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88 Tips for How to Get the Most Out of Online Therapy
Several members of the OpenCounseling team have tried online counseling, and we’ve all been surprised by how effective it can be. When you find the right online therapist, you’re less focused on the fact you’re connecting over video than you are on how deeply you’re connecting, period. You simply think, “I’m going to therapy,” even if you’re only “going” as far as the other room.
For online therapy to be effective, you have to do more than just show up for your appointments, though. You have to be a smart shopper, choose your therapist wisely, and apply yourself during and in between sessions. Fortunately, we have some insights that will help. Read this week’s article to learn 88 different ways to get more out of online therapy. And if you feel ready to take the plunge, click here to sign up for online therapy with our sponsor, BetterHelp.
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General Tips for Starting Therapy
1. Understand your “why” for starting therapy.
You don’t have to be an expert on therapy to have an idea of what you want to get out of it. Do you need short-term therapy to address a specific issue or long-term therapy for holistic change? Are you seeking treatment for a mental health condition or a catalyst for personal growth? Understanding what you want to accomplish will help you get more out of therapy.
2. To make an informed choice, do the research.
Once you know what you want to get out of therapy, do the research by comparing platforms, therapists, and methods. The more information you get about their similarities and differences, the more you’ll be able to narrow down your options to the ones that will best meet your needs.
3. Learn more about how therapy works.
Understanding how therapy works will help you use the information in therapists’ profiles more effectively. It will also help you hit the ground running when you start working with a therapist. You don’t have to read a thick stack of books; just reading a few articles on the basic principles and methods of therapy will make a difference.
4. Consider costs.
Figure out what your different options cost. Does your insurance cover any of them? If not, how do independent practice rates compare to rates for online therapy platforms you’re considering? Therapy takes time, so making a financially sustainable choice is essential.
5. Be honest with yourself about whether you’re ready.
The most important ingredient in therapy is you. Even the best therapists can’t do much if you’re shut down and resistant to the process, while even mediocre therapists can make progress with you if you’re fully engaged.
Tips for Choosing the Right Therapist
6. Stalk therapists’ online profiles and take notes.
You might not be sure about what you want your therapist to be like. The easiest way to find out is to scroll through different therapists’ profiles and see which therapists feel right for you and which ones don’t. What do they have in common?
7. Figure out what kind of therapist you’d prefer.
Review the therapists in your “yes” and “no” folders. What do the ones who appeal most to you have in common? Does a therapist’s gender, cultural background, age, and spirituality matter to you? Which methods would you prefer your therapist to use?
8. Make sure that the therapist you choose reflects your preferences.
Know which of your preferences are deal-breakers if they’re not met. Don’t let a website’s algorithms or your insurance press you into compromising on what’s most important to you.
9. Make sure that the therapist you choose offers weekly live therapy sessions.
At OpenCounseling, we don’t believe messaging or live chat are equivalent to live video or voice sessions. You’ll be able to do deeper work and have an experience that more closely resembles traditional therapy if you choose a therapist who offers live video sessions.
10. Pick your own therapist instead of letting a platform pick for you.
If you choose an online therapy platform, don’t assume that the site’s algorithms will get it right. We had much more success choosing our own therapists than when we tried to let an online therapy platform choose our therapists for us.
11. Use intuition as well as research to choose your therapist.
When you’re choosing a therapist, your intuition is as important as your analysis of which methods might work best for you as a client. Starting with a therapist who not only meets your criteria but who also feels right to you will increase your chances of success.
12. In your first sessions, ask your therapist as many questions as you answer.
One of the benefits of online therapy platforms is that it’s easy to switch therapists. Think of your first session as a two-way interview where you can get a much clearer sense of whether you’ll work well together.
13. Don’t be shy about letting your therapist know if you don’t think they’re a good match.
Don’t let fear of hurting a therapist’s feelings hold you back. Your therapist understands that they’re not a good match for everyone, and they shouldn’t take it personally if you let them know you want to look for someone who’s a better fit for you.
