“My therapist was great! I learned a lot, but I’m not sure much changed.”
Does the above statement describe your experience with therapy? Maybe you’ve uttered a similar phrase to a friend.
Therapy shouldn’t just be interesting. It shouldn’t just feel like a good mental flossing that leaves you with a lot to think about. Effective therapy can be both of those things, yes. But it should also get you moving in a more positive direction, as quickly as possible.
The answer to “Why doesn’t therapy work?” has everything to do with the difference between insight and action. Lasting change may include insight—but it doesn’t have to. On the other hand, if you only have insight, you’re unlikely to make the kind of changes that translate into a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
Say your car dies and you have to start walking to work every day. After you do this for a couple of weeks, there’s a good chance you’ll start to experience the benefits of being more active, and you might feel better, physically and mentally, than you did before you started walking. Once you start feeling better, you may choose to keep walking—even after your car is fixed.
In this case, it was necessity—not insight—that forced you to take sustained action. You didn’t have an “Aha!” moment and decide to start a walking program based on that flash of insight. Your car broke down, leaving you with no choice. You walked to work because you had to. The insight you gained as a result of walking every day was simply an unexpected positive outcome.
Why Insight Isn’t Enough
So, why do people stay in therapy if they’re not making measurable progress? I think there are any number of reasons.
For one, people don’t always feel safe, comfortable, or clear-headed enough to talk to their partner, friends, or family about embarrassing, unflattering or critical feelings they might be having. Therapists know how to listen with soft ears and open hearts.
Therapy also provides people with a safe place to express difficult feelings, those they may be afraid to share with others, without the fear of rejection, harsh judgment, or attack.
Before you choose therapy, make sure you’re ready and willing to do what it takes to create real change in your life. Don’t settle for insight.
People might also stay in therapy when they aren’t progressing because they are mistaking their increased insight for progress. This can happen because our bodies love insight. You know the “Yes!” feeling you get when you find your keys after looking for them everywhere? That’s the same rewarding feeling we get when the clouds over our thoughts part and confusion gives way to clarity. Our bodies relax when we feel understood, and therapy is a place where many of us feel understood, sometimes for the first time.
What’s Holding You Back?
If you feel like you have experienced insight in therapy but aren’t making progress, it might be helpful to reflect on your current or past experiences in therapy. Have you taken time to consider your work in therapy outside of session and completed any homework your therapist assigned? What substantive changes have you made as a result of the insights you’ve gotten in therapy?
For example, say you have realized your efforts to protect your child and keep her safe have actually led her to feel less trusting, less confident, and more frightened in the world? What have you done with that insight? Have you changed or modified the protective behavior in any way?
If you have realized your busyness is a distraction keeping you from leaving a toxic relationship, what have you done with that new information? What steps have you taken to simplify your life and come up with an exit plan?
Before you choose therapy, make sure you’re ready and willing to do what it takes to create real change in your life. Don’t settle for insight. Insight can feel great, and it is helpful, but it’s really just a starting place. Real change takes time, focused attention, mindfulness, and discipline. Real change isn’t just “finding the time” to “do the work.” Real change occurs only when we identify the people, places, and activities that harm us and replace them with people, places, and activities that bring out our best qualities.
If your therapist isn’t helping you move toward your goals, remember that it’s always okay to search for a new therapist. Choose someone who does more than nod, smile, and “provide a safe, confidential space” for you to gain insight. Look for a therapist who is ready to work with you in that safe, confidential space, one who can help you explore your insights and turn them into concrete plans of action that lead to the lasting changes we are looking for.
Real change requires real change. If you settle for less, that’s all you’ll get.
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