Psychotherapy is kind of a weird thing. You meet with someone you’ve never met, tell them all about yourself and learn nothing about them in return. Then you go back time and time again doing the same thing (and paying for it!) with the hope that you will feel better, change a little and become a happier person.
I think that’s therapy in a nutshell.
Of course there are lots of ways of doing therapy, lots of different kinds of therapists and certainly lots of different kinds of patients with different histories, problems and complaints. But even with all these differences, I have found that there are a few common things that people can do to make psychotherapy successful:
Come because you want to. People come to therapy for lots of different reasons, but I have observed that therapy works best if it is not forced onto someone, or a result of a coercion or threat (“I’m going to divorce you if you don’t see a shrink!”). Now, this isn’t always true: sometimes folks are sentenced to therapy or treatment in the legal system, or for other reasons, and that treatment can be effective. I’m just saying that typically therapy works best when people come of their own free will. It’s hard to participate in the often difficult therapy process if you are not on board with it in the first place.
Give it a chance. People seek mental health services because they are hurting. It makes sense that they want relief right away. Unfortunately, therapy doesn’t always work this way. Sometimes, in fact, dredging up old hurts can make your mood worse for a time. It can take 2, 3, 4 sessions until you feel relief. It’s hard to be patient, particularly when you’re struggling, but the payoff is worth it, as psychotherapy aims to create change that will last well after the treatment has ended.
Do something. The therapy hour can be quite healing, but it takes more than that to find achieve success. To make the best use of your treatment, work needs to be done outside of sessions, too. Whether it’s keeping a journal, doing behavioral exercises prescribed by your therapist or simply doing some good, hard thinking about the content of your session – it’s not enough to just show up once a week.
Go often. I don’t have a one-size-fits-all approach to session frequency, but I can tell you that the more often you attend sessions, the faster you will achieve your goals (most of the time, anyway). There’s a lot to learn about a person, so when sessions are too infrequent (say once a month) it can be hard to learn all there is to learn, catch up on what’s happened since the last visit and then get to the meat of the appointment. Once a week is the typical frequency with which therapy sessions are held, and I think it’s for good reason – particularly when you are just starting treatment. Once you have hit a groove and progress is being made, less frequent sessions may be an option.
Keep an open mind. We go to therapy to change something about ourselves or our lives. That means we will probably have to do some changing. Granted, change is scary and difficult, but unless we are willing to do some things differently, therapy just won’t work. Now, that can mean thinking about things in new ways, changing our actual behaviors or interacting with others in alternate ways – but the fact is: in order for psychotherapy to be successful there has to be some room for modification.