don’t worry — your goals can change and evolve over time.

4. Be Honest

Some guys have a hard time opening up fully to others, fearing that they’ll be judged or shamed. One of the great things about therapy is that it provides a safe, judgment-free space for you to be totally honest with yourself and with your therapist. Some things might be difficult to talk about, even in therapy, but it’s critical to be completely open and honest in treatment.

Keep in mind that your therapist’s ability to help you is limited by how honest you are with them. By being honest and letting yourself be vulnerable, you are giving yourself the opportunity to grow and heal.

5. Bring All of You to Your Session

It’s natural for us to want to put our best foot forward when we’re around others, especially when we’re meeting someone for the first time. Even when we know therapy is about helping us, it’s not unusual to downplay our problems, limitations, mistakes, and distress so that we’re not seen as a total failure or completely inadequate.

We all have many different aspects to our personalities; some we’d like to hide, and some that we’d like to show. Instead of filtering ourselves in therapy, it is important to put everything on the table, both good and bad – it’s the only way we can honestly reflect on ourselves and our lives.

6. Let Yourself Feel

Your tears, anger, fear, shame, delight—bring them all. Remember, therapy is a safe space where you can just be yourself, with no judgement. A lot of guys shut themselves off from their emotions, which impacts their relationships and ability to experience joy in life. Allowing yourself to feel, express, and be curious about your emotions in therapy will enable you to develop a better understanding of where they are coming from and how to best manage them.

For many men, expressing their feelings in therapy is the first opportunity they have had to express themselves in years, and serves as a huge relief.

7. Keep the Focus on Yourself

There’s no question that it can feel good to be able to blow off steam about what others have done wrong. A little venting can be useful, but eventually you’ll need to step back and ask how you can think about the situation differently and how you can respond to it differently. When you focus within, you’ll find a lot of resources to make the changes you want and be much more empowered to make them.

By keeping the focus on ourselves, we develop a better sense of agency and resilience, whereas focusing on others often makes us feel helpless because we can’t control what others do. Remember, you’ve come to therapy to work on yourself, not to try to fix others.

8. Work Collaboratively with Your Therapist

Research tells us that the connection between a therapist and client is the single-most important aspect of therapy for creating positive change.[1] However, as with all relationships, a good therapeutic relationship requires effort and doesn’t just simply happen. To accomplish this, be direct with your therapist. No therapist is perfect.

  • What is your therapist doing that works and doesn’t work?
  • Is he or she leaving things out that you had hoped would be part of your work together? Do you find him or her cold? Intrusive?
  • Not challenging enough? Too challenging?
  • Do you worry that you like the therapist too much or that you depend on him or her too much? Say so.

This sort of direct communication not only helps your therapist help you, but also helps you develop better communication and interpersonal skills. A core principle of therapy is that it’s the relationship that heals. But you can’t just show up – you need to open up and be actively engaged, too.

9. Don’t Expect Your Therapist to Tell You What To Do

Your therapist isn’t going to tell you what to do – that would take control and agency out of your hands, which is the opposite of what therapy is meant to help you with. While your therapist might offer some advice and guidance, therapy is more about helping you make better decisions for yourself.

It can be tempting to ask a therapist to just tell you what to do, but be wary of therapists who are quick to give advice. They may be serving their own agenda more than yours.

10. Take Responsibility for Your Behaviour

There will always be circumstances that impact our lives we can’t control. Wanting or believing that we can control these things – and never being able to – only brings us angst.Focus on what you can control – your own thoughts and behaviours.

11. Be Curious

Therapy is most effective when we connect the dots between different situations in life and our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Being curious about the factors and forces that have shaped us to become who we are today, helps us develop a better understanding of ourselves and lets us make better decisions in the present and future.

Your therapist will help you recognize themes and patterns that underlie the events you discuss in session, but you can also think about this on your own too.

12. Keep a Journal

The work of therapy is not done when the session is done. Throughout the week, try to practice what you learned in therapy. Keep an eye out for what emotions come up and what new challenges you may face. The best way to keep track of how you feel between therapy sessions is to keep a journal. It can simply be a notebook or a place on your computer or phone doc where you scribble your thoughts.

It’s perfectly ok to refer to your journal in therapy. Your therapist will probably appreciate the work you’re willing to put into your treatment.

13. Be Patient

Therapy is hard work. Positive changes take time. It can be frustrating when benefits don’t come quickly, and that’s ok. If you get frustrated, it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about it with your therapist. If at any point you feel like you’re not accomplishing anything in therapy, talk to your therapist about your long and short-term plans.

Good therapy will often feel like work. Therapy is an investment in yourself and your future, and it should feel as such. A good relationship with your therapist will make you feel safe, heard, and understood. If you put the work in, you’ll see the benefits of therapy across every aspect of your life.


References:

  1. Palmadottir, G. (2006). Client-therapist relationships: experiences of occupational therapy clients in rehabilitationBritish Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69(9), 394-401.
Written by the HeadsUpGuys Team - Combining lived experience, clinical practice, and research expertise. Reviewed and approved by Dr. John Ogrodniczuk - Professor and Director of the Psychotherapy Program at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of British Columbia.
Check in with your health: