Four Unexpected Benefits of Therapy

Woman Having Counselling SessionMost people enter therapy wanting something. They seek relief from debilitating symptoms. They want help making a life-changing decision. They long to heal past hurts. Couples need tools for communication. Some want better self-control. Others search for the ability to reach their potential. The list goes on.

If their therapy has the right formula of therapeutic competence, perseverance, compatibility, and good fortune, those individuals will likely reach those goals. They’ll learn what they need to learn, internalize the therapist’s message or voice, and charge into the next challenges of their life.

But many people find that therapy also provides some unexpected benefits. When they leave, they realize they’ve gotten more than they bargained for—sort of a bonus for engaging in the experience. Here are four unexpected benefits of therapy I’ve seen in my own practice:

Depth: In polite society, we’re accustomed to having mundane conversations revolving around the weather, bullet points from work, some celebrity/sports highlights, and the story we just heard on NPR or Fox News. We skip along the surface because doing so is safe and universally accepted. Therapy pushes beyond the superficial to deeper introspective questions of personal experience, historical precedents, deep feelings, and drives—a variety of topics that would never end up on a Facebook status update. When people realize talking on this level is not just interesting, but also productive and healing, they want to recreate this depth in other relationships.

Empathy: It’s kind of ironic: The majority of people come to therapy wanting to understand their own problems and why other people impact them the way they do. But once they delve into their own issues, they discover insights that help them understand their lovers, their friends, their co-workers, and their bosses on a whole new level. A light bulb goes off and they may think, “Oh, that person’s worst experience was when he was abandoned by his dad. I understand why he reacted so strongly when I bailed on our plans.” People often learn to understand the people who inhabit their lives nearly as much as they understand themselves. Or maybe they become curious and ask a few more questions, which leads to this deeper understanding.

Contagion: I can’t count the number of individuals who came to therapy to learn more about themselves and before long, their friends were interested in finding their own therapist. It happens all the time. People feel empowered and excited about growing. Their mood, attitude, and/or behavior changes, and their friends are intrigued. Occasionally, individuals in an entire friend circle will seek their own help and everyone relates on a deeper, more functional level. Fixing your friends is not a reason to seek therapy, but it sure can be rewarding when this is the outcome.

Listening: When a person spends significant time with a professional listener, that person often develops the ability to listen. They sit for many hours with someone who keeps eye contact, pays attention, and indicates reflecting or recalling past information. People in therapy know how good it feels to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention and are more likely to replicate that for their loved ones. They’ve reaped the benefits of close focused attention, had it modeled for them, and can now show it to others.

At the risk of sounding too pro-therapist, the common thread here is that therapy helps people learn to adopt some basic therapeutic characteristics. They learn to talk on a deep level, to empathize with others, to discover the thrill of self-knowledge, and to listen well. This is to be expected, as we humans often take on the characteristics of the people we spend time with, from attitudes to behaviors to communication styles.

Like I said, these are the bonuses of therapy. The main objective is helping people relieve their symptoms and underlying issues. But if they can resolve their problem while becoming better listeners and empathizers with an ability to discuss deep issues in a way that positively impacts their inner circle, what’s the problem?

Sounds like a bonus to me.

Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, the founder of National Psychotherapy Day sponsored by, and a writer for the Psychotherapy Networker Magazine.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Svet Nazarov

    September 24th, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    You don’t need therapy, here’s why.

  • pearl

    September 25th, 2013 at 3:50 AM

    I agree one hundred percent with all of these things, but I think that the one I agree with and relate to the most is by just how much being with a therapist and spending a lot of time with him really taught me something about myself and my relationships with other people, and that is that I really lacked the ability to listen carefully to what others had to say. Oh I could fake it pretty well but I was such a narcissist that I was too involved in me to really pay attention to anyone else and that caused a lot of relationships in my life to suffer. IT taught me to be more empathetic to what tohers were feeling and to care a little more about the love that I was giving back to them.

  • Laurel

    September 25th, 2013 at 8:13 AM

    No big surprises here, therapy helps to make you a better person in so many different ways and on so many different levels. Great to see that this is being highlighted, and hope that this could get more people to see that this is more about just healing your “problems” this could be about improving your entire self. Isn’t that worth the effort alone?

  • Kendall

    September 26th, 2013 at 3:55 AM

    I love it that therapy, by allowing me to have a deepr understsnding of me, has now allowed me to have a deeper understanding of others as well. There have been so many times when you look at people and just kind of scratch your head and wonder what makes them tick. I think that going through theraoy for yourself kind of gives you a little more insight into that, gives you a much better perspective on life in geenral as well as respect for what others have had to live with in their own lives. It may not open up their entire lives to you, that’s true, but it does kind of give you the feeling that you might need to listen a little more to the things going on around you and that this might give you a greater appreciation of the world as a whole.

