Therapy can be a super rewarding way to sift through the emotional baggage that’s holding you back. But because it involves being vulnerable and diving into some pretty murky subjects and feelings, you might find yourself indulging in self-sabotaging behaviours that halt your progress ― and you may not even realize it.
Therapists call these therapy-interfering behaviours (TIBs), and the fascinating thing about them is most of us don’t realize when or why we’re getting in our own way.
“We’re quick to make excuses, and slow to recognize patterns of behaviour in ourselves,” said California-based licensed psychologist Caroline Fleck.
These behaviours function to protect us from feeling or thinking painful things in the context of therapy, yet paradoxically, interfere with our emotional growth. So what’s the best way to get past them?
“The task is to take notice of these red flags — patterns of behaviour in yourself— and consider the thoughts, emotions and circumstances that precipitated them,” Fleck explained. Only then can you show them who’s boss.
Here, therapists reveal 13 red flags to look out for during therapy and exactly what to do about them:
You don’t try to cope with problems until you’re in your sessions
While therapy is a space for you to receive guidance on coping with your problems as well as make important changes, it’s meant to empower you to eventually do these things on your own.
“One of the reasons people can become overly reliant on their sessions is they’ve lost trust in themselves and believe that an outside source will have all the answers,” said Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist Roxy Zarrabi. This is a totally normal feeling to have, especially when you’re going through a difficult time where everything in your life feels shaky.
The fix: When problems or roadblocks strike between sessions, reflect on what you’ve discussed in therapy, including suggested coping techniques, said Denver-based licensed psychotherapist Brittany Bouffard. Taking what you’ve learned for a spin can help you move past old patterns that you’re stuck in, and rebuild self-trust in the process.
Any problem areas that just won’t quit can be brought up in subsequent sessions, at which time you can create ― and execute ― specific game plans to tackle them.
Watch: Understanding therapy terms. Story continues after video.
You avoid disclosing big past events
Even if your therapist offered a thorough intake assessment with tons of questions (everything from family dynamics to trauma), being forthcoming about sensitive information you’d rather not dig up can be challenging and you may not want to go there. Or perhaps you might think the issues you’re seeing a therapist about (panic attacks, social anxiety) have no connection to certain experiences you’ve had. But it’s crucial to not withhold important information.
“Therapists don’t necessarily need to know all the details of your story, but it’s important for them to know the essential parts, such as the parts that bother you and may even cause shame, sadness or other painful emotions,” Zarrabi said.
If your therapist doesn’t know the essential highlights, they may use interventions or exercises that may not be the best fit for your issue, since they don’t have the full story.
The fix: It takes time to get comfortable with a therapist, but once you feel ready, it’s important to be fully honest about the issues you’re struggling with, and any backstory that might help shed light on your situation.
If you feel uncomfortable opening up about certain things, sharing this fact with your therapist can make for a great jumping-off point. From there, you can work together on disclosing significant intel in a contained, safe way.
You don’t speak up when something happens in session that upsets you
If you have difficulty being honest in your relationships, you might struggle to let your therapist know if something isn’t working or they said something that rubbed you the wrong way, Zarrabi said. (You might also not be giving feedback to your therapist because you don’t click with them or feel uncomfortable around them.)
The fix: Decide if your discomfort with speaking up has to do with your own patterns, or if it’s because you’re not jibing with your therapist ― and if it’s the former, let them know what’s on your mind.
“This can be an incredible growth opportunity, and a great way to practice communicating your needs and preferences in your relationships,” says Zarrabi.
And if it’s the latter, consider breaking up with your therapist. You deserve to talk to someone whom you feel comfortable around.
You’re frequently late or cancel sessions
There are times when missing part or all of a session is nothing more than a scheduling snafu, but if it happens often, it might reflect an attempt to avoid therapy, the therapist or the feelings that are coming up in therapy, Fleck said.
The fix: Work toward noticing any urges to avoid therapy or your therapist along with the thoughts and feelings that precede them.
“Sometimes avoidance is adaptive and reflects a need for change,” Fleck said. Maybe you don’t trust your therapist or don’t feel safe with them, in which case you might consider finding a different provider.
If the urge to avoid is triggered by a fear of facing your emotions, or feeling spent after sessions, chat with your therapist about how you might organize the sessions so that they feel less heavy, Fleck suggested.
Making your therapist aware of how intense the sessions are for you gives them the chance to scale things back to a pace that’s more comfortable.
You’re not doing what your therapist tells you to do outside of the room
Failing to apply the skills you’re learning in therapy to your daily grind is usually a result of dysfunctional beliefs, Fleck said. (Think: that the situation is hopeless, that it’s other people who need to change, or that you’re a lost cause.)
The fix: “Don’t believe your hypotheses about yourself or the world without testing them,” said Fleck, who suggested pretending you’re a scientist running a bunch of mini experiments to determine what works and what doesn’t.
“Through trial and error, we’re able to refine our beliefs about the world, and ourselves,” Fleck said. “The data you compile from experimenting outside of session is just as, if not more, valuable than any one outcome.”
You’re using therapy solely to vent
Therapy is a healthy place to vent your frustrations about the issues you’re struggling with, but it’s only one part of a much larger process. “Venting is productive if you’re experiencing an ongoing situation ripe for process,” Bouffard said. “However, it can also turn into a means to ignore or avoid the deeper process.”
