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What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Say in Therapy: An Illustrated Guide

Sometimes, even if you really like your therapist, it can be really difficult to talk in therapy. Words spoken in therapy can feel like they really matter. Compared to most relationships where words are often just filler, the same thing that makes therapy potentially really healing can also make speaking really hard- especially if you are introverted or not a particularly talkative person in the first place.

Having spent a lot of time in therapeutic silence, both as a therapist and as a client myself, I’ve learned that there are many ways to use silence constructively. Silence can tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationship with the person we are silent with. Silence can draw our attention to important data from our senses, or make space for us to communicate in nonverbal ways.

In short, I think as long as we don’t shame spiral or run towards panic-babbling, silence actually has the capacity to develop deeper relationships.

Six things to do when you feel like you don’t have anything to say in therapy:

1. Show your therapist some art, creative writing, or something else you made.

When you don't know what to say in therapy, you could show your therapist some art, creative writing, or something else you made. Image of a person's hands holding a piece of notebook paper that says "Show them some weird art or poetry you created."

Sometimes, one piece of art or poetry can communicate more than an entire hour filled with words could. Ask your therapist if it would be okay to share some art you brought, and feel free to say how you would like it to be engaged. (In other words, do you want them to try and interpret it? Do you want them to just enjoy it? Do you want them to see a particular thing in it? If you do, let them know.)

2. Describe the silence.

When you don't know what to say in therapy, you can try to describe the silence. Image of a person sitting in a chair, staring at a black scribble blob. The person is saying, "Umm.. It's big and dark. It reminds me of a boss I once had..."

Silence always has a particular flavor. There’s the energy of awkward silence, the heat of angry silence, the aching silence of grieving together, the chill of hopelessness, etc. One way to connect and find one another in silence is for one person to begin to put words to how they experience the silence.

Is it hot or cold? Dark or bright? Does it have a color? Does it smell? Is it rough or smooth? For some people, these questions may be nonsensical, but for others, this type of language connects and can create a bridge of communication across the silence.

3. Describe the relationship.

When you don't know what to say in therapy, you can try to describe the relationship. Image of a person in a chair, speaking to a therapy dog on the ground. In the speech bubble is written, "It feels like we speak two different languages."

We tend to think that when silence comes, it’s because there’s “just nothing to say,” but usually, it’s because something in the relationship is shaping that silence.

When we stop focusing on silence AS the problem and begin talking about what it feels like to be silent with the other person, often we may find that there is MUCH to be said. What is happening in the relationship that makes silence an easier option than talking? What is unsaid in the silence?

4. Describe sensations in your body.

When you don't know what to say in therapy, you can try to describe the sensations in your body. Image of a person on a couch, holding a pillow to their chest. In a speech bubble is written, "My stomach really hurts."

Our bodies are always communicating with us (and with each other via nonverbal communication), but often we live very disembodied lives. We may rarely listen to what our body is communicating through physical sensations.

Feelings like pain, fatigue, restlessness, tightness, etc. all give us data. Sometimes these feelings are difficult to interpret, especially if we’ve lived lives where we had to disconnect from many of our bodily sensations (this is common for many people, including trauma survivors, athletes, people who have experienced marginalization, etc.).

Letting another person in on the raw data – i.e. “my stomach hurts” or “my legs feel restless” – can help give voice to what our body is saying, even if we don’t how interpret it. The therapy space can become a context where the therapist and the client become curious together about what those sensations might mean – a rich source of conversation that can be facilitated through use of an emotion sensation feeling wheel.

5. Be silent together.

Silence is not a bad thing. Let me repeat that: SILENCE IS NOT A BAD THING. To be quiet with another person, and for both people to be brave enough to be present to each other in that silence, is an intimate and trust-building experience.

When silence descends, let it be. Treat it like an emotion that’s not necessarily wanted: trying to purge it or run away from it is rarely helpful, but noticing it, allowing it to be present and felt but not all-consuming, can help us move through it to work on the other side.

6. Do something together.

When you don't know what to say in therapy, you can do something together. Image of two people sitting at a drawing table. One person is drawing on a piece of paper with a marker. The other is pointing at the drawing.

Sometimes, what needs to be said can’t be said when sitting face to face. Therapists get this. Sometimes the body needs to move. Other times, the physical dynamics in the room need to shift in order for silence not to blanket the room.

Most therapists are open to changing up the typical talk therapy dynamic. Leaving the room to go for a walk together, playing a game (yes, even if you’re a grown-up!), or making art together are common ways to communicate and build trust beyond just sitting face to face than talking.

What to do when you don't know what to say in therapy. Image of a therapist and a client sitting together.

There can be a lot of pressure to talk in therapy. The pop-culture version of therapy is often one of a client talking aimlessly while a therapist nods or takes notes. In reality, therapy is a conversation, and it’s ok if that communication isn’t always verbal.

When you don’t know what to say, or feel at a loss for words, here are 5 things you can do instead:

  1. Give yourself permission to be ok with silence.
  2. Say “I really have no words.” or “I feel quiet.” (Avoid saying “I don’t know.” Try to communicate something about your feeling, that there’s a lack of something to say.)
  3. Talk about how the interpersonal space feels. (“I don’t feel safe enough with you to speak right now.” or “Are you frustrated when I’m silent?”)
  4. Describe what is happening in your body. (“My face feels hot.” or “My stomach feels queasy.”)
  5. Share art or writing. Some therapists will make space for this during therapy, but you can definitely bring art you’ve made outside of therapy into a session. Some clients make a practice of painting or writing after therapy and use the piece as a place to start the following week.
What to do when you don't know what to say in therapy. Comic strip of all previous images.

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