  • townes

    September 28th, 2013 at 4:58 AM

    ha! my friends are oblivious, i wish they would see the benefits but they are so wrapped up in themselves that they can’t see past the end of their noses

  • PJ Batson

    September 30th, 2013 at 3:57 AM

    Knowing that it can give you insight into the feelings that others could be experiencing is enough for me to be a proponent.

    This for me is because I think that most of the time, we are so self centered and too busy worrying about ourselves to even think or care about what is going on with others.

    Yes, therapy is to help us heal, but what if it is about more than that? What if it is to open our eyes to the plight of others too?

  • Faylinn

    February 19th, 2016 at 6:16 AM

    I have been seeing a therapist for just under a year and I have found it to be very beneficial. Above all, I have learned empathy. I have learned so much about myself, but I have also found that I can relate to other people and help them through their trials due to my experiences. Now, I have had to go through some psychological testing to come to understand myself better, but I really just feel like the whole experience has helped me to understand other people and, in general, the world around me better.

  • S topper

    February 24th, 2016 at 6:42 AM

    Those things sound horrible. I don’t consider them benefits but things to be careful about if one chooses to try therapy. I don’t want the therapist internalized – what a horrible thought.

  • Charity B.

    October 14th, 2016 at 8:40 AM

    why would it sound horrible to you to internalize healthy behaviors?

  • Braden

    March 23rd, 2016 at 6:03 AM

    I find it interesting that going to therapy can help you in so many ways. I didn’t know that sometimes you can understand other people better when you better understand yourself. It helps just to have someone who will listen to you, too. Thanks for sharing!

  • Ellie D

    May 9th, 2016 at 2:00 PM

    It’s honestly kind of amazing how many people could benefit from therapy. I really like how you talked about the contagious effect that going to therapy can have, though. I definitely think that if I started going, some of my friends and family would decide to see if it would work for them. Hopefully more people realize when they could use help and try to go for it in the future.

  • Lillian M

    July 7th, 2016 at 12:53 PM

    I like that therapy can often times revolve around listening. When it comes to being heard in today’s world, the number of listeners shrinks. I like going to a therapist because I feel understood and heard. Those feelings don’t usually make it to the rest of my life though.

  • Dennis S

    November 2nd, 2016 at 2:34 PM

    I loved what you said about how a person could learn new things like empathy when they get help from a psychologist. A person would definitely gain from having a good, thoughtful conversation with someone on a regular basis. Aside from the problem they were trying to fix, perhaps other emotional skills can be developed. Thanks for the great read.

  • Lillian S.

    November 11th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that therapy uses deep conversation to help with healing. I’ve been having some issues with self-esteem, and I’ve decided that I need to get help. I think getting deeper than usual would really help me to heal, so I’ll definitely look into going to therapy. Thanks for the great post!

  • Ronny H

    December 2nd, 2016 at 8:30 AM

    My daughter is going through a really difficult time in her life right now, and I feel like going to a counselor or therapist would help. I like that contagion that comes with therapy. Like you mention, people feel empowered and excited about growing. It is so neat that people go to therapy and soon their friends will start going as a result of it. I think if I help my daughter realize seeing a counselor is nothing to be ashamed of, she will be excited to try it.

  • Leviticus B

    February 28th, 2017 at 9:00 AM

    I like your point that in polite society, small talk reigns. I think it’s extremely important for us to be able to be open and transparent and have a deep conversation every once in awhile. I imagine that some people don’t have a person they can open up to, in which case therapy is extremely valuable.

  • John

    March 21st, 2017 at 10:20 AM

    I’ve actually read elsewhere that listening is one of the most beneficial aspects when it comes to therapy and counselling. The article lists this as an unexpected benefit, but I would imagine a lot of people in counselling therapy seek someone that can listen and help. I think sometimes people just want to be listened to, and that in turn helps relieve the stress and pressure of whatever they’re dealing with.

  • Scott

    March 30th, 2017 at 9:02 AM

    I had no idea that those who participate in therapy sessions eventually develop the ability to listen better. I can see why this would be something to keep in mind if you are considering going to therapy. I think that it is a good idea to learn all you can from the therapist. You might even consider taking notes during your session.

  • Lillian

    April 19th, 2017 at 11:04 AM

    I like how you mentioned that people seeing a therapist helps to get other people to visit one as well. My friend started therapy a bit ago, and I’ve been wondering if I should find a counselor for my anxiety, so I guess it is contagious. Maybe my visiting a therapist will inadvertently encourage someone close to me to get help for their problems as well.

  • Rachel

    April 21st, 2017 at 1:14 PM

    A good friend of mine has been thinking about seeing a counselor, as they have been struggling managing their anxiety. In the article you wrote that in therapy, you can learn how to not only better understand yourself, but others as well. Regardless of anxiety, this sounds like a great service to take part in as you could simply become better at understanding emotions, feelings, and mental health.