The fix: To avoid getting stuck in venting mode, keep in mind why you started therapy in the first place. What were your overarching goals? What patterns do you want to unravel? How do you want to feel different? Focus on exploring your ultimate objectives with your therapist, and do your best to hit the brakes on venting when you notice it getting in the way of your goals.
You omit details that make you look bad
Your therapist might not catch your omissions each time, but will eventually get an overarching sense that important details are being left out. Bottom line: “Nobody has that much bad luck with their boss, wife, kids, friends and co-workers,” Fleck said.
The fix: Experiment with presenting the worst version of yourself on a relatively benign issue, like that time you flipped off someone for stealing your parking spot at Target. “You might be surprised by how validating your therapist is, or how helpful it is to get some feedback about your less-than-glam moments,” Fleck said.
Therapy costs time and money ― it’s worth finding out how effective it is to share the ugly stuff, and to keep practicing until you and your therapist find your groove.
You rely on substances to get through your sessions
People relying on substances, like marijuana, to help them get through sessions, is more common than you might think. “Regardless of whether addiction is an issue, the consistent use of substances pre-therapy usually functions to blunt or mask difficult feelings like anger or shame, and sometimes behaviour like yelling or arguing,” Fleck said. This can impede progress.
The fix: Don’t use substances in the hours prior to your appointment. If the urge to use always increases prior to your sessions, open up to your therapist about it, Fleck said. You and your therapist can work together on other ways to manage difficult emotions before, during and after your therapy sessions.
You change the subject when a painful topic is brought up
People often go to great lengths to avoid painful feelings because, well, they’re painful. “For some people, they’ve been repeatedly dismissed and invalidated by others in their lives, so they may fear the therapist will do the same thing if they open up,” Zarrabi said.
Others who are used to bottling up their feelings might fear that once they go there, the emotions will be too overwhelming to cope with.
The fix: It’s OK not to be ready to share your most painful feelings, and you can explore what’s holding you back with your therapist as a way to practice. “Seeing how your therapist responds to your concerns and lessens your fear of what might happen if you open up can help you feel more comfortable about doing so when you’re ready,” Zarrabi said.
You frequently argue or debate with your therapist
It’s your therapist’s job to challenge you and point out patterns that might be getting in the way of your growth. And when they do, your knee-jerk reaction might be to deflect, crack jokes or get angry.
This is because it’s not easy to acknowledge when you’re getting in your own way. “You may feel shame or disappointment, and instead of letting yourself feel these emotions, you avoid them or become defensive,” Zarrabi said.
The fix: If you’re feeling a strong reaction to something your therapist has said, pay attention. “This feeling is trying to communicate something important to you,” Zarrabi said.
Take a minute before reacting and let yourself process how you’re feeling ― slow down, observe the feelings and physical sensations, thoughts that bubble up, and then decide how to proceed.
It may not be fun, and it may take a lot of practice, but odds are you’ll end up learning valuable information about your own patterns, which can ultimately lead to greater self-awareness and growth, Zarrabi added.
You exaggerate to communicate how badly you feel
When you’re upset, exaggeration can be a go-to way of communicating how awful you feel. “It can also function to increase the probability that you’ll get the response you’re seeking from the other party,” Fleck said.
Therapists see this a lot in clients who’ve experienced significant invalidation ― say, because their emotions are frequently dismissed or overlooked by others.
The fix: “Remember that exaggeration is a subtle form of self-invalidation,” Fleck said. “You’re basically communicating to yourself that your problems or experiences don’t warrant the reaction you’re having.”
Besides clearly telling your therapist what happened, practice telling your therapist (and, eventually, others) exactly what you need from them in that moment in order to feel heard or understood. This can take time to figure out, but therapy is the perfect space to identify and learn how to communicate your needs.
You’re relying on therapy for validation
“Validation’s an important part of therapy, and often involves the therapist highlighting the client’s strengths and helping them acknowledge the progress they’ve made, as well as the growth they’ve experienced,” Zarrabi said.
The goal is to help the client learn how to trust themselves and strengthen their inner validation.
If you find that you don’t feel good when positive things happen, like reaching an important goal, because your therapist isn’t there to validate them, this could be a sign that you’re relying too heavily on therapy for external validation.
“Perhaps you don’t feel that you’re getting validation from other relationships in your life, so you seek it primarily from your therapist,” Zabbari said.
The fix: If you notice this happening and are concerned about it, bring it up with your therapist, who can help you explore the underlying reasons for this pattern, and work with you to establish ways of validating yourself.
You can also work on this pattern between sessions by taking note of each time you make progress or changes. Ask yourself, “If a friend told me about these changes they’ve made, how would I respond?” Then practice applying these supportive statements to yourself.
You use therapy to fill a relationship void in your life
Your bond with your therapist is one of trust and safety, but it’s also tricky to define. It’s not familial. It’s also not a friendship or romantic relationship ― yet your therapist is who you turn to when you’re lonely or find yourself emotionally isolating yourself from others.
Naturally, your mind attempts to fit your connection into a category it’s more familiar with (friend, partner, co-worker), and this can lead to feelings of confusion or wanting more out of the relationship, Bouffard said.
The fix: Be honest with yourself. Are you getting enough social time outside of therapy, or are you using your therapist as your primary source of emotional connection?
“Bringing up any feelings of closer-than-client connection you might be having can be great fodder to learn more about any missing needs in your day-to-day life,” Bouffard said.
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.
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