During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Nadia K., 27, faced an unforeseen challenge: Her relationship started falling apart. Usually, she’d talk to her therapist about things like this, but her appointments were now virtual. They took place in the 1-bedroom apartment that Nadia and her boyfriend lived (and worked) in together.
When it was time for her therapy sessions, Nadia would go into the couple’s bedroom, and her boyfriend would listen to a podcast with headphones on in the living room. She trusted that he would never eavesdrop on her sessions. “He was very pro-therapy, and I know he wouldn’t cross that boundary,” Nadia tells SELF. But she was still anxious. “Therapy is the most intimate thing, and to think that someone could potentially be listening…is horrifying,” she says.
Even for people who aren’t breaking up with someone they love, the coronavirus pandemic has brought significant challenges to the surface—issues folks might want to process with a therapist (and only a therapist). Blake B., a 26-year-old law student, spent the first few weeks of the pandemic at his parents’ house, where he attempted to do online therapy from his childhood bedroom. Although his parents’ house is big enough that they were able to give him space, Blake still had a fear that his mom was listening. “Not that I don’t trust her, but I know my mom would love to hear what I’m talking about in therapy because she thinks it’s all her fault,” Blake tells SELF.
On top of trying to make sure his parents couldn’t hear him, Blake says it was disorienting to work through childhood and adolescence issues while being in the physical space where they happened. He avoided certain topics, especially if they had to do with his experience as a gay man or involved his parents. Although he was still working through issues with them, he didn’t want to “drag them” back into it. He’d forgiven them, he says, but he was still working through it on his own.
It might seem that, over a year into the pandemic, people have mastered the art of teletherapy. Still, the layers of difficulty that have cropped up over the last year are almost overwhelming: People were laid off en masse; millions of families were suddenly food- and rent-insecure. As SELF previously reported, it’s estimated that over 4 million people are grieving the death of a loved one due to COVID-19. The fact that people are finding ways to start and stay in therapy is remarkable, but teletherapy isn’t without its hiccups. You might’ve just started treatment and you’re trying to figure out what privacy looks like, or maybe you’re approaching sensitive topics and you’re suddenly feeling more self-conscious. While every situation is unique, there are steps you can take to make online therapy a better and safer option for you, Quincee Gideon, Psy.D., a trauma psychologist based in Los Angeles, tells SELF. Below you’ll find a few tried-and-true teletherapy tips for making virtual therapy a little bit more comfortable.
1. Know that you deserve a safe space to process—even if others have it worse.
It can be tempting to assume that if things are “not that bad” for you or “could be worse,” you should just be lucky to have any therapy sessions right now. It’s even possible that, over a year into the pandemic, you’ve kind of decided that being uncomfortable and cagey is just part of your therapeutic process. Gratitude is always a good thing, but you deserve a safe and private environment in which to connect with your therapist. “We’re trying to force positivity, which I think is really toxic,” Gideon says. So, if you’ve been feeling a little uncomfortable during your therapy sessions (or even dreading them), you can admit that things aren’t ideal right now. From there, you can try and brainstorm solutions (or use the ones below).
It’s also entirely possible that the lack of privacy and other inconveniences outweigh the pros of therapy right now. If you think that now simply isn’t the best time for treatment, don’t ghost your therapist. Instead, you should…
2. Talk to your therapist about any worries you have regarding online therapy.
It’s entirely possible that what feels like an impossible challenge is workable. For instance, maybe you clam up when you hear your roommate’s footsteps. Chatting about this with your therapist—or admitting it in an email—might result in you and your therapist coming up with a safe word that you can use when you’d like to change the subject quickly.
Another thing to note: Your therapist’s WFH situation may be contributing to your discomfort. Maybe their cat is adorable but kind of distracting. Again, it’s okay to speak openly with your therapist if you feel that their WFH environment isn’t particularly safe or private. Honest communication can only make the therapeutic process stronger.
Gideon says client-therapist communication has been critical in figuring out what works for the client. Although being honest with your therapist can feel uncomfortable (it can be hard to say “This isn’t working for me”), it’s their job to hear that feedback and adjust, Gideon says. If you’re worried about starting the conversation, try something like, “I want to talk about something, but I’m worried it might offend you.” Your therapist is trained to talk about difficulties and challenges, even when they include the therapeutic relationship.
3. Be open with the people in your household if it’s safe to do so.
It can seem like you have to be the one to relocate during therapy sessions—it’s your therapy session after all—but if everyone in your house knows (and respects) therapy time, then maybe everyone can work together to find a compromise. For instance, one of Gideon’s teletherapy tips is to simply ask your partner to take a 45-minute walk while you have your session. Maybe this is a prime opportunity for your housemates to run an errand. The key is to broach the subject sensitively and work with your housemates to find a solution. You might say, “Hey, when I talk to my therapist, I tend to feel really vulnerable and would love a little extra privacy. Would you mind listening to a podcast with headphones on while I have my sessions?” If you don’t trust them to actually listen to one, you might ask them to leave for a bit. If this seems like a major inconvenience, maybe you can offer to do something for them in return (like make a promise to give them private time when they need it). And if you don’t feel comfortable asking that of them—it’s okay. It could be something worth processing with your therapist, Gideon says.
4. Consider a white noise machine.
If your housemates aren’t able to head out while you have therapy, there might be a few workarounds. White noise machines, for instance, are awesome to help you get to sleep or drown out the sounds of your partner working in the next room. But they’re also great tools for anyone doing therapy from home. Blake’s boyfriend is a therapist who uses a white noise machine to ensure his clients’ privacy. Think about grabbing a low-cost white noise machine and setting it up just outside the room where you’re doing therapy. It can give you some much-needed peace of mind.
5. Get creative about finding space that works for you.
We’re over a year into the pandemic and many people have found their groove. “We got creative,” Gideon explains. Sometimes that meant they would do phone calls instead of video calls. Other times, patients would sit in their cars while they talked to Gideon. The guidelines are flexible here, and you and your therapist should work to find what’s best for you. Gideon says some of her clients sit inside their closets to protect their privacy.
6. Build a ritual around online therapy.
If you’re feeling uncomfortable because other people are home during your session, setting up a ritual might help you ease into a therapeutic mindset. Chelsey H., 30, used to be irritated by the hourlong drive to her therapist’s office, but she now finds herself missing it. “It was dedicated time to put my thoughts in order on the way there and then after—to process,” she tells SELF. “Now we live in our workplace, so as soon as I’m done with therapy, it’s on to the housework…or back to working. There’s not really time to sit with my thoughts.”
If you used to drive to your therapist’s office and stop for coffee before parking and walking in, think about recreating a version of that at home. Brew a cup of tea, get your favorite blanket for comfort, and set up a comfortable space. This can help you transition in and out of therapy even when you’re not changing your physical location.
7. Know that your needs might change (and change again).
What you need to feel comfortable during therapy may change from one session to the next. What worked for you in March 2020 might not work for you in 2021, and that’s okay! Be open to your ever-evolving needs, and listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Gideon says she asks her clients, “Do we need to be flexible right now?” This question serves as a signal and an invitation to switch things up.
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