The Dog Ate My Homework

By Jeff Levy

Jessica came to see me because she believed her 5 year relationship with her husband Derrick was in jeopardy.  In her first session, she shared that while she knew they loved each other, they had not been intimate for over three years.  Because of a conflict they had about infidelity, she felt paralyzed to participate in any kind of intimate contact.  This was a topic they no longer spoke about, though she thought about it often.

Jessica explained that her husband didn’t know she was in therapy.  I asked Jessica if she was willing to tell Derrick that she was seeing me in an effort to open some communication between them; that she was wanting to work on this issue.  She was receptive to this idea and felt like it was a good start.  I gave her the homework of telling Derrick that she had started therapy.  A week later, she returned to therapy and said she had not told Derrick and that she felt like a failure for not being able to follow through on a “simple assignment.”

Joanne and Carla came to see me for couples therapy.  They both stated they were committed to the relationship and loved each other, but that they found themselves arguing over “little” things which resulted, at times, in extremely unproductive and “out of proportion” conflict.  I also had the opportunity to see this happen in therapy sessions, where a rather small daily logistical disagreement grew larger and larger the longer they spoke about it.  We agreed to begin work on communication skills and I shared some common couples communication barriers, and strategies to address them.  We discussed three of these and I asked if they would practice them prior to our next session.  Both seemed enthusiastic and when asked, could think of nothing that would stop them from completing the homework.  When we met the next week, however, they began the session by “confessing” they hadn’t done their homework—almost like teenagers would confess breaking a rule when asked by his/her parent.

Doug was a Senior Vice President in an investment banking firm.  In his first session he said he’d “had it with those therapists that just repeat back to him what he’s said.”  And he definitely didn’t want to spend an hour talking to someone who “just nodded his head, said “uh huh,” and then “our time us up.”  He was clear within the first five minutes that he wanted an active therapist and someone who would give him assignments each week so he could track his changes over time.  Trying to meet him where he was, I ended our first session with an assignment to write a paragraph about what his life would look like if this round of therapy was successful.  “Great idea!” he said enthusiastically.  He came to his second session wanting to talk about an incident that happened at work.  “I’ll get that assignment done next week,” he said.  “I really need to talk about this issue at work.”

The Problem With Homework

I can’t count the number of times I’ve brought assignments or homework into my clinical work and, for all sorts of reasons, the homework has not been completed.  Almost always, with the confession of not completing the homework, comes a sense of shame.  Some clients even ask me if I am disappointed with them for not doing their homework.  While I absolutely believe that engaging in therapy related activities outside of appointments can be very helpful, there was something about this type of response to homework that didn’t seem productive.  I found myself feeling more like a teacher or parent than a therapist.  Even with those clients who asked for homework, when they returned to sessions with an empty journal or a blank piece of paper, there was a palpable sense of failure.  This didn’t and still doesn’t stop me from giving homework or assignments between sessions, but it did invite me to pause and think about how I might approach this differently, especially when I had a sense that “homework” might not be the best frame of reference for everyone.

I also want to acknowledge the importance of homework, assignments, and/or between session work especially related to practices such as mindfulness, meditation, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and any other interventions that rely on work between sessions as much or more than the work that happens during sessions.   I am, however, asking that we consider how structure between session activities as ” homework” or “assignments” outside the context of this type of intervention might not be the best framework for between session activities.

Homework Versus Experiments

I remember the exact moment my thinking shifted.  I was working with Rob and had been talking about the idea of writing a letter to a relative who had caused him much pain, but who was no longer living.  I remember having an urge to give this letter-writing as a homework assignment for our next session, but also noticed I was having some hesitation about framing it that way.  “I should experiment with this,” I remember thinking.  And then, before I was even conscious of the words leaving my lips, I said to him:  “Are you open to an experiment?”  He looked at me with curiousity and hesitantly said “I think so.  What are you thinking?”

