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What It Takes for Therapy to Work

We have talked about why therapy might not work, but today I wanted to also share what it takes for therapy to work. While it may seem like simply a reverse of points mentioned in the other post, I hope to provide more context and examples. If the other post didn’t resonate, maybe this one will.

Put simply and gently: attending therapy sessions is not enough to ensure progress. For you to see progress and growth from going to therapy, certain attitudes and behaviors are necessary. Whether you’re considering therapy or already engaged in the process, understanding what it takes for therapy to work can significantly enhance your experience and outcomes. This is not an exhaustive list or a must-do list, but more of a guideline that is hopefully useful to you as a therapy goer.

  1. Openness and Vulnerability:

The first ingredient you need for therapy is openness. It requires a willingness to explore uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Being vulnerable in therapy allows you to confront deep-seated issues and uncover underlying patterns contributing to your challenges. Embracing vulnerability fosters authentic connections with your therapist and creates a safe space for exploration and growth. What can vulnerability in therapy look like? It can look like admitting that you have no idea how to be vulnerable.

Some people may find it difficult to be open and vulnerable in front of their therapist, and this can be for many reasons. It could simply be that it is undoubtedly uncomfortable to share personal details with a stranger, even if they are trained professionals. Or it could be that you’re the kind of person who needs more time to feel comfortable sharing your story. Or it could be that you’ve been through life experiences that make it hard for you to express yourself or trust others. Whatever it is, it’s valid. So go slow, go at your own pace, and give yourself permission to admit that it is hard to be open and vulnerable.

  1. Commitment to Change:

Therapy is not a quick fix; it’s a journey, one that will be filled with mixed feelings. Progress often requires consistent effort and dedication outside of therapy sessions. Relying on that one-hour a week – or for some, it can even look like one session every two or three weeks – isn’t enough for change to happen. It involves implementing insights gained during therapy into your daily life and actively working towards deepening the connection with yourself and making the necessary changes in your life. For more on this, I actually wrote a post on what to do after and in-between sessions.

  1. Self-Reflection and Insight:

Effective therapy involves self-reflection and gaining insight into your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It requires a willingness to examine your past experiences, relationships, and patterns of behavior with curiosity and self-awareness. Developing insight allows you to identify triggers, understand motivations, and make informed choices that align with your values and goals.

How to engage in self-reflection? It could look like spending five to ten minutes before and after each session reflecting on the things you talked about in therapy. It could look like journaling or frequent check-ins with yourself or incorporating more mindfulness into your daily life. Self-reflection requires you to observe yourself without judgment. This in itself may take some time and practice, especially if you are prone to being harsh on yourself.

  1. Active Participation:

Therapy is a collaborative process between you and your therapist. Passive participation can hinder progress and limit the effectiveness of therapy. Actively engaging in sessions by asking questions, expressing concerns, and providing feedback empowers you to shape the direction of therapy.

One thing that I wish more clients knew about is that your therapist appreciates feedback on how the sessions are going for you. Is the pacing too fast or too slow? Do you feel heard by your therapist? Are you being given too much homework/not enough homework? Do you feel like you’re progressing? If not, what do you think could help? Even if your therapist doesn’t ask for feedback, you can share your thoughts. If it’s too hard to express verbally, consider writing a note or an email.

Take ownership of your therapeutic journey by setting goals, tracking progress, and actively participating in the therapeutic process. Some clients find it helpful to bring in a list of things that they want to talk about, some also find it helpful to jot down notes after session.

  1. Patience and Persistence:

Yes, it can feel like such a pain to wait for the fruits of your therapy labor. You are not alone if you feel like you want to see change right now. Therapy progress is rarely linear and may involve setbacks and challenges along the way. Patience and persistence are crucial for navigating the ups and downs of the therapeutic journey. Recognize that change takes time and that setbacks are opportunities for growth and learning. Trust in the therapeutic process and stay committed to your goals, even when progress feels slow or difficult.

Sometimes clients feel frustrated and think that therapy isn’t working when they get stuck in the journey. Being stuck or feeling like you’re regressing is an important point for you to bring up to your therapist. This brings me back to the importance of feedback – your therapist may not necessarily be aware that you feel a certain way if you don’t share how you feel. Sometimes clients quit therapy when they feel a little better, often robbing them and their therapist of the opportunity to do deeper work.

  1. Self-Compassion and Acceptance:

Therapy often involves confronting difficult emotions and facing aspects of yourself that you may not like. Practicing self-compassion and acceptance allows you to embrace your imperfections and vulnerabilities with kindness and understanding. It can be really hard, we know! Even therapists are not spared the struggle of cultivating self-compassion and acceptance so when we say we know, we do. Be gentle with yourself as you navigate the complexities of personal growth and healing.

Acceptance can often be confused with ‘giving up’ or ‘not caring’. In reality, acceptance is neither. Acceptance is seeing reality for what it is – and it can be many, many things that bring up complex feelings – and working with that reality, not working against it or denying it.

  1. Consistent Attendance and Communication:

Regular attendance and open communication are vital for building a strong therapeutic relationship and making good progress. Weekly sessions are recommended but we understand that there are various factors that can make that difficult so try to commit at least once every two weeks. Make a commitment to attend scheduled sessions consistently and communicate openly with your therapist about your experiences, concerns, and progress.

So many ingredients, so little time? Not necessarily. Take your time to digest this information and be comforted in the knowledge that you don’t have to do therapy perfectly (nobody does, anyway). If you have been missing a few ingredients, there’s still time and opportunity to add them. See if anything shifts after you add these ingredients to your therapy journey.

May your therapy journey be filled with self-compassion and plenty of enlightenment.


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