Q&A: "Is Therapy Working for Me?"Tuesday, April 19, 2016
This article is the second entry in my Q&A series, where I answer a question or respond to a comment. If you missed the previous article, you can find it here: “Should I Talk to My Parents About My Childhood Hurts?”
Today’s question is extremely popular: I’m in therapy, and some people [my spouse, or parent, or friend, or coworker, or partner] say that it’s not working for me. I’m confused. Is it true?
Although it can be nuanced, generally there are only two possibilities: it’s either true or false. Everyone’s situation is different, so you need some objective criteria to be able to figure out your own case.
First, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of people working in the mental health and helping field are not very good at their job, and not necessarily out of malevolence. They themselves are highly unresolved, lack true skill and actual knowledge (formal “education” is barely anything), and sometimes are even more traumatized than their clients. So statistically it’s highly unlikely that your helper* is exceptionally good, although it’s possible. That said, most people are not looking for an exceptionally good helper, nor do they know how to recognize one. They want—or are capable—to work on themselves just to a certain degree. Usually they don’t want to go to great lengths, even if they say they do. And for that reason, a common helper can be sufficient for them. It depends on one’s goals and situation. Which brings us to the next point….
How do you know if the person you are seeing is actually helpful, and how would you measure you progress/regress? At the very beginning of the therapeutic relationship, the helper usually asks the client what do they want to achieve. Also, people who seek help either already know or get informed by their helper that sometimes things have to get worse for them to get better. If you’re unsure, you can talk about it with your helper in greater detail. They may ask you how do you know if things are getting better or worse, and you can ask them the same question. Such a discussion may give you more clarity, and help you figure out if your helper knows what they are doing. I talk about it a little bit in the FAQ section on my website, too.
Either way, it is always useful to ask yourself these questions: How do I know if I’m making progress? How will I know if I have achieved my goals? What exactly are my goals? What is my plan? How long will it take me? What are the smaller steps? And so on….
Try to be clear and specific; saying that you want, for example, freedom, inner peace, or better relationships sounds nice, but doesn’t describe anything concrete. How would you know if you have achieved what you want, or if you are moving in the right direction? Same with saying that you feel good or bad. “Feeling good” doesn’t necessarily mean you are improving, just like “feeling bad” doesn’t necessarily mean you are regressing.
Another highly important thing is the fact that when a person starts actually growing, their relationships change. More often than not people don’t have healthy boundaries and the underlying dynamics are quite problematic. When your healing process starts to develop, your behavior changes, your psychoemotional state changes, your social interactions change. As a result of that, some people around you may not like the changes. Especially those who are used to—or even dependent on—the old ways, where you were manipulated and controlled, or felt inferior. So if you, for example, were obedient, people-pleasing, non-expressive, and non-confrontational, then becoming more authentic and upstanding can result in a clash of interests and expectations. Since you are no longer interested in giving them what whey want at any cost, since now your thoughts, emotions, and wants matter too, they may perceive it as you acting badly, even aggressively towards them. Therefore, they may say that therapy is not helping you. After all, you were so “nice” and “good” and “helpful,” but now you’re so “mean,” “rebellious,” “confrontational,” “insensitive,” “selfish.” In this case, your increasing level of healthiness is perceived as something abnormal and unacceptable. As a reaction to your “aggression,” they may increase their level of manipulation, and the level of actual aggression on their part may escalate to more intense stages. So keep this in mind, and be prepared to re-evaluate such relationships if you haven’t already.
So in short, instead of recognizing your improvement, people like that may get upset with you and tell you that therapy is not working for you, because in their eyes you have changed for the worse—which objectively is not true. It’s just that it doesn’t suit them anymore, so they are upset.
As always, every situation is different, but it is definitely useful to figure out the criteria for evaluating the level of your therapeutic progress. Talk about it with your helper, if necessary. How do you measure your growth? How do you know if you are improving or not? How long does this process take? What are your therapeutic goals? What are the stepping stones? How much progress did you make already, if any? What are the signs of a healthy human being? What are the signs of unhealthiness and dysfunction? Which of them apply to you? How could you become healthier? What is your relationship with the person who says you are doing worse? What is your mutual history? What is your role in this relationship, if any? Is this relationship healthy? What are the signs of a healthy relationship? How does a toxic relationship look like? How do you know?
After you find the answers to those and other questions, you will have more clarity about what is actually going on.
*In my works I use the term 'helper' to refer to anybody who works in the mental health and helping field. It includes psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, consultants, social workers, coaches, mentors, and many more.
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