I continued.  “Well, we’ve been talking about you writing a letter to your grandfather for a few weeks, and I thought maybe we could experiment with something.”  “Go on,” he said.  I continued: “let’s experiment this week with writing that letter. Give yourself permission to play around with it, to notice when you feel like writing, when you don’t feel like writing, what kind of letter you write, and if you don’t write a letter, let’s see if we can understand the forces that held you back.”  “So I can’t mess this up?” he asked.

Because all of this was new to me, I was still “experimenting” with how to frame this new idea of experimenting.  I allowed myself to continue with some spontaneity.  “No,” I continued.  “Because this is an experiment and with experiments there is no right or wrong outcome, there is only more information.  There is no way to fail at this.  Whatever happens, it just gives us information about what might be the best way to proceed. We might have some idea of how this experiment will play out because most experiments have some sort of hypothesis.  So we’ll get information that supports our hypothesis or we’ll get information that may cause us to change our hypothesis.  Either way, whatever happens, we’ll learn something.”

There was something about this new way of framing out of session assignments or homework as “experiments” that felt liberating.  And as I continued to refine this new way of considering activities between sessions, I even began using some of this terminology in sessions.  I began to say even in the middle of a session:  “Hey—do you think you might be open to experimenting with something right now?”  Or, “can you play around with this idea for a few minutes and see what you think?”  The slight change in terminology invited a curiosity into our work both within sessions and between sessions.  We could “experiment,” “play around with an idea,” “invite” ourselves to consider something differently.

Learning by Experimenting

I brought these ideas into my teaching as well and found that minds opened in new ways as preconceptions of “what is supposed to happen” were replaced with a realization that whatever happens is information.  Even when we attempt an intervention and anticipate a certain response, we can learn just as much from the unanticipated results—perhaps even more.  And we can do away with boundaries that limit our conception of interventions that “work” or interventions that “don’t work” and replace this frame with an openness to the data that comes from each intervention—both anticipated and unanticipated.  From this information, we can continue to refine the work we do.

My students and my clients tease me now.  “Is this an experiment?” they will ask.  Or “Can I play around with this idea?”  Or on a more serious note, they will come back to class or to a session and say they experimented with an idea and thought one thing would happen, but something extremely different happened, and that was even more helpful than what they thought would happen.  I also invite my students to let go of thinking that an intervention “works” or “doesn’t work” and instead look at all information as valuable.

While I will still offer homework and assignments to some people between sessions, I am much more aware of how the words I choose to frame my requests influence how they are perceived and processed.  The words “homework” and “assignments,” for some of us, have strong positive associations related to concrete accomplishments and progress.  For others of us, “assignments” and “homework” are associated with school or parental ideas of right, wrong, and shame.  For those of us who struggle with homework and assignments, words like “experiment,” “playing around with an idea,” or “inviting us to consider an idea” foster a curiosity and a space where right and wrong are suspended.  Information can be gathered and explored.  We are open to possibilities.

Regardless of what words I use to describe between session activities. I know there will be people who are more likely to engage in these activities, and those who are less likely.  Some of this has nothing to do with the words we choose and more to do with how people learn best.  Still, I have consistently found that by inviting curiosity through experimentation, and valuing any and all information we get between and within sessions, allows many more people to expand the ways therapy can be helpful.

A few days ago, I was meeting with a client who came to see me because he was was unsure of his feelings for his girlfriend and about his commitment to their relationship.  He came to his session telling me he had “experimented” by asking her some questions, feeling fairly sure about her answers.  He also thought her responses would give him the information he needed to end the relationship.  “I was sure she would tell me that she wasn’t ready for a long term relationship” he said.   And she shared some feelings that I never knew she had.”  As I looked at him and began to open my mouth, he stopped me.  “I know, I know,” he smiled.  “It’s information.”

When you finish reading this, I wonder if you’d be open to playing around with the idea of experimenting?  If you do, I’d love to hear about what you learn.    

There is no such thing as a failed experiment,
only experiments with unexpected outcomes.

—Buckminster Fuller

Written by Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS

Published on December 2, 2017