Jeff Guenther on Aug 15, 2021
I’m very absent-minded, but in the most endearing way possible. At least that’s what I tell my partners. I’ll forget the keys, I’ll forget to email you, I’ll forget what to pick up at the store, I’ll forget how the movie ends… The list goes on. And honestly, it’s adorable if you ask me. I laugh at myself daily about all the things I can’t remember. If I’ve watched an entire TV series but you haven’t, you’re in luck! I’ve likely completely forgotten all the major plot lines and how the show ends so we can go on that journey together and it’ll be like the first time for me all over again. Does this absentmindedness get in the way of my personal life? Sometimes. Can friends and partners get annoyed with it? Sure. But I do a good enough job spinning it into a cute little quirk that it usually isn’t too frustrating for anyone.
However, when it comes to being a therapist, I do a real bang up job remembering all the details. I am super focused and know how to take notes that will always keep me on top of my game. I love to impress my clients by remembering the small details of long lost childhood friend’s names and exactly how many times their partner accused them of not taking their side on last year's family vacation. As therapists we know how meaningful it is to remember important things and not so important things. But every now and then I revert to “non-therapist Jeff” and completely forget what I talked about with my client during our last session.
And oh my gawwwwwd, it’s the worst feeling ever. My client comes in, plops down on the couch, and I can tell right away my brain is empty. There’s nothing in there. All the info that’s supposed to rush back into my head right when their butt hits the cushion is nowhere to be found. And while I can play off this sorta thing with friends and family that know I have this problem, my clients don’t know that I suffer from a bad memory and it’s something I prefer to keep hidden.
While I promise this happens rarely, it has happened enough times for me to prepare for moments like this. So in the spirit of helping other sometimes forgetful counselors, I’d like to share with you my patented 9-step process to jog your memory about last session. I guarantee it’ll work! And most of the time you don’t even have to complete all 9 steps. Let’s get started!
Yes, you’re going to feel like the worst therapist of all time. You’re not. It’s actually quite endearing if you ask me! But sure, your number one job is to remember what your client talked about last session, so forgetting obviously isn't a good look. But hey, guess what? Your client has no idea you don’t remember what you talked about last session. And chances are, they also can’t remember a thing about last week. So you’re likely both in the same boat, and you’re going to get through this together. Remember to breathe and move on to step 2. It’s going to be okay.
Usually once your client starts yapping away, all the necessary memories will come flooding back. You’re just having a temporary brain fart. Start the sesh with a little chit chat. Basically, stall. Ask them about their morning, where they got that yummy coffee, what they think of Bitcoin… Really anything. Take your attention off the fact you can’t remember the content of the last session and it’ll probably all come rushing back to you. It’s kinda like the same feeling you get when you can’t remember the guy from your favorite 90’s movie even though he’s a big star now. (It’s Vince Vaughn, by the way. And the movie is Swingers. You’re welcome.)
Okay, so maybe, unfortunately, last session’s conversation still isn’t ringing a bell. That’s okay! You’re gonna get through this. Chances are that last session’s content was a lot like many of your previous sessions. What did you talk about two or three weeks ago? Once you start making connections to older conversations you can work your way back to more recent sessions. You just gotta find a common thread.
Can’t find the thread? Well, what does your client usually talk about? Take a really big step back here. Why did they start coming in? What is their primary concern? Visualize what you’ve written down in your notes about them. Sometimes remembering that they came in for anxiety will remind you about the specific anxiety you talked about all session long last week.
If you’ve still got nothing, try getting them to remind you of what you talked about. There are some tried and true leading questions you can ask that won’t overtly reveal the gap in your memory. Here’s what I tend to go with:
Did you have any thoughts or feelings about what we talked about last week?
What was something that stuck with you from last session?
Was there anything from last session that you felt we focused on too much or too little?
Did you get what you needed last session? Why or why not?
These are good questions at any point in therapy. But it’s almost guaranteed that when they start talking about last week you’ll start to remember everything that was discussed.
I enjoy picking up where we left off last session but that’s not something that needs to happen every week. If you still can’t remember what went on last time, simply ask them where they want to start today. When a new starting point is decided on it’s not that important what happened before.
It’s probably not coming back to you because you’re still feeling low grade anxiety about it. Just step into your session like normal and quit being so hard on yourself. You’ve likely been a therapist for years now. It’ll come back to you like it always does.
There are rare occasions where you just can’t remember what the hell you talked about last week all session long. It’s fine. This happens even to the best of us. It’s almost a sure thing that your client doesn’t even know that you aren’t remembering the details. Not everyone is on point every single day at their job. You’re having an off day. Micheal Jordan didn’t hit 100% of his shots. You won’t either.
If you’re braver than me, then step nine should maybe move up the list. Possibly to number 1. But you’re reading this blog post because you’re trying to avoid being honest and praying that your typically steel trap of a brain will start working again. If you do decide to be straight up with your client and let them know that you’re having a hard time recalling what you talked about or where you ended the session, chances are they will happily remind you and not think any less of you at all. So it’s up to you, but maybe do this step sooner.
Maybe it’s not the number one best way, but it couldn’t hurt! It has nothing to do with remembering things but could you either sign up for a free profile with TherapyDen or, if you already have an activate profile, could you please share TherapyDen with your colleagues in the online groups and communities where you’re connected with them?
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Jeff Guenther, LPC, is a therapist in Portland, OR. He has been in private practice since 2005. Jeff is the creator and owner of Portland Therapy Center, a highly ranked therapist directory. Jeff, and his team, have launched a new progressive therapist directory, TherapyDen.