14. Take advantage of the option to change your therapist if you need to.
It’s easy to change therapists on online therapy platforms, but it’s still worth the effort if you have to do it through old-fashioned research and phone calls. Nothing is as important in therapy as your relationship with your therapist, which depends on whether they’re a good match for you.
15. Be open to changing your mind about your therapist.
There is no fool-proof way to choose a therapist. Sometimes you don’t connect when you were sure you would, and sometimes a therapist you were lukewarm about wins you over by the third or fourth session. Keep an open mind and trust your intuition if something is telling you to stick it out a little longer.
Tips for Making Online Therapy Sessions More Effective
16. Identify your goals for therapy and make sure your sessions address those goals.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds in therapy, and sometimes you need to wander a while to figure out where you want to go. But you’re more likely to get somewhere if you pick a destination and aim for it.
17. Communicate with your therapist about your goals, ideally in your very first sessions.
Don’t be overawed by your therapist’s seeming status as an authority figure. Their knowledge of the human mind does not make them an expert on you. It’s not your therapist’s job to tell you what to do or what your goals should be. If you can tell them what you want to change and where you seem to be stuck, it will be easier for them to understand what they need to do to help you.
18. Explore whether you might have other goals besides the ones you think you have.
Therapy helps you understand yourself better. This means that over the course of therapy, you might realize that what you thought you wanted isn’t what you actually want. Be open to the process and be willing to re-route if your inner GPS starts pointing you in a new direction.
19. Regularly check in with your therapist about your goals and your progress.
The less passive you are in therapy, the more progress you’ll make. It’s normal to get stuck, but you’ll overcome obstacles faster if you actively explore them with your therapist. Keep coming back to what confuses you or makes you uncomfortable; your persistence will pay off.
20. Ask your therapist questions when you don’t understand something.
If your therapist says something you don’t understand, you may just need a quick clarification or it might be a signal you need to delve into the topic in more depth. Ask questions to go deeper.
21. Let your therapist know if you’d prefer more or less feedback from them.
Some therapists are more active and give feedback more regularly. Others give minimal feedback and let you do most of the talking. If your therapist’s approach doesn’t work for you, let them know. They may be able to adjust their technique or refer you to a therapist whose style is better suited to you.
22. Give your therapist feedback about the pace and intensity of your sessions.
Some therapy interventions work more slowly, while others are more like therapeutic TNT. The art of therapy is applying the right intervention at the right time; the process can’t be forced, and powerful methods won’t work if you’re not ready. That said, your therapist needs to know what works for you. Let them know if you feel ready to push harder or if you need to slow down.
23. It’s okay to chat with your therapist, but make sure you’re doing more than just chatting.
It’s natural to chat with your therapist a bit at the start of the session, but try not to let the chit-chat go on too long. Chatting can become a way of avoiding yourself and can blur boundaries that need to be in place for therapy to be effective.
24. Expect and be willing to feel uncomfortable during your sessions.
In therapy, you can talk about subjects you can’t talk about with anyone else and express feelings you might not be able to express elsewhere. This can be liberating but can also be uncomfortable. Lean into any discomfort you feel when you’re expressing yourself; it’s often a sign of growth.
25. However, certain kinds of discomfort can be red flags.
Ethical therapists maintain strict and clear boundaries with clients. Your therapist should never make sexual advances or invite you into their life outside of the therapy room. If your therapist is trying to get you to do something that doesn’t feel right, trust your instincts and walk away.
26. Let the emotions flow during your therapy sessions.
If you feel like crying when you’re in therapy, let yourself cry. The emotions therapy unlocks are gateways that will lead you deeper into yourself and that will advance the therapeutic process.
27. It’s okay to get angry.
It’s normal to get angry at your therapist at some point. Sometimes it’s projection; sometimes it’s because they got something wrong. Anger can be a key in therapy, but it will only open doors if you use it. Holding back how you feel out of “politeness” will hold you back in therapy.
28. Share as much with your therapist as possible.
Everyone has secrets, and you’re not required to tell your therapist every secret you have. However, the more you tell your therapist, the deeper therapy will get. Sharing something that you find difficult to share can strengthen your relationship and lead to breakthroughs.
