In Therapy

A user's guide to psychotherapy

Ten Tips to Energize Your Therapy

What to do when therapy gets boring

No, not an endorsement for ECT
This post is directed to a specific audience:

You've been in therapy for a while. You generally feel connected with your therapist. You've gained some good insights and tools but you know there's more work to do. It also feels like you and your therapist are stuck in a rut. You don't want to stop, it just seems like the battery needs to recharge. It happens. What can you do?

First of all, don't blame yourself. Some clients come to therapy believing it's up to them to keep the sessions fresh and exciting for the therapist (if this is you, read this). Some will take therapy doldrums as a sign that they are boring or their situation is hopeless. Others see any pause as a sign they need to terminate. None of these are necessarily true.

As in most meaningful relationships, sometimes therapy has a dry spell. It's not uncommon to lose focus, experience fatigue, feel disconnected from your therapist, or grow weary of discussing your problems. Many clients don't know they can do something about this. It may be time for a jump start.

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I'm not saying that recharging therapy is all the client's responsibility, either. Ideally, therapy is a collaboration, with therapist and client on the same page. Therapists need to be aware of progress (or lack thereof) in therapy and draw from all those degrees and years of experience to respond accordingly. Maybe they don't know you're feeling stuck, or they do know and need to bring this up with you, re-read their textbooks, or consult with colleagues or supervisors. I write this blog for clients, though, so I'm giving tips to them. 

In no particular order, and with a variety of intensity levels, I present ten ideas to help jump start your therapy:

1. Talk About It - This may be the only tip you need. If you haven't yet done so, tell your therapist that therapy has felt flat to you lately. This should spark a conversation about why and what can be done and how it feels to bring this up. A therapist who cares about their clients and their practice should be more than willing to talk about how they can provide the best customer service. Does thinking about doing this feel like you're stretching yourself, taking a risk? Well there you go. You're already conquering therapy tedium. (more on this here)

2. New Perch - Sometimes you need to change the scenery. Sit on a different couch cushion, or in a different chair, or move the chair, or ask your therapist to switch seats for a session. If you need a new perspective on your life, a slightly different view may help. Remember that scene from Dead Poet's Society where Mork had House's friend and the Reality Bites guy stand on his desk? That's what I'm talking about. (more on the power of therapy furniture here)

3. Join a Group - Getting a little bored sharing your story with one person and hearing one perspective? Maybe you're ready to crank up the heat. Group therapy can be a great place to explore your issues in the context of a social environment. The many benefits, challenge, and differences (explained here) may provide more than enough material and juice for your individual sessions.

4. Dig Deeper - Sometimes that hint of boredom means you've done all you can at this stage and it's time to graduate to more challenging material. You've cleared the level, Mario has raised the flag and it's time to tackle deeper issues. What stuff? For many, it's all those important thoughts, feelings, relationships and experiences that you're trying to avoid! Another good topic to discuss together.

5. Come Up for Air - Now the counterpoint. For some folks, therapy becomes so deep and intense they burn out. If each week becomes a surreal slog through a morass of existential disquiet, you may consider having a session of lighter fare. You could spend time talking about what the process has been like for you. You can tackle a different issue. Also, no one said you can't discuss your favorite TV shows, the evolution of your music tastes, your political stance, and what you wanted to be when you grew up once in a while. I'm not suggesting you waste money on small talk, but you may still find growth through less intense topics. As Aaron Beck once said: "There is more to the surface than meets the eye."

6. Read a Book - There are 10,000+ popular psychology titles, so no matter your particular issue there's probably a book about it. Of course, not all books are created equal, so you may want to ask your therapist for recommendations. If you're more interested in general life exploration, I've recommended The Road Less Traveled, Being and Loving, Codependent No More, Man's Search for Meaning, The Drama of the Gifted Child, and for those who have a particular interest in therapy, The Gift of Therapy.

7. Show and Tell - I think it's great when clients bring in a picture, a photo album or a significant memento for us to appreciate and explore. Not only is it nice to match faces with names, but photos and personal objects have a way of making a story even more rich and textured. Be forewarned: we're going to read into everything you bring. Whether it's uncomfortable or exactly the kind of detective work you want, we're gonna pick through all the body language and facial expressions in your album.

8. Status Report - How about using this lull as a time to evaluate the therapy together? Where are you? Are you progressing toward your goals, or has the focus changed? What's the status of the relationship? Do you feel comfortable? Understood? Listened to? What would you like to adjust or change? What's your therapist's impression of your work together? You can discuss these questions any time, by the way.

9. Here-and-Now - Many agree that the most intense and productive conversations are here-and-now: talking about what's going on in the moment between you and your therapist. For example: How am I feeling toward you? What does that facial expression mean? What do I want from you now? It's a far cry from casual conversation, but you can learn a ton about yourself. Intense? Yes. Boring? No.

10. Explore The End - Have you ever talked about termination? I'm not saying you need to end right now, but let's not deny that therapy will come to a close at some point. When will you know? What do you imagine it will feel like? How will you want to handle it, and how can your therapist help you with the process? As I've said before (here), I believe one of the best services therapy can offer is the experience of a good ending. There are not enough good endings in life, but therapy can provide one relationship where you feel a clean, complete, satisfying, bittersweet closure. And that starts with knowing what to expect and what to do.

Again, this is a list to help empower clients to make helpful changes to their therapy, not to burden you with all the responsibility. As with any relationship, it's a process that requires a certain amount of communication and negotiation to really thrive. I'm sure there are many other ways to recharge therapy. What's worked for you?

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Want more tips? Find another 21 here. You can always borrow my jumper cables at my website or facebook.

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, writer, musician and professor at Fuller Graduate School of Psychology in Pasadena, California.

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