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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Psychotherapy: Getting the Most Out of Your Therapy Sessions

As a psychotherapist in NYC, I often see clients who are coming to psychotherapy for the first time or clients who have been in therapy before where they didn't have a positive outcome.

Psychotherapy:  Getting the Most Out of Your Therapy Sessions

Participating in psychotherapy involves a commitment of time, effort, and money. If you've never participated in psychotherapy or if your prior therapy experience was not a positive one, you might not know what to expect from your therapist or what your therapist expects of you. So, I usually like to talk to new clients about this so they can understand the treatment frame and they can get the most out of their sessions with me.

Choosing a psychotherapist:

A Good Therapeutic Relationship:
If you're trying to find a psychotherapist in a large city like NYC, you usually have many therapists available to you, especially if you have the ability to go outside of your managed care network.

Generally, the most important factor in choosing a psychotherapist is whether or not you feel a rapport with him or her. This might not be evident immediately. It takes time to build a professional rapport with your therapist. Having a good therapeutic working relationship is usually the best predictor of whether or not your therapy will be successful.

It's important to feel that your therapist has empathy and cares about you within the bounds of the professional treatment relationship.

Not every therapist is for every client. Someone else might really like a particular therapist and establish a good rapport with that therapist, whereas you might feel that you're not connecting with that same therapist. It doesn't mean that there's anything wrong with you or necessarily wrong with the therapist. It means that we're all unique and what works for one person might not work for someone else. Usually, after a few sessions, you can tell intuitively if you're connecting with a particular therapist.

Establishing a good therapeutic relationship doesn't mean that you're always going to "feel good" in your psychotherapy sessions. After all, the change process can be challenging and you might be discussing topics that bring up uncomfortable emotions. So, it's important to distinguish between those feelings and the overall rapport you feel with your therapist.

Different Types of Psychotherapy:
Aside from feeling a rapport with your therapist, there are also many different types of psychotherapy.

As a psychotherapist, I work in many different ways, depending upon the needs of the client: psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT), EMDR (eye movement, desensitization and reprocessing), clinical hypnosis (also known as hypnotherapy), and Somatic Experiencing are among the different treatment modalities that I use.

You might find that you like and respond best to certain forms of psychotherapy and not others. Obviously, you're not responsible and cannot be expected to know about these different forms of psychotherapy before you start therapy, but you can ask any prospective therapist about them, and he or she should be able to explain in plain English any treatment modality that he or she uses.

Choosing A Licensed Psychotherapist:
It's important that whoever you choose is a licensed mental health professional.

There are people who call themselves counselors or therapists who have no professional training, expertise or psychotherapy background. They might be very nice people but, in most states, including New York State, if they're not licensed, they're not psychotherapists.

Knowing that your therapist is licensed lets you know that he or she mets the basic professional requirements in his or her profession.

It doesn't guarantee that he or she will be a good therapist or the right therapist for you, but it demonstrates that the minimum requirements stipulated by your State have been met. It also means that the therapist is governed by a State professional licensing bureau and is ethically bound and accountable to that bureau.

If you're not sure, you can ask your therapist. You can also check with the State professional licensing board. In New York State, you can go to the Office of the Professionals - NYS Education Department: http://www.op.nysed.gov/ and go to the section for verifications.

Choosing a Psychotherapist Who Stays Up-to-Date With Current Practices:
Aside from meeting the minimum requirements for licensing, you should ask any prospective psychotherapist that you're considering about his or her background and training. Generally, you want someone who has stayed up-to-date with current practices.

Psychotherapy:  Choosing a Therapist

Often, clients who would be concerned about these issues when choosing a doctor, don't think about it when they're considering a psychotherapist.

So, for instance, if you needed surgery, you would want to make sure that your surgeon continued to get training beyond his or her medical school training and stayed current with state of the art medical and surgical practices, especially for your particular medical problem. You wouldn't dream of seeing a surgeon who said, "I've never done this type of surgery before, but I'm happy to try it out on you" or "It's been a long time since I've performed this surgery. I might be rusty, but I think I can muddle through."

It's no different with psychotherapy. If a prospective therapist has not continued to train beyond graduate school, in my professional opinion, this isn't a good sign.

Ethical Considerations in Psychotherapy:
Ethical considerations in psychotherapy is a vast topic. There have been many books and articles written about it. I cannot possibly do justice to this topic in one posting. I think the vast majority of psychotherapists are ethical and caring people who want to help their clients. However, unfortunately, there are instances where there are boundary violations which are detrimental to the client. I will touch on some important factors:

"Dual Relationships" in Psychotherapy Are Unethical:
The psychotherapeutic relationship is unlike most relationships. It's different from a friendship or a familial relationship, even though you're talking about very personal things about yourself. Your therapist is not going to be your friend, not even after you stop therapy with him or her.

Psychotherapists' code of ethics considers it a boundary violation for therapists and clients to be in "dual relationships." That means that your relationship with your therapist will be strictly professional and limited to your therapy

Even though your therapist might have a warm and friendly manner, as a mental health professional, he or she is responsibile for maintaining clear and consistent boundaries.