29. If something weird pops into your head, tell your therapist about it.
One of the oldest ideas in therapy is the idea of free association—that sometimes, if you just let yourself ramble about whatever pops into your head, it will reveal what’s under the surface of your awareness. So, blurt that sudden thought or share that weird image you just saw in your mind’s eye—you might be surprised by the insights you can get from it.
30. Expect to dig deep and talk about your childhood and younger years.
It’s a cliché that a therapist will ask you about your childhood, but it’s a cliché for a reason. What happened when you were younger had a huge impact on your psyche, and you’ll need to explore it to understand yourself at the deepest level and to heal your oldest emotional wounds.
31. Don’t expect every issue you address in therapy to be rooted in childhood.
However, not all of our wounds and patterns have their origin in childhood. Sometimes, a singular event in adulthood alters the course of your life. Anything that shaped how you think and feel about life and yourself is important to explore in therapy.
32. Don’t assume that all of your problems are equally complicated.
Some problems are deeply rooted and require years of work to untangle. Others require only a few sessions to address. Not everything you examine in therapy has to be deep; it’s worth it to bring simpler issues to therapy, too, especially when you can resolve them quickly.
33. Talk to your therapist about what’s happening in the moment.
Usually, therapy focuses on processing things that happened outside of the therapy room. But some of the most powerful insights come from exploring what just happened in a session, such as a feeling that came up toward your therapist as they were talking.
34. Don’t waste time trying to get your therapist to take sides in a dispute.
It’s tempting to want your therapist to validate you by agreeing that someone in your life was or is a total jerk. But your therapist is there to help you understand yourself, and it’s hard to do that if you’re keeping the focus on someone else. It’s more productive to study your own feelings and behavior so you can deal with that jerk more effectively.
35. Keep an open mind when your therapist suggests a different approach.
As your therapist gets to know you better, they may recommend trying a new approach in your sessions. Keep an open mind—whether the experiment is effective or not, you will undoubtedly learn something important about yourself by trying it.
Tips for Managing Technical Issues
36. If there are any technical issues impeding the quality of your sessions, address them.
If your computer or phone is struggling to run the software you use to connect to your therapist, check to see if you need to update your operating system or the app you’re using. If that doesn’t work, reach out to customer service. It’s hard to have effective sessions when you’re dealing with technical issues.
37. Make sure you have a high-speed internet connection that supports high-quality streaming video.
Most internet service providers offer high speed by default these days, but if your connection isn’t fast enough, consider upgrading it to support your therapy sessions.
38. If any background distractions at home are interfering with therapy, address them.
If children or pets are interrupting your sessions in a way that’s more disruptive than cute, close a door. Put your phone on silent and tell family members or housemates not to interrupt you during this important time.
39. Let your therapist know if there seem to be any connection issues on their end.
If you’re having trouble seeing or hearing your therapist, or their connection suddenly drops out, let them know. They may not realize they are having technical issues.
40. Reboot and reconnect as needed.
Disconnecting and reconnecting an online therapy session only takes seconds, but it will often fix any technical issues you were having.
Tips for What to Do When You're Not in Session
41. Use the messaging feature.
While we don’t recommend using messaging in place of live sessions, we believe it’s a great support for them. Send your therapist messages about things that come up during the week to get immediate feedback or so you can remember to talk about them in your next session.
42. Use any other features your online therapy platform offers to share or review information.
Some online therapy platforms have places where you can review session notes or read articles or other documents your therapist sends you. Some even have places where you can track or log the information you need for your sessions. Use them!
43. Do any homework that your therapist assigns you.
Therapy doesn’t work well if you don’t apply what you’re learning outside of your sessions. If your therapist asks you to track your moods, keep a journal, or try a specific exercise, you’ll make a lot more progress if you do that homework and talk about it in your next session.
44. Do homework even if your therapist doesn’t assign you any.
Find your own ways to apply insights from your sessions to your daily life. For example, you could try communicating with a partner in a different way or try redirecting negative self-talk. Being proactive and creative in your daily life will help you get more out of therapy.
