From Change Your Story-Change Your Life: Six things to Stop Doing in Psychotherapy for Rapid Results
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
If you're in psychotherapy and you aren't seeing the changes that you want to see happen quickly enough, you might want to consider the following don'ts:
1. Don't expect validation
Most people enter psychotherapy or counseling hoping to get a lot of empathy and validation and they often confuse the two. Empathy is when your therapist shows that they understand your emotion while validation exists when someone is agreeing with you. Empathy you can expect but, like in the cartoon, validation is not necessarily what you need. If you were right, why would you be seeking help anyway?
Consider the following definitions of the word validate:
to make legally valid: ratify
to grant official sanction to by marking: validated her passport
to recognize, establish, or illustrate the worthiness or legitimacy of
Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary
to make something approved, especially after examining it
to prove that something is correct
Synonyms: Accepting & agreeing
The only things that a therapist should generally validate are things that they actually see happen. Otherwise, their job entails much more important responsibilities.
2. Don't assume that your perspective is accurate
Mary and Dana are riding the elevator at work. Joy, whom they both know, enters the elevator glances at them and turns her back without speaking. Dana reacts by re-tracing recent conversations she’s had with Joy to figure out what she’s done wrong to offend her while Mary begins to wonder if Joy is feeling okay. As they head to their offices Dana avoids Joy, going straight to her desk. She is thinking about a conversation she had with Joy a while back in which they had what she thought at the time was a friendly difference of opinion. She begins to feel irritated with Joy for holding a grudge over something so minor. It makes her feel like she did as a child when she felt like she could never express her own opinion without someone getting mad. Meanwhile, Mary approaches Joy and asks if everything is okay. Joy explains that she was lost in thought about an upsetting phone call she just got from her son’s teacher and apologizes for not speaking. Mary offers support and their relationship strengthens while Dana continues to avoid Joy who is oblivious to the reason and never understands why their relationship seemed to have cooled.
Dana assumes her interpretation of the events are accurate but they are actually a projection of insecurities that she takes with her into most encounters.
3. Don't focus much on other people (except for how you can change your interaction with them)
I know that people hurt people and it's important to talk some about how you've been hurt. However, if you spend most of your time talking about how others have hurt you, you won't be spending time learning how to find your own personal power which ultimately leads to joy and peace.
Let’s consider the elevator story and another potential consequence just to make a point. Let’s imagine that Dana went into a therapy session and told her therapist about the encounter in the elevator, from her perspective. Dana could tell her therapist about how she was just expressing an opinion and now Joy is holding a grudge. She could present the conversation that she had with Joy in such detail that the therapist could hardly help but assume that Dana was correct in her interpretation. What if Dana went on to say that, in fact, she thinks her boss is the same way and is setting up an atmosphere that is unhealthy among the staff? The therapist may then believe that it’s not in Dana’s best interest to work there. Well, you can see where this is heading. Both Dana and her therapist assume that they are dealing with reality when, in fact, they are dealing with a misinterpretation of events based on an old narrative.
4. Don't hide thoughts or feelings (or assume that your therapist knows them)
Did you know that not only is it common for people to hide some of what they think and feel in psychotherapy, it is also very common for them to lie!
That sounds so rude and harsh to say but Barry Farber, Ph.D., editor of the Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, and his colleagues have been researching this phenomena for over a decade. In one study, they surveyed 547 psychotherapy clients and found the following:
93% admitted to consciously lying to their therapist (doesn’t include those who aren’t aware of distorted perceptions/old narrative) , 84% admitted lying on a regular basis, only 3.5% of clients owned up eventually and only 9% of therapists uncovered the truth eventually.
That sounds like a big waste of time and money to me! You can be open with you therapist; they have heard everything and they typically will NOT judge you. If you have any concerns that your therapist will judge you, talk about that with them. Some of the main reasons that people gave for lying in therapy were that they didn't want to upset the therapist, didn't want to be seen as a complainer, didn't want to be judged or misunderstood and feelings of shame. Now those are some great topics to talk about in therapy!
5. Don't assume that your therapist has the answer
Now that cartoon is just silly but it does make the point. You will need to combine your knowledge with your therapist's skill to get to the wisdom that is best for you. One of my favorite quotes by Alexandra K. Trenfor is “The best teachers show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.” You can't just lay out your problems and wait for the therapist to give you advice. Change is harder than that and the more you participate in the solution, the more it will stick. Asking someone else what to do may sound nice... or it may be taking the easy way out. I suggest that you come up with a couple of things that you want to work on prior to each session. If the plans change, that's fine but it's best to take responsibility and be mindful about what your hopes are for the session.
6. Don't focus on problems so much
That sounds odd right. Don't most people come into therapy because they have a problem that they want to change? Well, yes and no. I think most come because they aren't living the life that they want. It might be better to spend time creating a vision with your therapist for the life that you want to live and begin taking steps toward that life.
I remember when my boys were learning to drive, they were taught that where their eyes went, the car would follow. It's similar with our brains. If you say that you don't want to be socially anxious, then your brain sends you associations to the words in your thought and you are likely to have thoughts related to when you have been socially anxious. In contrast, if you focus instead on characteristics which people who are not socially anxious display, you are more likely to remember times when you've displayed those same qualities, even if you don't do them very often! A very helpful book that describes this principle and teaches people how to make changes by focusing on the change that they want to see occur is Priming: Programming the Mind for Habit Change and Success by Clifton Mitchell. He teaches people to do a specific form of affirmation for behavior change. In the above example, it would sound like "I smile and make eye contact when I greet people."
in summary, it has been my experience that those people who are open with their therapist even about feelings related to the therapist, who are willing to focus on personal responsibility and who are committed to creating a vision for their future are those who proceed the most rapidly in psychotherapy. I believe that you can become strong and beautiful regardless of where you were planted!