Getting romantically or sexually involved with clients or taking advantage of clients in other ways is strictly forbidden. If a therapist seduces you into a romantic or sexual relationship, he (or she) can lose his license. You have the right to report the therapist to his or her professional board of ethics sessions (see my article:  Boundary Violations and Sexual Exploitation in Psychotherapy).

The therapy should be focused on you. An ethical therapist will not be discussing his or her own personal problems or focusing on him or herself.

This is another way that the psychotherapeutic relationship is different from most other relationships. Depending upon the psychotherapist, most therapists do not disclose a lot of personal information, especially if the therapist works in a psychodynamic way. The primary reason for this is, once again, to keep the focus on you.

That doesn't mean that the therapist might not selectively disclose certain things about him or herself if it's in the service of furthering the treatment.

Therapists' self disclosure is also another vast topic. Generally, even the most conservative psychoanalysts today no longer believe that they are "blank screens" for clients to project their thoughts and fantasies on. However, it's important to understand that if a therapist is not disclosing personal things about himself or herself, it's usually in the service of providing the best possible treatment for you.

Ethical Issues Regarding Managed Care Fees:
If your therapist is an in network provider on your managed care insurance panel, he or she should not be asking you to pay additional money, beyond your copayment, to bring your fee in line with his or her non-managed care fee structure.

When your therapist is on a managed care panel, he or she signed a contract with the managed care company to accept their fee. The contract also stipulates how to handle missed or broken appointments. If your therapist asks for additional money beyond what is allowed in the insurance contract, this is insurance fraud and is reportable to your insurance company and your therapist's professional board of ethics.

Also, most managed care companies don't allow your psychotherapist to charge the insurance for your missed or broken appointments. This is a contractual issue between your therapist and your managed care company.

That means that, in most cases, you are often responsible for the entire fee (not just the copayment) when you have a broken appointment with your therapist. This is a topic that should be discussed at the first sssion so that you're clear about your responsibility with regard to missed appointments. If you're not clear, you can call your insurance company and ask.

Some therapists bill the managed care company for broken appointments, even though it's against their contract with the insurance company. Possibly, they feel that they're being nice to clients by not charging them or they're trying to preserve the therapeutic relationship. However well intentioned this might be, you should know that, unless an insurance contract allows for this (and I don't know of any that do) this is insurance fraud and your therapist can lose his or her license for this.

Doing Your Part in Psychotherapy:
Usually, the therapeutic hour is somewhere between 45-60 minutes per week for individual therapy, depending upon your therapist and the type of therapy. An hour out of a week is not very much time. So, if you want to get the most out of your therapy, it's important that you know what is expected of you in therapy.

Doing Your Part in Therapy

Showing up for your appointments:
This might seem obvious, and most clients don't start therapy with the intention of not showing up for their appointments. However, it's not unusual to feel ambivalent about going to therapy. Clients will often start therapy saying that they want change, but the process of change is sometimes diffiicult, and when a client and therapist begin to discuss topics that are uncomfortable, some clients begin missing appointments.

They might not even realize that they're missing appointments because of their discomfort. Emotional discomfort and ambivalence can show up in many different guises: "forgotten" appointments, missing therapy because you feel "tired," and other reasons that might mask an unconscious wish to avoid change. Clients might also begin arriving late for their appointments as an unconscious way to avoid dealing with the process of change.

Thinking About What You Discussed in Therapy Between Sessions:
As I've mentioned, the therapeutic hour is brief compared to the rest of the time in your week. If you want to get the most out of therapy, it's important to think about what you and your therapist have discussed. That means taking time during the week to think or journal about the issues and feelings that come during and after your session.

It's also important to apply whatever you've learned in your every day life. Your therapy will be of little value to you if you have insights in your therapy session, but you forget them once you've left the therapist's office. Also, pay attention to whatever emotions come up between sessions and let your therapist know, even if you might feel uncomfortable. Chances are, if you're seeing an experienced, licensed mental health professional, he or she has already dealt with these issues before.

Doing Homework:
As a psychotherapist, I usually don't give a lot of homework to most clients between sessions. However, at times, I might recommend reading an article or a book, practicing something that has been learned in the session (like meditation or self hypnosis) or I might ask a client to journal or reflect on a particular issue or emotion. I might recommend attending a 12 Step meeting, getting a sponsor, etc.

I might also come to an agreement with a client to take a particular step or action to further the process.

For instance, if a client has problems with procrastination, it's important to talk about it and try to understand it but, ultimately, the client needs to take certain steps in order to overcome this problem. So, we might come to an agreement about what the next step might be to further the process along. Among other things, doing homework between sessions helps to bridge one session with another. A week might not seem like a long time, but in psychotherapy, it can be very long--enough time to forget or put out of your mind what you and your therapist have discussed. So, finding ways to bridge that time can be very valuable.

One posting about how to get the most out of your psychotherapy sessions is not enough to cover all the relevant topics. However, if you're thinking about starting therapy or if you're already in therapy, I hope this posting will be a good start for you and get you thinking about it.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples. 

I have helped many clients to lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my web site: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com

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