45. Journal on the topics or themes that come up in sessions.
One of the most useful tools for therapy homework is a journal. You can do guided journaling or freewrite and see what comes up as the ink hits the page. Journaling will help you organize your thoughts and generate insights. It will also reveal important issues to bring up in your sessions.
46. Explore new perspectives you’ve discovered in therapy with other people you trust.
You don’t have to tell people what you’re doing in therapy or even that you’re in therapy to explore your therapeutic insights with them. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your loved ones by seeing how they respond to ideas and perspectives they’re not used to hearing from you.
47. Be smart about what you do and don’t share with others about your therapy experiences.
There’s nothing shameful about therapy. More people than ever are embracing it as an essential part of their self-care toolkits. That said, the things that happen in the therapy room are sensitive and easily misunderstood. Be wise about what you share and with whom.
48. Maintain boundaries in your relationships to protect the work you’re doing in therapy.
Sometimes, therapy helps you realize you need to cut a toxic person out of your life. At other times, you see that you simply need better boundaries with someone. Honor those insights. Practice telling people “no” and refusing to engage in toxic dynamics with them.
49. Notice if ideas, feelings, or memories that came up in a session come up later in the week.
Sometimes therapy brings up emotions and thoughts that fade like dreams, only for them to pop back up days later. Pay attention when this happens and tell your therapist. What is trying to come to the surface?
50. Track thoughts, emotions, or behaviors you want to understand and change.
Tracking your moods or thoughts is generally useful and especially important if you’re trying to recover from anxiety, depression, or another mental health condition. By tracking your thoughts and feelings, you can start to learn what your triggers are.
51. Look for patterns in what you’re tracking and tell your therapist about them.
You can go deeper than just learning your triggers and avoiding them. As you notice larger, more complex patterns in your feelings and behavior, you can start to uncover deeper roots. Exploring these complexes with your therapist can yield powerful insights.
52. Read books, watch movies, and listen to music or podcasts that connect with what you’re exploring in therapy.
Stories are central to the human experience, not least because of their therapeutic power. Reading or listening to stories similar to your own can be cathartic and validating. It can help you build on the insights you’re having in therapy or give you entirely new insights.
53. Express emotions that come up in therapy using the creative medium you enjoy most.
Everyone has a creative side. Connecting with it can be therapeutic in itself, especially if you’ve neglected it. It’s even more powerful when you can use painting, writing, music, or another favorite medium to express your emotions and give them meaning.
54. If your therapist suggests concrete steps to apply to specific situations, try them out.
It can be challenging when your therapist recommends trying a different approach with a triggering situation, especially if it involves another person. But you can take your therapy to the next level if you push through your resistance. You can even transform your insights from the therapy room into new ways of feeling and being in the world.
55. After you try what your therapist recommended, let them know how it went.
Not everything you or your therapist come up with in the therapy room works outside of it. Sometimes trying a different approach doesn’t give you the outcome you want, but it can still give you insight if you talk to your therapist about it.
56. Don’t beat yourself up when you try to do your homework but can’t.
Sometimes you have the best intentions but just can’t do your therapy homework. Some of the changes you want to make will be harder than others; be kind to yourself and give yourself time.
57. Be honest with your therapist when you can’t do your homework.
There’s no reason not to tell your therapist that you didn’t do your homework—they can’t send you to the principal’s office. Exploring why you might be avoiding something is an important part of therapy. The insights you gain can help you do what you couldn’t do before.
58. Apply yourself in between sessions, but don’t over-apply yourself.
One way to sabotage yourself in therapy is to never apply what you’re learning. Another way is to therapize your life to the extent that everything becomes overly serious—and exhausting. Go deep where it’s important, but let yourself keep it light where you can so you don’t burn out.
59. Maintain a sense of humor even when the work you’re doing is serious.
Humor is one of our healthiest psychological defenses and one of our most important coping tools. Being able to laugh at yourself (in a kind, compassionate way) or at the absurdity of certain challenging situations makes it easier to enjoy the process and keep going.
60. Take time for simple self-care.
Some of the self-care practices that pair well with therapy can be kind of intense. Journaling and meditation are valuable and powerful tools, but you also need simple and relaxing self-care activities to help you recharge. Take a mental break when you need one by taking a bath, reading a guilty pleasure book, or watching your favorite TV shows.
