If you ever feel like a deer in headlights when asked to talk about yourself, I empathize. Whether it’s one of those dreaded get-to-know-you icebreakers or your therapist asking you a question, having to talk about yourself is uncomfortable for many people. By now, I’ve been in mental health treatment for several years, and I have a few tips for therapy I’d like to offer.
When I first sought therapy for myself, I found it extremely difficult to engage with it fully. If you don’t like being the center of attention, beginning therapy can be overwhelming. After all, the entire point of it is to focus on you. Early on, talking about myself in therapy felt, at times, nearly unbearable. Too many questions too fast made me shut down, and too loose of a structure lead to lots of awkward silences, both of us waiting for the other to say something. Over time, however, I’ve gotten much better at it. Here are some of the ways I’ve found to help me feel more comfortable about talking about myself in therapy.
Any list of tips for therapy wouldn’t be complete without a soapbox moment about the therapeutic relationship. It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting therapy or you’ve been in it for a while; it’s vital that you like your therapist. The struggle of talking about yourself will be even worse if you don’t feel understood or accepted in therapy. In fact, research shows that therapy is much more effective when you and your therapist click. Don’t feel bad about shopping around or about switching therapists if it’s just not working out.
Secondly, remember that therapy sessions are for you. Push yourself out of your comfort zone, but go at your own pace. Therapy is your time to do with it what you will.
Communicate what you want to get from sessions
This is a tough one. There’s a lot that falls under this umbrella, but mostly what I mean by it is: tell your therapist if you would like to direct the topic of each session or be given more structure. Maybe it’s hard to talk about yourself because answering questions feels too probative, and you’d rather start off with a narrative. I prefer to have more structured questions because if I’m given free rein, I go blank and have absolutely nothing to say. Regardless of which end of the spectrum you’re on, your therapist is always there to help direct you and keep you on track.
Practice saying how you feel
I struggle hardcore with identifying how I feel. Maybe it’s sensory processing disorder, maybe it’s Maybelline. Sensory discrimination issues have extended into the emotional realm and mean that I often don’t know how I feel about something. If you have a hard time verbalizing how you feel, my advice is to practice. It sounds silly, but just as if you were a little kid, practice saying “I feel ____” and then fill in the blank with something more specific than “okay” or “fine.” Even on your own, check in with yourself; am I feeling excited? Lethargic? Irritated? It really does start to feel more natural over time.
I also find that using metaphors breaks the tension and allows me to communicate more comfortably. For example, my therapist and I talk about “clams” instead of “goals” because the very mention of goals used to make me a sweaty, anxious tear factory. The Potato Scale of Depression is another way that I like to remove a little of the scrutiny from myself and package it up in a statement about mashed potatos or soggy gnocci. There are many ways to get used to talking about your feelings!
Make the Space Comfortable
Of course, it’s not your office. You can’t go swapping out furniture and changing the overhead lights. But you can do some things to make the space more comfortable for you. A therapist I saw in college noticed that I have a very wide bubble of personal space and offered to move her chair a little further away from me. You can ask to close the blinds if it’s too bright for you, bring a small blanket to help you feel cozy, and be sure to wear comfortable clothing.
Stay (Mildly) Busy
Something that I learned in occupational therapy but haven’t put into practice (maybe I should!) is that talking about difficult things is often easier when your hands are busy. Bring a coloring book, a fidget toy, or a craft- if you’re a knitter, crocheter, or have some other portable project. Of course, this is one of my tips for therapy clients that is only good advice as long as your therapist doesn’t need you to be completely present during your work together. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
For us reticent folks, therapy can be scary even just to think about. But, like so many things in life, working on what’s difficult often leads to the best outcomes. With time and practice, talking about yourself in therapy gets easier, especially if you find what will support you and then advocate for yourself.