  • LNWeaver

    May 10th, 2017 at 4:26 PM

    That’s interesting that therapy can help develop your understanding of other people. People are inherently similar, so learning about yourself can help. I haven’t been dealing with stress well lately, so I think I’ll look into therapy.

  • Precious L

    May 24th, 2017 at 1:54 PM

    My family has been having some issues for a while, and we’ve been thinking about trying family therapy. I appreciate that you mentioned listening and giving proper attention as something that can be learned from family therapy. Our family struggles with listening and giving attention to each other. Hopefully we can learn this skill together and grow closer.

  • Deb P.

    September 12th, 2017 at 10:54 AM

    My friend has been dealing with some problems lately and I think therapy would be a great way for her to deal with them. Like you said, people just want others to understand their problems, and why people impact them. I think therapy would be great for to help her understand why. Thanks for all the information about therapy. I will be sure to show her!

  • Margaux F

    March 9th, 2018 at 5:57 PM

    It’s great that you talked about the unexpected benefits of therapy, like developing the ability to listen because they know how good it feels to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention and are more likely to replicate that for others. I’m considering on going through a therapy for my anxiety, and it’s good to know its added benefits. Thanks for mentioning that those who reaped the benefits of close focused attention can show it to other people. Thanks for the advice!

  • Lillian S

    March 27th, 2018 at 9:24 AM

    I didn’t realize that therapy can actually help you to be more empathetic. I sometimes struggle with putting myself in others’ shoes, but I’d like to be better at it. Maybe therapy would be a good option for me.

  • Heidi

    August 22nd, 2018 at 12:17 PM

    My daughter has been going through a lot lately and I think she could really benefit from counseling. I think depth is something that’s really lacking in her life, and seeing a counselor could help her to become more comfortable talking openly about her feelings. I would love for her to have the tools to be able to have interesting, productive, and healing conversations with the important people in her life.

  • Taylor

    November 27th, 2019 at 10:15 AM

    I like that you said that people in therapy know how it feels to get good attention and are likely to reciprocate that to others. My brother was recently diagnosed with anxiety and we want to find him different ways for him to treat it. Thanks for the tips and I’ll have to continue researching ways to combat this mental health challenge for him.

  • Lyla

    December 20th, 2019 at 7:17 AM

    I like how therapy allows you to go much further into depth than is socially acceptable in everyday conversation. Ever since my car accident last year, I have been struggling to cope with both the physical and emotional trauma. It would definitely be helpful to have a space in which I could really open up about how I am feeling.

  • Skylar

    January 3rd, 2020 at 10:26 AM

    I like that you mentioned that going to therapy helps you understand others better. My sister recently came out as bisexual but she told me that it has been confusing for her. I wonder if she could benefit from LGBT affirming therapy.

  • Sam

    September 25th, 2020 at 1:55 PM

    Ryan, I like how you mentioned that therapy goes deeper than just casual conversations and gets into questions that help us introspect on things like our own history, personal experiences, and other deep feelings we may have. My sister-in-law has been suffering from a lot of anxiety and stress ever since her best friend passed away from an accidental overdose a few months ago. She’s hoping to find a good therapist or counselor that she feels comfortable with to help her work through the hard time she’s having.

  • Eve

    June 2nd, 2021 at 8:41 AM

    I love that you mentioned that therapy can help build empathy towards understanding other’s problems as well as your own. My son has been struggling with OCD tendencies his whole life. I’m trying to find a counsellor that can help him and that also shares our religion to offer spiritual guidance.

  • Claire

    July 13th, 2021 at 2:20 AM

    I didn’t previously know just how beneficial therapy is for people going through tough times. My brother recently told me that his mental health is really bad and it’s causing him to not function. I’ll be sure to share this article with him and suggest we look for a therapist in the next coming days.

  • Anna

    April 24th, 2022 at 2:11 AM

    Thanks for mentioning that if a person spends ample time with a professional listener, they can also develop the ability to listen and do the same for others. There’s been a lot of tension in our household recently, because of financial problems and my sister being diagnosed with depression. We’ll have to seek family therapy services that can help us talk about our issues properly and listen to every member’s concerns.

  • Zoe

    December 17th, 2022 at 5:30 AM

    I love that you mentioned how individual counseling helps one to understand others by understanding themselves and developing empathy. I’ve been going through so many changes in the past months, and it’s been causing me to disconnect from the people in my life. Maybe I should consider getting individual counseling and see how this improves my situation in the long run.

  • Lily

    December 22nd, 2022 at 3:24 AM

    I appreciate you pointing out that if someone spends enough time with a skilled listener, they may also learn to listen and provide the same for others. Since my adopted kid has severe anxiety, I’m hoping she will receive treatment. I think it will be beneficial for her to fully comprehend what she is going through, therefore I’m bringing her to a narcissistic abuse therapy session.

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