61. Take therapy with you.
One of the great things about online therapy is that you can take it with you. Decide whether to have a session when you’re traveling for business or are on vacation. Sometimes it’s exactly what you need, but sometimes you need time off from therapy, too.
62. Take a break sometimes.
You don’t need to wait for a scheduled vacation to take a week off. There’s a rhythm to therapy, and sometimes you need a rest. Let your therapist know if you need to skip a session to let some of your latest insights sink in.
63. Think about what you’re working on in therapy, but don’t overthink it.
You might be tempted to keep turning the same thoughts over and over after a session, but your brain works better when you can take your mind off of your problems. While you daydream or think about something else, your subconscious can resolve problems you couldn’t consciously figure out.
64. Do something that scares you.
Therapy helps us face and overcome our fears. In addition to the therapy homework you’re doing, it can help to do something random that scares you, like trying a new physical or social activity. This can help you build courage and resilience that you can apply to your work in therapy.
65. Remember that everything is fuel for growth if you’re willing to learn from it.
Therapy helps you understand yourself better so that the changes you make are more authentic and effective. Sometimes what looks like failure can actually be the beginning of a powerful change. Seeing that you’re brave or strong enough to try something that scared you can be more important to your growth than the results of what you did.
Tips for Building a Better Relationship with Your Therapist
66. Understand the nature of the therapeutic relationship.
The therapeutic relationship is unique. You’ll get alienated from your therapist if you expect your relationship with them to be like your relationships with friends and family. To do their jobs well, therapists need to limit how much they share about themselves and focus more on listening to you.
67. Expect to have difficult feelings and reactions toward your therapist.
Transference occurs when you transfer feelings you have toward your parents or other significant figures in your life onto your therapist. You assume your therapist thinks or feels like those people and you react intensely to it. When this starts to happen, it can be rocky, but hold on—if you work through the transference instead of shutting down or ending therapy, you can have powerful breakthroughs.
68. Get comfortable with silence.
Some therapists are more active than others, but all of them use silence to some extent. When your therapist pauses, take it as an invitation to reflect or let something that just happened sink in. Resist the urge to always fill in the silences.
69. Don’t just assume your therapist knows something.
It’s easy to misinterpret a therapist’s silence as a knowing silence, but your therapist is human, too. Even though therapists are skilled at reading nonverbal signals, they sometimes miss them. If you’re wondering why your therapist hasn’t responded to something, point it out and ask. This will help to counter misunderstanding and build your relationship.
70. Don’t take time constraints personally.
In order to see multiple clients, therapists have to stick to their schedules. It’s also an important tool in therapy for your therapist to hold you accountable about time. Show up on time and don’t expect your therapist to let the session run over because you suddenly had a brilliant insight two minutes before your session was supposed to end. When your therapist has to cut you off to end the session on time, it’s not because they don’t care about you.
Qualities You Need to Succeed in Therapy
71. Be curious.
Your parents might have given you a complex about the consequences of being too curious when you were little, but curiosity is one of the most important traits to have as an adult. The more you want to know about yourself and the world, the more you’ll learn, and the more you learn, the better equipped you’ll be to make the changes you want to make.
72. Be open-minded.
One of the ways we get ourselves stuck is by thinking that there’s only one way to do something. We also get ourselves stuck by holding on to fixed ideas of who we are. Let therapy, your therapist—and yourself—change your mind about who you can be and what you can do.
73. Be observant.
Therapy’s a little like detective work. Where is the block, and what is it? The best way to find the clues and get on the trail is to notice how you react both inside and outside of your sessions. The more you can keep an eye on yourself, the more likely you’ll be to see where you’re getting stuck.
74. Be motivated.
We all struggle with motivation sometimes; it can be a big part of what brings us to therapy. But to succeed in therapy, you need to be motivated enough to do the work in and out of sessions. If you find your motivation flagging, do some self-examination and see if it’s time to take a break.
