If you go to therapy regularly, you’ve likely talked about a range of issues. Therapy is excellent if you’re dealing with depression, a work issue, family matters, relationship struggles or other challenges.
But there are also times when you might not have anything specific to say. The night before your next session, there’s a good chance you may lie in bed thinking, “What the hell am I going to talk about for a full hour? Nothing really happened this week.”
That undue anxiety is common among clients, especially when they’re new to counselling. But therapists say some of the most fulfilling sessions begin with a client saying, “I have no big updates” at the start of the hour.
“When people arrive without something clouding their minds or overwhelming them, we have a chance to get many layers deeper than we often are able to,” said Satya Doyle Byock, a psychotherapist in Portland, Oregon.
On days like this, the therapist often invites clients to take some time to notice what’s happening internally, “to sharpen their awareness of their body and inner life,” she told HuffPost. Think of it as a quick pre-therapy meditation.
That moment of silence usually doesn’t last long. Inevitably, something worth exploring bubbles to the surface.
“A client will say, ‘Oh, I’ve been thinking...’ or ‘I had this memory’” or interesting dream, Doyle Byock said. “It really provides beautiful entry points into rich material for a client.”
“One of the biggest misconceptions about therapy is that we only benefit from going in times of crisis, when we have something specific to work through.”
Some clients might come prepared with talking points for the session. More often than not, though, the conversation takes an entirely different turn, said Kathleen Dahlen deVos, a psychotherapist based in San Francisco.
“What I find is that sometimes the things clients plan in advance can feel stagnant once we’re in the room together,” she said. “The client might find that discussing the topic fills empty space but that they aren’t actually emotionally connected to the subject anymore.”
Silence in therapy can contribute to its success
As clients get more comfortable with the routine and ritual of therapy, Dahlen deVos often tells them to experiment with not planning ahead to see what topics naturally emerge.
“By not planning, we shift to the more subtle things that might be overlooked if we launch directly into predetermined content,” Dahlen deVos said. “This helps clients explore moment-to-moment awareness and mindfulness that they can then use in their daily lives to care for their emotional well-being.”
Ultimately, it’s OK to draw a blank in therapy or meander your way to a topic. You don’t need to bring a weighty subject matter or problem to therapy every week to make it count, Dahlen deVos said. Breakthroughs happen even during sessions you worry are going to be boring.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about therapy is that we only benefit from going in times of crisis, when we have something specific to work through,” she explained.
Without a crisis to attend to, you have the chance to “look below the surface of the parts of life you report as being ‘fine’ or ‘good enough,’ and catalyze some big changes,” she said.
Taking this approach to therapy requires you to get comfortable with a little awkward silence every now and then. But your therapist doesn’t mind.
“In our society, we never allow for silence and become uncomfortable with it,” said Patrick Davey Tully, a therapist in Los Angeles. “Becoming more comfortable with silence allows us to have time to think more deeply or appreciate the moment.”
If you can’t sit with the silence, try talking about therapy
Lulls in conversation are also a great opportunity to reflect on your therapy experience thus far: Talk about what you like (or don’t like) about sessions. Acknowledge some of the progress you’ve made. Discuss experiences from your past you’d like to excavate a bit more. You can even talk about how you’re getting along with your therapist.
“I’d definitely say the therapeutic relationship itself is a great subject to explore,” Davey Tully said. “Clients and therapists have a unique relationship in which the client shares intimate things about themselves and their lives, while the therapist is less disclosing, more or less, depending on their philosophy.”
It might feel a little meta to talk about therapy in therapy, but a good therapist will welcome the topic and be curious as well, Davey Tully said.
Speaking of your relationship with your therapist, you might be wondering: What can I ask my therapist about their life? Is that kosher?
Absolutely, but it’s up to them to decide what’s useful or relevant to your personal growth. Don’t be surprised if they stay tight-lipped.
“Every therapist has different boundaries around what they will and won’t share with their clients,” Doyle Byock said. “The rule of thumb is that whatever a therapist shares with a given client should be of therapeutic value to that client.”
Sometimes a therapist’s personal stories serve the purpose of relationship building and trust. Sometimes it’s about normalizing the client’s experience. That said, it’s usually a quick diversion into their lives: Your therapist wants to stay on topic and tap into what’s going on in your life, even if you feel you have nothing new to discuss.
“It’s actually wonderful to show up without a clear goal in mind when you walk into therapy,” Doyle Byock said. “Just last night, my client’s final words while walking out the door were: ‘Wow, I’m so glad I had nothing to talk about today.’”
Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, read this guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.
Taking care of your mental health is critical — but there’s still a stigma about seeking therapy to manage your own wellbeing. In our series, “This Could Help,” we’ll explore how to get started with therapy and fit it in to your life and your budget. We’ll answer the questions you’ve been wondering, and show you the ways therapy can benefit you and the people you love. Whether you’re struggling or just want to make sure you’re on the right track, support is available, and it really can help.