Are You Sabotaging Yourself in Therapy?

Published on 7/28/2020

Entering therapy  is a big step, and an important one, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the hard part is done now. We can quickly blame therapy or our therapist for our lack of progress, or let the darker voices tell us that we can’t be fixed, we won’t ever be happy. That is not true! You need to make sure that you are letting therapy work for you, that you’re not committing the following acts of self-sabotage. Your therapist is an important part of the process, but you make up at least 80% of the success factor.

I saw four therapists over about four years, and saw little to no change in my behaviour, emotions and symptoms. Any progress was fleeting, and instead I was just spiralling down. And while I needed a therapist to properly understand me and what I was going through (as well as a correct diagnosis!), I was also holding myself back. I was limiting the success of therapy as another form of self-harm, I didn’t think I deserved to be helped and so I unconsciously ensured that I wouldn’t be.

But now that I’m a year in with the right therapist, the right diagnosis and the will to get better, I am the happiest I have ever been. The dark days still come, but now I am prepared for them and I no longer wish to dwell in them.

How to get the most out of therapy

Here are 9 tips for maximising the results of your therapy sessions.

1. Active listening

Mental illness can really affect your focus. It’s easy to zone out, get distracted or fixate. But this can really restrict you in therapy, as you may be missing key things that your therapist is saying. Not just things that you can learn from, but also ones to disagree with. You need to tell your therapist if you disagree with their interpretation. It can feel strange as they’re the expert on therapy, but you’re the expert on you! And it helps them, as it guides them into the right direction. It can be so difficult to know what’s going on in someone’s head or making inferences based on minimal information, so help them build an idea about you, the right idea.

Active listening also involves asking questions. If you don’t understand something that they said, ask them! They will happily explain it for you. Keep your focus on the conversation and keep it going, this time is valuable so use it.

But don’t just listen to your therapist, listen to yourself as well! What emotions are brought on by certain topics, what thoughts enter your head during an exercise or truth. Share these with them, as they are valuable jewels to understanding you.

And if you struggle with focus and active listening, let them know! This is valuable information. This can help your therapist keep you present, and gives them another symptom to work you out with.

2. Don’t plan

This is something I was always very guilty of. I have an inherent need to please people surrounding me, and with that a responsibility for them. I feel like I must entertain people. Even if someone sits next to me in class, my first thought is that I must provide conversation and be interesting enough. So I would make my way to therapy, planning things to say during the session. I have a fear of not filling the time.

But this didn’t allow me to actively listen. It also didn’t let me follow the flow of the session, let it take me to interesting places. It meant that I chose to withhold information that didn’t suit my story or character of today, that I let my crazy be just enough to warrant my presence but not enough to warrant fear or disgust. I played a role, I chose what I disclosed.

You need to go into therapy and be bare. Let their questions guide you, as they might have a hunch they want to explore. Let today’s feelings come up, not yesterdays, not tomorrow's. I avoid planning before a session by listening to music on the way, and only letting myself focus on the lyrics. I might think of topics beforehand, but I don’t fixate on how I’ll say them or what I’ll share, I keep them as a building block to use later.

3. Do your homework

It happens easily. You leave your therapy session promising to think about a topic further, fill in a questionnaire or discuss something with an individual. Then a week or two passes in a flash, you’re about to go to your session and you realise that you didn’t do this. This happens easily, but is really halting you. The work you do inside of therapy is as important as the work you do outside of it.

Bring a notebook or your agenda to your sessions, and when she says a task write it down immediately. Add it to your to do list like you would an essay or house chore. Make it happen. Talking is easy, work is hard and work makes progress.

But also set your own homework. Surround yourself by self-improvement. We are a combination of the five people we spend the most of our time with. Do they consider self-growth and fuel your best self? Or do they self-sabotage and spiral in their own mental health struggles? Consider what you’re reading, or listen to mindful podcasts. Educate yourself on your mental illness, and educate yourself on coping strategies and tips.

4. Welcome emotions

It can be scary to feel things, especially the big things that paralyse us. But those emotions need to be felt and worked through. They deserve a seat in therapy, and as long as you don’t give them one, they will continue to plague you and sabotage your progress. When feelings come in a therapy session, don’t guide the conversation away, don’t repress it, feel it. Cry, cry so much. I leave therapy sessions where I cried feeling so much more satisfied and freed.

And on that note, don’t leave the session and shove the emotions back into their box. Allow them to linger if they want to, go home and mull over the topic further, listen to songs that fit this mood. Emotions only hurt us when we give them the power to.

Also tell your therapist which emotions are brought up. I mentioned to my therapist that everytime someone mentions their childhood or a topic of mine is brought up, I feel this anxiety and nausea within me. I felt uncomfortable, and I didn’t know why. We explored this and it really helped us to move forward in a lot of themes that I hadn’t even realised were related.

5. Find the right therapist

If you went to a hairdresser and hated what they did to your hair, would you keep going?