75. Be honest.
When you’re honest with your therapist, it makes it easier for you to be honest with yourself. Notice what you want to hold back, then work up the courage to talk about it with your therapist.
76. Be brave.
As human beings, we instinctively avoid pain, including what hurts us emotionally. We go a long way to avoid having certain thoughts or feelings. Notice when you’re resisting something and see if you can work up the courage to face it. This will open new doors for you both in and outside of therapy.
77. Be vulnerable.
An important part of bravery is vulnerability. When you’re brave, you put yourself in situations that make you vulnerable to feeling or being hurt. As you learn how to be vulnerable with your therapist, you learn how to be vulnerable with others—and how to be yourself fully, with less fear.
78. Be creative.
If you’re feeling stuck, it’s probably because you’re playing out the same old patterns that haven’t been working in your life. Collaborate with your therapist to come up with a new approach. Experimenting requires trying ideas that fail, but it’s also the only way to find new ideas that work.
79. Be compassionate.
You’ve got to be kind for therapy to work—especially to yourself. As you heal, you may notice you’re becoming more forgiving of others, but for your newfound compassion to stick, you’ll have to forgive yourself, too. Your dysfunctional strategies and habits developed because they helped you get through something at some point. It’s okay to be where you are now.
80. Be deeper than you think you can be.
We often cut off our own insights because of the way we’ve been conditioned by our culture. We learn to judge and reject thoughts that make others uncomfortable or that counter our societal narrative. To overcome the thinking that’s holding you back, you’ll need to go deep and question the stories that you’ve used to fit in.
Tips for Ending Therapy at the Right Time
81. Understand ethical standards for therapy and walk away if your therapist violates them.
Sometimes, when therapy isn’t working, it’s because you’re not with the right therapist. The worst is when you end up with an unethical therapist who tries to take advantage of their relationship with you. If your therapist crosses the line with you, walk away.
82. It might be time to quit if you’ve been in therapy for too long without making progress.
Sometimes, when therapy isn’t working, it’s because you’ve gotten as much out of it as you can (at least for now). If you notice that you haven’t made progress in therapy in a long time, it may be time to quit or take a break.
83. Establish a realistic timeline for achieving your goals so you don’t quit therapy prematurely.
Sometimes, therapists can help you work through a specific problem in a month or two. But if you’re trying to change some of your more fundamental patterns or to get past a place where you’ve been stuck for years, be realistic about how much time it will take to make those changes.
84. Be realistic about your budget and the consequences of going over that budget.
In a better world, money wouldn’t be the reason anyone made mental health decisions. But in our imperfect world, sometimes you have to make decisions based on what you can afford. If your therapist raises their rates, or your financial situation changes, you might need to stop or take a break. This is especially worth considering when you’ve made progress and are stable, but haven’t reached all of your therapeutic goals. Evaluate whether making further progress now is worth the financial hardship. Consider coming back when you can budget for it again.
85. Recognize the difference between a patch of rough road and a dead end.
In therapy, you’ll face parts of yourself you normally avoid. Expect to hit rough patches as you go along. Frustration, regression, and feeling stuck are all part of the process. One way to know when it’s truly time to quit is not when therapy feels hard, but when it starts to feel easy, shallow, or repetitive. Another sign it’s time to quit is when therapy no longer seems to have much of an effect on your life outside of the therapy room.
Three Bonus Tips
86. If you’re trying BetterHelp, use our alternate way to choose your therapist.
If you’re considering signing up with our sponsor, BetterHelp, and have specific questions about their platform, we recommend reading our BetterHelp FAQ. Among other information, you can find our insider’s tip for how to choose your own therapist instead of letting the site choose for you.
87. Read some of our other articles on how to get more out of therapy.
Most of the things you need to do to get the most out of online therapy are the same as what you need to do to get the most out of traditional therapy. For a deeper dive, read some of our other articles on the process:
88. Just do it.
It’s possible to have bad or mediocre experiences in therapy. It’s possible to start at the wrong time and not get much out of it. But based on our experiences and the research, therapy almost always helps. So, if you’re stuck in a quagmire of doubt, just do it. Just try therapy and see what happens. You might be surprised
Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments.