Does Therapy Work?

People often go to a psychotherapist and are disappointed. The problem, unfortunately, isn’t high expectations, so much as vague expectations. As I wrote in my first book, ‘Effective Therapy,’ ‘Psychotherapy is the misunderstood stepchild of American medicine. Erroneously stereotyped by physicians and the general public alike, it seems remarkable that psychotherapy continues to be in such demand.  Despite the enduring images of slick leather couches and eccentric old men with thick accents, it remains the treatment of choice for everything that God, medicine and the government cannot solve.’

It’s not only important to be realistic when selecting a therapist, but also to be realistic before deciding on therapy as an option. Here are a few examples of mistaken assumptions.

Mistaken assumption #1: ‘My loved one doesn’t see things my way. But when he goes to therapy, he’ll see the light.’ Wow. Nothing could be further from the truth! If your loved one doesn’t see things your way, maybe it’s a simple difference of opinion that isn’t anything more than ‘ a matter of opinion. So how can you be so sure the therapist will agree with you? If your loved one is indeed doing something self-destructive, like abusing alcohol, then he’s most probably engaging in denial. If he won’t listen to you, then why would he listen to a complete stranger—hired by none other than yourself?

Here’s another one: ‘My husband won’t listen to me. I’ve been telling him for years to do something different. But when he talks to the therapist, he now agrees!’ Yes, this does happen. But you can’t count on it happening. And just as often, it goes the other way. I’m amazed by the arrogance implied by the assumption that, ‘I’m so certain that I’m right that any therapist will agree with me.’ Not so fast!

Mistaken assumption # 2: ‘The therapist will tell me what to do.’ A good therapist won’t tell you what to do any more than a good friend will tell you what to do. It’s insulting! When someone tells me what to do, my immediate reaction is: ‘OK, that’s what YOU would do. But how do I know that it’s right?’ To be sure, there are different kinds of therapists with different styles and philosophies. Some are more directive than others, and some express their opinions more than others. That’s fine. We don’t all need the exact same thing from a therapist. At the same time, it’s presumptuous to tell someone what to do. It implies: ‘I am right. I have already thought this out. I don’t need to explain. Just do it because I say so.’ Annoying, huh?

This isn’t how life works, and this isn’t how therapy works. With other kinds of professionals it’s different. You want a car mechanic to tell you what needs fixing, and then to do it. You don’t necessarily need to know how or why. But a therapist isn’t fixing your car or doing your taxes. Your therapist is there to guide you through life’s more difficult patches. To listen. To offer moral support and offer an objective view of your logic (or lack thereof). These are very valuable services, but none of them suggest that you are incapable of thinking things out for yourself. A therapist provides objective feedback and a different take on the subject—not commands. He or she HELPS you think, rather than doing your thinking for you.

Mistaken assumption # 3: ‘A therapist fixes me.’ Wrong again. You fix yourself. Maybe a therapist points out something that needs fixing—something you denied or simply missed. That’s a great help and probably well worth the time and expense. But you either fix yourself or you don’t. You don’t hand yourself over to a therapist the way you hand your car over to the mechanic or your books to a tax accountant. They DO something to an object, on your behalf. But a therapist is an observer—a guide. He or she doesn’t ‘do’ anything ‘to’ you. If your therapy works out well, be careful not to give the therapist too much credit. That success is due ultimately to your efforts.

Sometimes people take medication for emotional problems. If it helps, one might feel ‘fixed.’ But medication doesn’t always fix everything. A colleague and mentor of mine once put it this way: ‘Medication for emotional problems, when it works, means swimming with the current rather than against it.’ That sums it up, exactly. If you have that option, it’s better to swim with the current, if you can. But either way, you still have to swim.

Life is yours to live. Nobody can make you do anything over the long term. A skilled therapist will hopefully guide your thinking and your decisions. But only you have the power to cure yourself.