Our mental health is far more important than hair, and far harder to deal with. Dealing with your mental health can be uncomfortable, so don’t be surprised if your sessions feel confronting and upsetting. That said, you should feel comfortable with the therapist treating you. Too often we stay with a therapist because we think that we can’t change or that we’re the problem. You need to have a click with your therapist, you need to be able to open up and feel heard. People are so different, and so different therapists suit different personalities. This one might not be right for you, that’s okay. You tried with them, so explain the situation and ask to be referred. They’re professionals, therapists in particular are trained to never take their job personally. They would do the same if they felt they weren’t the right one to help you or there was a potential conflict.

You deserve to feel comfortable. And if the therapist reminds you too much of a painful aspect of your past, makes you feel unable to share or anything else, then they are not the right therapist for you. I went to four different therapists over the span of four years, and each time I never changed even though it wasn’t working, I waited until the end of treatment when I wasn’t helped. I’ve been with my new therapist for a year, and we have made leaps and bounds in my progress. Part of that is me, being ready to change, but it is also my therapist being specialised in personality disorders and being approachable.

Find the one that works for you.

6. Keep a list

While I don’t plan ahead for sessions anymore to ensure I keep things authentic, I do like to write down things that come to mind during the week. It can be hard to discuss your struggles on a day that you’re feeling fine, but that doesn’t diminish the harm of them. By writing down the specifics on your darker moments, you’ll know how to discuss it in therapy and be more specific. This can help with identifying triggers and tackling them. My therapist always asks for examples of when I felt a certain way, or what happened just before, as well as what I did next. This helps her to correctly approach the issue and find its roots.

Just have a little notebook where you jot down the topic, moment or thought, to come back to in your next session.

7. Be honest

This stems off of my earlier point, regarding not planning ahead to ensure authenticity. By not planning ahead, staying focused in the moment and cherishing that hour, you also will be able to be honest with your therapist. I didn’t outright lie to my therapists often, just minimise my symptoms and withhold information. But in therapy that is lying. It doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help them. You need to strip yourself bare in therapy. It is terrifying! But this is the only time that you really need to be emotionally naked, secrets and shame handed to them on a silver platter. I find that thought to be almost intriguing, as no other time in your life will you ever need to be this brutally honest, not even with a lawyer!

The shame you feel stems from somewhere, and keeping that shame inside brews the symptoms of your mental illness. By hiding these secrets and emotions, you allow them to control you and to have a negative impact on you. But saying them out loud releases this control, and returns the power to you. Saying the worst things that we think out loud allows us to recognise how small they are, and how absurd they can sound.

Your therapist is not there to judge. They have years of training, they have seen pretty much everything by now. And most of all, they want to help. So let them, tell them everything and be honest, as it is vital to them understanding you and adjusting your treatment accordingly. The things you want to tell them the least are often the things they need to know the most.

8. Discuss it outside

The first few times that I went to therapy, I barely even told anyone in my life. Perhaps I was ashamed, perhaps I felt guilty for being so screwed up. I left therapy and everything that comes with it in that little room. But now I’ve grown more comfortable discussing my mental illness, as you can probably tell, and so I allow therapy to leave that little safe box. I mention things that came up in therapy to close friends and certain family members. I mention topics discussed, or even ask if they noticed the same thing about me. This can provide such interesting insights, as these are the people that know you best. They can confirm your therapists hunch, see things that you’re blind to or steer you in a different direction.

I think discussing therapy with certain individuals in your life also allows you to warm up to the process, feel more comfortable about going to therapy. You stop holding negativity and shame about the process, and instead you see it as a strength. You admitted that you need help and you got it. That is something impressive, something that not enough people do.

I understand that many people will not react positively to the topic of therapy. I still have people in my life that I don’t mention it to. But I focus on the people in my life who respect and support my therapy sessions, those are the people that I can be myself with, mental illness and all.

9. Give it time

I think we got the idea from films and books, a character would go to one therapy session and have this huge epiphany and be cured.

Therapist: You push him away because your father wasn’t around when you were growing up!

Main Character: *gasp*

I’m sorry to tell you that the therapy game is a waiting game, it’s a long road. But there will be milestones along the way, moments of clarity and growth. You’ll begin to understand yourself more, hopefully like yourself more. And it is worth it, it is so worth it. As going without therapy is the waste of time, as you’re wasting away precious years to your mental illness. So grit your teeth and stick with it. Push through the blockade, revel in the discomfort, and trust in the process. It will take months, sometimes years, to overcome certain struggles. Make it a part of your long term routine. You wouldn’t go to the gym three times and think you’ll have a six pack, right? So put in the work for those emotional abs.

By doing these nine things throughout your time in therapy, you are giving yourself the best chance for recovery. You are putting all of your efforts into growing into your best self, as you should. And as difficult as it is, nothing will feel more satisfying than the progress you witness in yourself.

1. Active listening

2. Don’t plan

3. Do your homework

4. Welcome emotions

5. Find the right therapist

6. Keep a list

7. Discuss it outside

8. Give it time

9. Be honest

You are not doing this for your therapist. You are not doing this for your partner, your friends or your family. This is for you. This is the best gift that you can give yourself. You deserve to get better, and you are the only thing in your way at this point. Self-sabotaging behaviours and patterns don’t want to be stopped, they’ll resist, and it will be uncomfortable. But that just means that you’re getting somewhere, that you’re tapping into an important part of your unconscious.

Power through. Because you deserve to get better, and you can get better.



Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.

Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.

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