When I found myself on a therapist’s couch in 2017, I kept waiting for the real work to start. I had started therapy because I wanted to “fix” my life – my anxiety, my relationships – and I wanted someone wiser than me to tell me how to do it. My natural orientation to uncomfortable feelings is to act, because that’s easier than wading through them. I feared I would drown in all those difficult emotions if I fully entered their swirling waters.
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My therapist would gently step on the brakes whenever I had that plea, “What should I do?” Look me in the eyes. I wanted things to change, and immediately. Luckily, this therapist was more interested in guiding me to my own thoughts and patterns and understand where they come from.
Those early days of therapy came to mind when a reader, who asked to remain anonymous, asked this question: “Is a therapist just a safe space to talk about your issues, or can you expect to set goals and receive ‘homework’ or advice on how to improve your mental health? I wonder if a life coach is a more appropriate option than a therapist to bring about changes in my life. »
Ultimately, that’s why 99% of us go to therapy: to make changes in our lives. But how can this change be triggered with the help of a professional?
My dog ate my therapy homework
I will first address the issue of homework.
The short answer is yes – homework is totally a thing in therapy. In fact, most therapists invite clients to complete certain tasks between therapy sessions, said Jesse Owen, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Denver who studies the process and outcomes of psychotherapy.
“The real work of therapy, other than the courage to be vulnerable in sessions, is to do something to change your life outside of the 50 minutes we spend together each week,” Owen told me.
And it can have real benefits: Research suggests that incorporating homework into psychotherapy improves its effectiveness, and that clients who consistently follow homework tend to have better mental health outcomes.
The assignments you receive will depend on your therapist’s approach. For example, clinicians who use Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) — which focuses on changing the way you think — may ask you to keep track of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that arise in stressful or upsetting situations. Then, in the therapy room, you and the therapist can find more helpful ways to respond in those situations in the future. CBT is arguably the type of therapy that takes the most homework, Owen said.
Others might suggest workbooks you can do together, always with the slight caveat that it’s up to you to finish the job.
Ann Kelley, psychologist in Austin, Texas, and co-host of Uncensored Therapista podcast (which I love!) on attachment and relationship science, said her homework is to expand her clients’ awareness of themselves and those around them.
Let’s say you are someone who is afraid of conflict and finds it difficult to express your opinions and needs in intimate relationships. Kelley might ask you to try talking more directly with your partner that week. Later, you and Kelley could discuss what you noticed in those moments (like, “I was scared to death doing that!” or “It was really good to tell my partner how I really felt” ).
With some couples, Kelley may ask them to come home, look each other in the eye, look at each other, and ask each other some important questions. Often people are shocked that they cannot make sustained eye contact with their partner without getting really anxious. If your therapist has a more psychodynamic approach, you’ll likely explore why you’re having this reaction. (Quick note: for some neurodivergent people, we know this exercise may not be helpful and we appreciate your readership.)
“It’s about getting new information about yourself,” Kelley said, “being in a place of deep curiosity instead of knowing.”
People may (often unwittingly) approach therapy passively, Kelley said. They show up for an hour each week after failing to think about it or apply what they discussed with their therapist the week before. Homework is a way to ensure that you get the most out of therapy because it transforms what you have learned from intellectual understanding into lived experience.
If your therapist hasn’t given you homework and that’s something you’d like, Kelley recommends asking your therapist for ways to expand on what you’ve learned between sessions.
A different kind of conversation
Our reader also asked if he could expect “advice” in therapy, which I interpreted as “advice.”
Usually, when we really open up, it’s to a best friend who, with their permission (hopefully), can offer some advice. Therapy is a very different dynamic.
A psychotherapist’s job is to guide people toward self-awareness, but most are trained to avoid giving advice, Owen said. There are several reasons for this. People are more likely to metabolize ideas they themselves have discovered in the caverns of their unconscious, although a therapist may have been holding the flashlight. “Tips usually don’t do as much as [asking] open-ended questions and exploring the deeper meaning of things,” Owen said. Nor do therapists want to give bad advice or dictate what a client should do because of power differences in the therapeutic relationship.
If a client asks for guidance, a therapist can share more general thoughts or encourage a client to think about patterns that are contributing to the problem.
“While we’d like people to follow advice — eat healthy, sleep, drink less — people only listen if they’re really in touch with their own motivations for mental health,” Kelley said. “Our job is to help people want to make big changes, not tell them how to do it.”
As a future therapist myself, I reflect on what type of feedback I have found most helpful in therapy.
The therapists I worked with never explicitly told me what to do — like when I asked if I should leave a relationship or a career — but they sent me back the ideas I had formed with their help. .
Once, after describing a series of painful conflicts with an ex-partner, my therapist said bluntly to me, “I don’t like this about you. I didn’t like it either, but I wasn’t ready to fully admit it to myself. When my therapist recognized that the way I was being treated (as I described it) was not acceptable, it opened the door for me to do the same.
It worked for me only because I had been seeing this therapist for a while and trusted her. But it’s also worth noting that this comment really influenced the way I viewed my relationship—one of the reasons therapists exercise caution when offering such comments.
Put me in it, coach
Finally, this reader would like to know if working with a life coach might be a better option.
Therapists and life coaches offer support and guidance, but there are notable differences:
- A life coach helps you improve certain skills, like problem solving and organization, and holds you accountable for achieving your future goals.
- Therapists are trained in deeper psychological exploration and can help you get to the root of the patterns that are holding you back.
- Unlike therapists who are held accountable by a licensing board, life coaching isn’t regulated by the government, and there isn’t much empirical research on its effectiveness yet, Owen said.
Yet there are many great life coaches out there. Kelley refers clients to coaches when they need help developing skills in a specific area, such as finding a particular job or working on time management for people living with ADHD.
“If you’re self-aware and need a boost of confidence or help setting goals, a life coach may be right for you,” wrote health journalist Kaitlin Vogel. Psychic Centerpiece I recommend if you want more information on life coaching.
See you next week,
If what you learned today from these experts resonated with you, or if you would like to share your own experiences with us, please email us and let us know if you can share your thoughts with the wider community of group therapy. The email [email protected] comes directly to our team. As always, find us on Instagram at @latimesforyourmind, where we’ll continue this conversation.
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More insights on today’s topic and other resources
Psychoanalyst and Psychologist Nancy McWilliams Talks What Really Works in Therapy in this episode of Therapist Uncensored.
Ready to start your therapeutic journey? The Times has compiled a comprehensive list of low-cost mental health resources in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including therapy, support groups and meditation classes.
How to help people with psychosis — from Times contributor Erica Crompton, who experienced it firsthand.
Other interesting things
“What if the cure for our current mental health crisis isn’t more mental health care?” asks UCLA professor Danielle Carr in this thought-provoking New York Times op-ed. She points out that the medicalization of the problem emphasizes the individual at the expense of reforming the systems and structures that created them in the first place.
Renowned addiction expert Gabor Maté talks about the effect toxic culture has on our minds and bodies in this excellent interview on the Higher Practice podcast. Mate’s new book, “The Myth of Normalcy,” was released earlier this month.
Women do more paid work, but most of the domestic work still falls to them – and research shows that it has an impact on psychological well-being.
Group therapy is for informational purposes only and does not replace the advice, diagnosis or treatment of a mental health professional. We encourage you to seek the advice of a mental health professional or other qualified medical professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your mental health.