Stop Worrying about Talking Too Much in Therapy
There’s a lot more going on than how much or how fast you share, and your therapist knows this
You’d think someone with the gift of gab would have the time of their life in talk therapy. Instead, my first stent in treatment left me feeling painfully self-aware and, ironically, more anxious than when I arrived. The questions raced through my mind as I drove home.
Did I just steamroll that poor woman who could hardly get a word in edgewise?
Was that 37th story I shared even relevant?
Was she bored to tears?
Was that even therapy?
I considered never going back, just to avoid making the same embarrassing mistake.
But I did go back. And each week, I found myself moving further and further down the long-windedness spectrum. At the end of my fourth session, after a long exposition on the dismal state of my marriage during which I hardly stopped for breath, I turned to the therapist and asked, “Am I talking too much?”
Her eyes widened, as if caught off guard. Then she straightened herself and cocked her head.
“You’re worrying about my experience,” she observed. “You care what I think of you. But this is your space. If you want to talk, I’m here to listen.”
Then she added with a wry smile, “you know, either way, at the end of the day, you’re still paying me.”
The tables have turned. Eight years and a divorce later, I’ve become a counselor myself. Now I’m the one who listens to people talk at varying rates of speed and verbosity. At the agency where I attend to survivors of domestic violence, something I’ve observed is that there are a lot of accommodating people concerned with whether or not their therapist is having a good time.
To be honest, I have found myself questioning boundaries with some of my more loquacious clients. Some communicate in a rush of anxious energy, repeating their most upsetting stories, growing gradually more heated as they describe the details. I don’t always understand the necessity of all the details. I don’t always understand the purpose of sharing the story in the first place.
And sometimes, when I try to put in a word, I am quickly interrupted.
People often use therapy for venting, or letting off verbal steam, which is not in itself a bad thing. If my client is mindfully venting, meaning that they remember the point of the story they’re telling, and can see how an experience led to a new thought or a new lesson, what may initially seem like verbal vomit may actually be helpful and healing to the client. Therapeutic space can be a sounding board, a place to be heard and validated. And ultimately, to learn.
On the other hand, if the seemingly endless verbal stream lacks self-awareness, it can actually be a form of disassociation. Disassociation is a sort of mental fog, a blocking out of the present moment. Often it is a direct result of trauma. Dissociation is a valuable coping mechanism and has a purpose, but the point of therapy is to create a safe, secure space where coping mechanisms can be put to the side for a moment. A place where the habit of slipping away from the present is not needed.
Something I’m learning to do better as a clinician is to be more mindful of the client’s mental/emotional state. I start each session with a mindfulness exercise, like deep breathing or meditation, with the hope that over time our healing space will feel like one where the client can enter and immediately feel at ease. I often make an audible deep breathing sound in between the more breathless stories or sentences, as a way for them to remember to breathe. Since many of my sessions right now are over the phone, I offer verbal cues regularly to remind my clients I am here. I am listening.
But perhaps the most helpful thing I have done to help us connect is to be more mindful of my own body’s reaction to my client’s sharing. I have noticed that their anxiety level, expressed in their communication style, affects my own anxiety level. We are taught as counselors to understand and empathize with our clients, so this is natural!
When I am able to keep this perspective — in effect, floating above the interaction between us, accepting that there is a sort of dance between us as each of our emotions interact with the other person’s — I am more easily able to imagine how a good, curious question at this point, or a careful observation at another, might actually turn a mindless, word vomit moment into one where the client suddenly becomes self-aware.
I’m also learning to stay focused on the reality that each one of my clients, as a survivor of domestic violence, has a history of having power stripped away from them. Many have lived at the margins of society, socio-economically, racially, or otherwise, and many have had few platforms for sharing their pain. Sharing to the point of oversharing can be a trauma response to being gaslit repeatedly; it’s an effort to finally be heard after years of being silenced.
When my clients share at length, it is because they feel safe to do so. I can feel honored to be the recipient of such a brave and vulnerable act of opening up. Even more, having my voice interrupted may be a moment where a bit of power has been levelled. This should be celebrated! After all, someone who interrupts is someone who is learning that their voice is one worth listening to.
Healing doesn’t take place in an environment of dominance and unchecked power. It happens when people feel comfortable, believed, and heard, valued for who they are as a unique human being with unique thoughts and experiences. My work as a counselor is to be mindful of my own feelings and thoughts, and to model this kind of self-awareness for my client.
And my work as a client, with my own therapist, is to stay focused and present too. To value the connection we’ve made. To lean into the relationship, trusting that it can handle my chatterbox tendencies now and then. To learn how to be okay with the fact that sometimes, I might even be a little annoying. After all, what relationship between two people doesn’t eventually result in one of them feeling a little annoyed?
My work is to accept that I am growing and learning, a process that doesn’t happen overnight.
The therapeutic relationship is a strange one— caught somewhere between the intimacy of a romantic partner, and the professionalism of the person handing you your lunch over the counter — so there are bound to be awkward moments when you wonder if you’ve spoken out of turn, revealed more than is necessary, or blurted out something you wish you could take back. The great thing about therapy, which my first therapist pointed out so wittily, is that this is an exchange — his or her listening ear, for your money. So it’s a great place to practice whatever it is you need to practice in real life — it’s what you’re paying for!
Want to know if you talk too much? Ask your therapist. Be direct. Explain your thought process. And be ready to answer questions about why you asked in the first place and what are other situations that make you feel like you’re “too much.” A good therapist will care enough to wonder about such things.