Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP

In Therapy

Recalling Your Therapy Session

Do you start each session at square one?

Posted Dec 30, 2014

"Hold on, strike that from the record!"

Many clients have a photographic memory for their therapy sessions. They retain every word, every glance, even the position of the furniture. They’ve been blessed with great attention to intricate detail and can replay their sessions at will throughout the week. If you can name two or three important highlights from your last therapy session; well, congratulations -- this post isn’t for you.

Today I’m talking to the many clients who don’t have a DVR between their ears.

Let’s say you have a good session. A handful of meaningful connections were made. You uncover why you’ve always wanted to rescue rebels. You figure out how you chose your unfulfilling career. You realize you struggle with X today because you experienced Y in the past which forced you to respond with Z. Interesting stuff that really makes sense and could make a difference in your day-to-day life. It feels good to be making progress in therapy.

You say goodbye and step back into the world. But by the time your key hits the ignition, something happens.

It’s all gone.

What did you learn? It’s fuzzy. You know it was a meaningful session, and you do feel better than when you walked in, but damn. What was that pithy insight? What did I say I wanted to do differently this week? Gone. A hazy dream. Or at least very difficult to access.

Let’s normalize this for a minute. This amnesia is really quite understandable. The therapy office is unlike the other 167 hours of your week – it’s a place where you unplug, focus on yourself, speak without being interrupted, and wrestle with the deep issues that are usually hidden beneath the normal distractions of life. When you re-enter the rat race and re-sync with your calendar, those pithy insights can seem distant and less immediate. Yet part of you knows they’re much more important than when you can pick up your dry cleaning and what to buy for dinner.

While this is a common occurrence, it becomes a problem when it feels like you’re starting over each week, rather than moving along in a continuous flow. Each session starts at square one, and while it seems productive, you don’t feel like you’re building on past sessions. This is often when clients say: “this all makes so much sense when I’m here, but I lose it as soon as I leave.” It doesn’t help much if you have fantastic therapy sessions but lose their benefit the rest of the week.

Some clients want to remedy this by taking notes. You bring in a notepad and record the therapists’ words as you relate your problems. Sure, this worked for you in school, and you’re free to use therapy time however you want. But consider a few things before you rip open your Trapper Keeper:

  • When you take notes the session transforms from lab to lecture. Rather than the two of you working together and co-experiencing moments and insights, your therapist becomes a professor and you are a student trying to soak in their wisdom. This is a significant shift from “fellow travellers” to expert-student. Maybe that’s what you’re looking for, but if that’s the case you may be better served with a self-help book that dispenses general tips and facts. If the relationship is the draw, drop the notes.
  • Taking notes throughout the session will make an impact on your therapist. Maybe they’ll enjoy the spotlight, maybe they’ll resent it, maybe they’ll feel disconnected. I know I’ve felt that disconnect when the client/student says: “Hold on, repeat that last sentence again, but slower.” Often I can’t repeat the transcript as this wasn’t a prepared lecture and I was just speaking off the cuff. It can get annoying.
  • The distance note-taking creates takes you away from one of the best parts of therapy – the relationship. Many clients come to therapy to feel heard for the first time, to feel deeply understood, to learn brand new ways of feeling and relating. Turn this into a classroom and you risk losing this.

The point here (same as the one I made when discussing therapist notes in session) is that there is some value to recording specific details from the session, but the purpose of most therapy is providing insightful, corrective experiences, not teaching, school-style. Not just learning the steps toward assertion, but experiencing how it feels to confront someone you care about, in real time, in real life.

I propose a compromise. Instead of sitting with pen and notepad in your lap for the whole 50 minutes, how about you spend the session in a freestyle relationship with your therapist and spend the final 3 minutes jotting down your takeaway points? You could write notes in a journal or on your phone and share these thoughts with your therapist, who may have additions or elaborations. And of course, you’re always welcome to journal through the week to keep those introspection muscles toned. Or maybe you’d be better served with more than one session per week. If you have the means, I believe therapy 2+ times per week feels more like a continuous conversation, with very little time re-introducing ourselves to one another.

So take notes, by all means. Just don’t let the notes get in the way of the most important component of therapy, the relationship itself. Tuck it toward the end or after the session. And in the meantime, jot down the issues the spike during the week - the high highs and low lows – with an eye for what you’re noticing about yourself and your response to others, and you’ll never run out of interesting material.

*** An anonymous commenter on the previous post wanted to hear about clients video or audio recording their sessions. There is a clear advantage to having access to the entire discussion, an actual DVR of all the material from the session. Why work to remember when I could have it all at the cost of a few meager megabytes? After all, don’t some therapists record their sessions?

But here’s one of those areas where the therapist/client discrepancy becomes evident. When a therapist records a session, they have a legal and ethical directive that ensures the recording is heard only by the therapist (and supervisor, if they have one) for training purposes. Licensed professionals who will lose their career if they divulge the contents of that recording, which is to be destroyed as soon as its no longer valuable data for the case. They need your consent to record, and the recording is not a memory aid, but a way for mentors to hear the actual words of the therapist to help guide them. If a client records a session, there’s no ethical imperative to keep the recording private. A client could post a session, or any excerpt, online if they wanted to, with absolutely no legal or ethical repercussions. They could even cut it up to make the next big dance party remix. Many therapists balk or refuse to be recorded in session for these very reasons.

Of course there are exceptions, there are always exceptions. If a client has an impaired memory, I’m sure many therapists would accommodate them by allowing recording. If the therapeutic modality or diagnosis is one where specific, elaborate steps are involved, a therapist would probably allow recording. But in general, therapists prefer to keep recording devices out of the relationship. 


I’ve voluntarily recorded myself on a podcast, which can be found on iTunes or our website. My written words are archived at my Facebook page, and you can access me in person via my website. All types of memories are welcome. 

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