Making Therapy Work for You Continued -- Tool 1: Take Off the Mask

06/18/2015 01:49 pm ET | Updated Jun 18, 2016
Marcin Balcerzak via Getty Images

This is the first in a series of posts in which I'll explain five tools that you can use to make your time in psychotherapy more effective. For an introduction see my post "10 Tips to Make Therapy Work for You". For details on all 10 tools, see my book, I'm Working On It In Therapy.

In the film Kissing Jessica Stein, Jessica is speaking with someone she's dating about an intimate struggle she's having. The friend asks her "Do you talk to your therapist about this?" Jessica tells her "Of course not. That's much too private." The line gets a laugh because we all know that it's important to tell your therapist everything. But it also highlights a struggle for people in therapy and for people considering going into therapy: How can you tell your deepest darkest secrets to a perfect stranger?

Virtually all of us want to be liked and understood by our therapist. It's human. And many of us fear that if we show them all the different parts of our personality, including the parts we're embarrassed by, they either won't like us or they will misunderstand us. But here's the deal: We all have a dark side -- you're not alone in this. And the more we try to deny that dark side, the worse it gets. Like a wound that's been under a bandage, it's going to need air and light to heal eventually. And therapy is a good place to start to air it out.

To get the most out of psychotherapy try to show as many of the different parts of your personality in your session as you can. We all wear masks -- personas -- to get along in less intimate settings such as professional situations, and to get through difficult times. Our personas may help us to appear polite, invulnerable, smart, helpless or anxious. They usually aren't a problem unless they exclude the other parts of our personality too much of the time. This mask has an important place in your life -- but that place isn't in therapy.

There's a paradox in therapy: It works best when you can give up trying to be a good client, whatever you think that means -- thoughtful, cooperative, expressive, compliant or diligent -- and let yourself be a bad client for a spell. Notice what you want to leave out -- the angry beast, the needy or vulnerable child, the indulgent sensualist, the righteous judge, the cynical misanthrope, the confident hero -- and allow all those parts to be expressed and seen in session. It's rare for people to out and out lie in therapy: the real issue is full disclosure.

We are our most emotionally healthy when all the contrasting parts of our personality are working together: the child and the parent, the angel and the devil, the strong and the weak, the emotional and the rational, and the hopeful and the guarded. Therapy helps us to identify these parts, to get to know them well, to personify them -- perhaps even give them a name and a face -- and to bring them into balance. But it's harder for your therapist to help you with this if you're holding them back.

What this means in terms of actual practice is to try to allow yourself to be very spontaneous in your sessions. Say whatever comes to mind no matter how irrelevant, silly or embarrassing it may seem to you. This may also mean letting tears flow, letting anger come out, or acknowledging shame or pride. Therapy serves as a safe place to start to experiment with letting these other parts come out. If you can take this approach, with time you'll start to notice parts that you weren't even aware were there.

If it's hard to be spontaneous, talk about that. It could be connected to the more obvious issues of depression or anxiety that may have brought you in. And if you don't feel ready to let certain parts of your personality be seen, tell your therapist. Just acknowledge to him or her that you're aware of wanting to block something. Simply saying that is a very important step. You don't have to actually show it until you're ready.

I understand therapy to be an additive process -- it's about including the parts of the personality that have been left out -- and you can help this process by noticing what you want to exclude. There is usually something redemptive in this excluded part, though it may take reflection to see what that is, and acceptance to find the positive possibilities buried at the core of it. In fact, it's often the missing part of your puzzle.

Another way to understand your work in therapy is to see it as a journey toward wholeness, so that eventually the different parts of the personality work together as harmoniously as possible. But you need to get them all to the bargaining table to bring that about. Your therapy sessions are a safe place to do that.

So part of your work is to eventually let these other parts of you into your sessions. And part of your work is to welcome these parts with acceptance and compassion -- not judgement. There's a reason these parts have developed as they have, and there's a reason why you've felt that you needed to exclude them. These are the cursed princes and princesses who appear to be frogs. They're going to need a little love from you to change.

I'll be posting again next week about what you can do to make your therapy work for you. Meanwhile, please leave us a comment and let us know what parts of your personality came out in therapy -- or what parts you'd like to leave out.