Therapy doesn’t always help. That doesn’t mean that it can’t help and that a second chance isn’t indicated. But, it does mean that you will need to ask yourself a few questions about what is going wrong.
There are several possibilities:
1. Misdiagnosis. If, for example, you have an alcohol or drug problem, but the therapist wasn’t told about it or didn’t realize its significance, treatment is almost certain to fail. Similarly, if you have a Bipolar (manic-depressive) Disorder that goes untreated (these can be difficult to diagnose), it will be hard to profit from therapy. I have seen many adults, for example, who have the inattentive form of ADHD and have never been diagnosed and treated for the condition, even though they have seen more than one therapist.
2. Insufficient motivation. Have you been giving therapy your best effort? Do you go to sessions religiously? Do you follow through on any “homework” assignments that you and the therapist discuss? If you are not adequately open and dedicated to getting better, then treatment is likely to fail. Defensiveness in the treatment process and inconsistent attendance are major problems. With respect to lack of effort, the old joke goes: “How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb?” Answer: “One, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.”
3. The therapist/patient match. Do you feel comfortable with the counselor? That doesn’t mean that therapy will never make you uncomfortable (change isn’t easy and it is often painful), but it does mean that the therapist is someone you can trust, who is sincere, and who is competent. Does the therapist have sufficient understanding of your life circumstances? This doesn’t necessarily mean that he has lived through a similar situation or has an identical background, gender, age, or religion; but he will need to understand where you are coming from.
4. The tempo of therapy. Does the therapist push too hard? Do you find yourself too often overwhelmed by the issues and feelings being stirred up in your sessions? Or perhaps, do things seem to go too slow? Are the sessions becoming boring and unproductive?
5. Activity level of the therapist. Is the counselor too active and probing for you? Does he seem to have a plan and a direction for your treatment (he should)? Is he too controlling, seeming to follow an agenda that is inflexible and ignores what you need? Or, alternatively, is he too passive, simply waiting for you to talk about whatever you want, regardless of how far afield this might lead the treatment?
6. Is the therapist too friendly? Does he want (or is he open to) a friendship or anything other than a therapeutic relationship (he shouldn’t be). Or, is he too distant and uninvolved?
7. Type of therapy. Therapists are not all equally comfortable and competent at the multiple types of treatment available. Some problems have been subjected to well-documented and researched treatments (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, for example). If your therapist is using the wrong treatment approach, you are not likely to benefit as much as you could.
8. Medication. Would you do better if you were on medication? If you are on medication, might you improve more with a different medication?
9. The therapist’s problems. Does the therapist seem stable? Does he act in an inappropriate way in the sessions? Does he become angry and critical? Is he judgmental rather than supportive? Does he talk about his own current problems?
If you are still in therapy and you have concerns about its effectiveness or any of the issues mentioned above, it is usually best to voice those issues to your counselor. He should not only be open to hearing what you have to say, but want to be responsive.
Therapists are not mind readers and won’t always figure out what you are thinking or worried about unless you say it. Do your homework and try to find out what therapeutic approaches might be more appropriate for you (your therapist should be able to describe at least some alternatives).
If he cannot provide you with the kind of treatment you are asking for, he should be able to come up with some very good reasons for what he is doing. Should those reasons be unconvincing, perhaps a second opinion is indicated and he should be open to this idea, as well. If you remain sure that this therapist is not the right one for you, getting a referral from him to someone else is entirely appropriate.
If, on the other hand, you have had unsatisfying experiences in therapy before and are not now in treatment, but are thinking of trying again, make sure that you have attempted to investigate your potential new therapist’s background and experience. Also, when you talk to him on the phone, ask about his therapeutic approach. If you do decide to see him, talk about the things that didn’t work in previous therapy attempts, as well as those that did.
Be as informed as you can be. Unlike brain surgery, you aren’t going to be passive and unconscious during treatment. You are going to participate and interact with someone who, you hope, is well-trained and dedicated and compassionate. Evaluate what is going on in treatment in an open and thoughtful way; collaborate with the therapist.
You will be glad you did.
The Red Woman by Neuthaler is the name of the above image, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.