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How to Get More Comfortable Opening Up in Therapy

By Stacey Nash
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
March 01, 2024

Committing to therapy isn't always an easy decision, even if it can help you lead a happier and healthier life. Starting is often the hardest part, especially when it comes to getting comfortable discussing difficult experiences or lesser-known parts of yourself in session.

Research suggests that clients may struggle to open up in session because they have fears about confronting difficult emotions, feel embarrassed or ashamed, or don't feel close enough to their therapist to bring up more sensitive topics.

If you find yourself struggling to let your guard down in therapy, these tips may help you feel more comfortable and work toward greater vulnerability.

Start Small

It may seem simple, but you can lay a foundation for more openness by letting your therapist know you're struggling to be more candid. "Be honest about your discomfort, don't hide it," suggests David Tzall, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist based in New York City. "Your therapist is there to help you work through those feelings and find ways to make therapy more comfortable for you."

Set Goals

Even if you're not ready to talk about a particularly challenging experience or emotion, that doesn’t mean you can’t set goals around it. Research suggests that goal-setting in therapy may help people with anxiety and depression build a better relationship with their practitioner, make things feel more manageable, and feel more supported.

Work with your therapist to set even just one goal. "Be clear about the emotions or behaviors you want to understand or change," suggests Ely Schneider, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Florida.

Maybe you feel shame around having a short temper, but want to talk about it briefly in each session until you feel comfortable with more in-depth dialogue. Or, perhaps you're dealing with a death in the family and want to talk about what you miss about the person before you're ready to discuss the more challenging aspects of the loss.

Write It Out

Some may find it easier to discuss complex feelings and experiences in writing. You could try writing your thoughts down and bringing them to your session or sending them to your therapist ahead of time in an email. Some forms of therapy even incorporate writing exercises to promote personal growth and emotional processing.

If you find writing to be a beneficial outlet, talk to your therapist about how you might make it part of your treatment.

Celebrate Progress

Note your progress, no matter how big or small, and make a point of rewarding yourself. "Use small victories as motivation to continue working toward your goals," Tzall says. Some days there will be breakthroughs. Other times, you might feel like you’ve taken a few steps back.

Try to be patient with yourself and remember progress doesn’t always come on the timeline we expect, but it does happen. "Engage in self-care activities, and remember that even small steps are forward movement," Schneider adds.

Be Open to Homework

"While therapy can be incredibly effective, it's not a cure-all—it takes work," Schneider says. "Realize that much of this work occurs outside of your one-hour therapy session." Your therapist may give you brief assignments, ranging from simple breathing exercises and reading materials to journaling, to complete between sessions.

Research suggests that completing these assignments may lead to better treatment outcomes. Assignments from your therapist may help you develop habits or challenge beliefs that ultimately make it easier for you to open up in session.

Know When to Move On

If small steps toward greater comfortability don’t seem to be working, it may be time to find a new practitioner. There are other signs it may be time to break up with your therapist, like having to repeatedly remind him or her of the details of your personal history, or noticing they talk about themselves a lot.

Directories offered through the American Psychological Association and Psychology Today may be a good starting point to find a new therapist. And if you start to feel discouraged, remember that therapy is a journey, not a final destination, and finding the best fit may take time. It's worth it.

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