Why You Should Know What Therapy Is & Isn't
Some clients over the years have made offhand comments about what they think therapy is (usually in the first few sessions) which I have to say initially irked me. But, after thinking about it, I admit I understand why people hold misconceptions about what therapy is and isn’t. This article is intended to clarify this a bit more, to explain some of the things you should and should not expect from therapy, so that ultimately, you can get the most out of it.
4 Thing Therapy Shouldn't Be
- Therapy is not a chat – I recall a couple of clients saying something like, “I think it would be good to have someone to chat to about things” now there’s nothing inherently wrong with this statement, however only if this is not all you are using the time for. If you’ve sourced a decent therapist, they’ve likely had a fair amount of training, so using the therapist and your time and money to simply talk might be a wasted opportunity. Of course for some, just having someone to talk to can do wonders, especially if they’re fairly isolated, however this might need to be reconsidered so there is something more substantial and enduring to take away.
- Therapy should not be a place where you re-enact unhelpful ways of being without movement or progression – this ties in somewhat with the first point. If you attend therapy and are simply using it to talk, with little to no input from the therapist, and with no change, week after week, you’re likely to leave therapy with no benefit. Therapy should be a place to talk and be heard, yes, but it IS important that you are facilitated beyond just this, and your therapist will likely be trained to notice when they can usefully offer things for you to consider and reflect on.
- Therapy should not make you feel worse in the long term – mental ill health, like physical health will often feel worse before it feels better, this is a key part of the process, so it might make you feel worse – for a time. Therapy should not however make you feel worse than when you started, in the long term. So, if you are concerned about this, it is important to discuss your concerns with your therapist and establish some understanding. If, however you attend therapy and notice no changes (these can be subtle), or movement towards treatment goals, it might be important to discuss if the therapeutic approach, or the therapist are a good fit for you.
- Therapy should not feel judgemental – a key difference, and something many of my clients have cited as a reason for seeking therapy is because they know that they will be judged by those closest to them, even if loved ones have their best interests at heart. This is partly because our loved ones have a vested interest in our lives, and because they bring all their values and thoughts with them when they interact with us. Therapists are trained to be non-judgemental and we will not impose our beliefs and values on clients – whilst having your best interests at heart, rather than our own agenda. We are of course human, so if you perceive judgement or an agenda from your therapist, it is important to make this known, as otherwise the therapeutic relationship, and therapy itself is placed at risk.
4 Things Therapy Should Be
- A safe space – if you’re at all familiar with the world of therapy, you’ve likely heard this phrase. Let’s unpack it a bit. Firstly, the space is safe, in part because it is confidential (with a few exceptions), it is non-judgemental, and it is a space in the sense that unlike in conversations with friends where the space can be hijacked (like when you’re talking about your cat’s upcoming operation and someone pipes up: “oh yes, my friend’s gran had a cat once and…” you get the idea). Yes, people love to relate and swap stories and will sometimes find the most obscure way of taking space away from you, hijacking the conversation, leaving you feeling unheard and possibly frustrated. Therapy gives space to breathe, think, and make sense of our thoughts and behaviours in a way we simply do not experience usually. In fact, therapists are often trained to disclose little about themselves, of course there are exceptions to this, as sometimes disclosure can be helpful.
- A place of challenge – not only in the sense of internal and emotional challenge, but actually a good therapist will challenge responsibly, that is, assess whether their challenge is likely to be received in the spirit intended, and do so tactfully, and in a way that suits the sensibilities of the particular client. Loved ones, due to their politeness, unwillingness to offend, or closeness to you and the situation will either challenge unhelpfully or ineffectively, or not at all. A therapist’s challenge will be done in a skilful way, one that lands well on the client. This is an incredibly useful ally to have.
- A place that fosters profound healing, growth, and change in a unique way. Your therapist should be somewhat goal oriented and learn about your goals, and help you to understand how they can facilitate the endeavour throughout the work, is this something that we experience in our other relationships as adults?
- A place of learning – your therapist will be curious and want to learn about YOU. With this intention, they will ask you questions and make suggestions to make you think about things in different ways or consider things you had not done previously, this can lead to insights – awareness of the self that are otherwise hidden, which can offer understanding, but also change and control.
What To Consider If Therapy Doesn't Seem Right
If therapy is not these things for you, it might be worth considering why this might be, and to address this. For instance, could it be that you are keeping the therapy at a certain place (staying surface level for example), could it be that your goals and way of working need to be better established? Or perhaps the therapist or their way of working isn’t quite the right fit?
In summary, therapy is not (or should not be) the same as talking to friends and family because it is impartial so you do not have to worry about being judged. It’s a place you will be listened to and heard, rather than unheard, interrupted and irritated. You are given a space that is often missing in usual interactions. It’s a safe space, so you need not worry about what you can and cannot share due to fears about who things will get back to. You learn more about yourself, about your options and how you might do things differently. You are supported to work through difficult emotions, toward healing, growth, and change, taking on new learning and insight. It’s your time, such that you can begin the powerful and necessary process of process.
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