Demystifying Therapy

By: Rochelle Perper, Ph.D. | October 31, 2013

Most people, when asked what they do for a living can answer relatively quickly and easily. This is not the case for me, as well as many Psychologists. Although the practice of psychology has gained a great deal of recognition and there have been recent developments in psychology research over the past thirty years, misconceptions still exist. Unfortunately, answers to questions like, “What is Therapy?” and, “How does it work?” are still difficult to understand.

Perhaps one reason for this discrepancy is that therapy is an experience that can be difficult to put into words. It is challenging even for a therapist to describe the change that she sees in her clients and put a finger on what is causing the change.

However, as a mental health provider it is our duty to answer these tough questions, and as a consumer you have the right to receive honest and easy-to-understand answers. If your therapist cannot or does not clearly define how he or she can help you to solve whatever issue or concern has brought you to therapy, this is a “red flag” and cause for concern.  In addition, your therapist should never offer unsolicited advice, be judgmental, blame you, encourage you to blame others, or be critical of your lifestyle, behaviors, or your problem.

What is Therapy?

The process of therapy is analogous to that of a rock climbing expedition:

Imagine that you are a climber on the big wall of El Capitan in Yosemite climbing all day on technical rock for many successive days dealing with a multitude of physical and mental challenges. You have planned, and prepared for months for this challenge. Somewhere along the way without even realizing it you have become lost, confused, and feel very alone. The elements seem to be against you and you battle constantly with the feeling of wanting to simply give up. As a rock climbing extraordinaire, you are not accustomed to asking for help. And, yet, here you are, now faced with the realization that even though you could probably make it on your own, you will be much more successful – and feel comfortable with a little help. From the ground, a short distance away your partner is watching from her binoculars. She can see more clearly than you can which route will be best, and what gear you will need to get there. She offers you support, guidance, and encouragement as you work towards your goal one step, and one maneuver at a time.

Therapy is a collaborative treatment based on the relationship between an individual and a Psychologist. Your therapist should provide a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly with someone who’s objective, neutral and nonjudgmental. You and your Psychologist will work together to identify and change the thought and behavior patterns keeping you from feeling your best.

How Does Therapy Work?

Therapy helps people of all ages live happier, healthier, more productive lives by applying research-based techniques to help people develop more effective habits (American Psychological Association, 2011). The kind of treatment you receive will depend on a variety of factors including current psychological research, the problem that you describe, your cultural and spiritual beliefs, as well as your Psychologist’s theoretical orientation. Psychologists who use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for example, have a practical approach to treatment. Your therapist will ask you to identify your thinking patterns in an effort to help you develop more effective coping skills. This approach often involves homework assignments, such as gathering more information, practicing new skills between sessions, and reading assignments.

The first objective of therapy is to reduce suffering. Therapy can address and resolve a large number of specific concerns, issues, and symptoms by introducing new coping strategies and creative problem solving to overcome barriers. As a result, therapy can help to increase positive feelings such as joy, compassion, peace, self-esteem, and love.

A secondary objective is self-actualization. Throughout the course of therapy many people become more conscious about themselves, their relationships, and clarify their values and priorities in life. By asking provocative questions and making observations, your therapist can help you see things about yourself that you might not have seen before.

Who Goes to Therapy?

The belief that people who go to therapy are “crazy” or “damaged” is false. The most common demographic of therapy goers include everyday, ordinary people struggling with everyday, human problems, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction, and relationship issues.   Signs that you could benefit from therapy include feeling overwhelmed, prolonged sense of sadness, problems that don’t seem to get better despite your efforts and help from family and friends, difficulty concentrating on work or difficulty carrying out everyday activities.

If you are considering therapy for the first time, are currently in therapy or have received therapy in the past and have not achieved the results that you wanted, don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. It is your right to understand your therapist’s approach, her treatment plan, and the rationale behind her techniques. Therapy works best when you can be open and honest with your therapist and be an active participant in your own recovery.

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