What Therapy Isn’t — and What It Is

So you’ve taken the plunge to try out therapy.

For anyone who makes the decision to go to therapy for the first time, I very much so honor and respect your ability to take the leap. For many, it’s not easy to do so. It’s hard to look at what’s going on in your life, your feelings and your life experiences.

It can be scary and incredibly nerve racking. Like many people, you may be in such pain and discomfort right now that you want relief right away. In fact, you may even be hoping to come to therapy for a handful of sessions (which, of course, I don’t blame you because it is certainly cheaper that way!), get all the advice and insight you need and be on your way with a much happier and better life.

Well, I’m sorry to say but, unfortunately, that’s not quite how therapy works. So let’s get into some common misconceptions of what people may think therapy is versus what it actually is:

What therapy isn’t…

#1- Therapy isn’t a “quick fix”

Though many of us may want to feel better right away, the reality is that therapy doesn’t provide a “quick fix”. Therapy is a process and the time in which it takes to go through that process depends on a lot of factors that are really complex.

Humans are incredibly complex creatures. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have long lists of all the various diagnoses listed in the DSM-5 along with endless books on theories about the human psyche and endless research to try and back that up.

When a therapist first meets a client, we don’t really know you. It takes time to build an understanding of your own complexities and the complexities of your family and life experiences.

And — frankly — in my opinion, in order to do quality therapy that is sustainable long-term, slow and steady wins the race every time.

#2 – Therapy can’t offer a guarantee

Though there may be therapists out there who are offering a success guarantee after X amount of sessions, it’s not very realistic. In fact, I personally view it as unethical to make such a statement.

I, as a therapist, can’t predict how long it may take for a person to reduce their anxiety, develop better communication in relationship, process some old childhood trauma or get in touch with their feelings to the degree that the client wants.

In that regard, when you’ve reached your “goal” is, more or less, up to you, because ultimately you have the better gauge of where you are than me. That being said…

#3 – Therapy isn’t always going to make you feel better

There are times in therapy when sometimes the “progress” being made leaves you feeling worse — more sad, more angry, more worried, etc. This is inevitably the response whenever we get in touch with painful feelings that we’ve been repressing or trying to ignore for months or years.

Sometimes in therapy we end up uncovering an old childhood trauma that was forgotten, we sink a little more deeply into our depression to better understand it, or we begin to see just how unsatisfied we are in a relationship. This happens because the therapy is shining a light on it and guiding us to reflect and better “see” ourselves.

Though this can certainly be unpleasant, the good news is that by feeling it we are now able to work through it. When we allow ourselves to feel it, talk about it and process it can gradually be released. Or, we can then feel confident in a decision because it’s based on our real feelings rather than what we think we should do.

#4 – Therapy isn’t all about getting advice from our therapist or the therapist being an “expert” of our lives

One of the biggest misconceptions that many believe is that therapy is a place to go to get “advice”.

Therapy isn’t about getting “advice” from an “expert” as much as it is about the therapist guiding you into your own process.

You are the expert of yourself and your own life, because only you can know yourself better than anyone else. After all, the ultimate intention of therapy is to support the client in being able to function in their lives without therapy– and that’s never going to happen if a client is dependent on the therapist.

You lead the way, while the therapist supports, guides, reflects back and points out patterns to help you gain greater self-awareness.

The reason therapy isn’t about giving advice is because, well, therapists know that isn’t motivating. The main idea in Motivational Interviewing (a form of talk therapy) is that people aren’t motivated to make changes by being told what to do. Rather they are motivated when they are able to come to conclusions and decisions by themselves, while being supported by the therapist who gives them empathy and reflects back to them their own thoughts and feelings.

This is, of course, not to say that therapists don’t provide any information. We certainly provide psychoeducation as it deems necessary and will tend to utilize more concrete information and tools in couples or family therapy, because we’re working with a relationship dynamic versus one individual’s experience.

And speaking of couples and family therapy…

#5 – Therapy isn’t about changing others

So if you’re bringing your partner or child in for couples or family therapy in hopes to change them somehow, sorry but it doesn’t quite work that way.

Couples or family therapy is about working on the relationship dynamic. Relationships are incredibly complex, in fact they may be the most complex thing in existence, second only to the complexity of individual humans. So it never is just “one” persons fault over the other. As the saying goes, it always takes two to tango.

That being said, here’s a little psychoeducation: The Gottman Institute, the creators of the Gottman Method (a form of couple’s therapy) has done a lot of research on marriage and relationships. One thing that they discovered is that 69% of a couple’s problems are perpetual. Meaning, they are the same problems day in and day out and never change. So, in reality, when we choose a spouse or partner we choose the problems that we will inevitably have with that partner.

So in couples and family therapy, we don’t work to change the “problems” per-say. Rather, we are supporting the couple to find ways to better mutually cope within the relationship dynamic. As Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy says, it’s about “learning to change the dance”.

And so that all leads us to my final point: So what actually is therapy? Here’s a few thoughts:

What therapy is…

#1 – Therapy is a place where you can simply be yourself and be reminded that you are not broken.

#2 – Therapy is a place where you can be reminded that you are the expert of your own life. AND you can receive the guidance and support to feel confident and empowered in that.

#3 – Therapy is a place where you can get emotional validation, empathy and the sense that you are not alone.

#4 – Therapy is a place to gain greater self-awareness of your own emotions, behaviors, thought patterns, etc.

#5 – Therapy is a place where you can access your own inner wisdom.