Demystifying Mental Health Treatment: What to do if you’re feeling “stuck” in therapy

A couple weeks back, I shared my #2018resolution to work harder to demystify mental health treatment. One of the things that makes therapy so complex is that it’s designed to treat somewhat abstract human experiences, so it’s tricky to point to exactly what works and what doesn’t.  Because no two humans are exactly the same, there is no formula that guarantees therapy will go a certain way.  So today we address another common concern: what to do when you’re not “getting anything” out of therapy.  I’ve broken things down into three parts: exploring your options, analyzing the situation, and how to “break up.”

Part 1: Exploring your options

Remember that you have options! The best way to get what you want out of therapy is to find the right therapist. It’s useful to reflect on a few key things before you begin. If you’ve already started with someone, it’s not too late to consider these points for the future or to discuss in your next session.

  • It’s okay to shop around. Finding a therapist is a bit like finding a home. Everyone’s “wish list” is different, and not every home is suited to every renter. You might have some general ideas of what you’re looking for, but until you actually meet someone, you can’t be sure whether you really feel a connection. It’s totally natural to want to explore more than one possibility. A few things to think about if you shop around:
    • Ask to set up phone consultations before deciding to make an appointment. Many therapists offer these phone calls free of charge, and they will give you a chance to ask questions, get to know their style, and decide whether you feel they understand your unique situation. This also helps you screen and find the right person without having to juggle multiple appointments and tell your story over and over again.
    • If you make appointments with multiple therapists, keep in mind that some insurance plans won’t cover multiple therapy sessions in the same day (or week). If you are using insurance, you may end up having to pay out-of-pocket for some of these appointments unless you check ahead of time or spread them out over the course of a few weeks.
    • Be mindful of how many times you meet with a therapist before deciding to commit. If you’re meeting with two different therapists several times each, you’re at risk of developing “multiple relationships.” This makes it hard for either one to really be effective, since you may be inadvertently opening up to one more than the other, or focusing on comparing them instead of actually getting into the work. It may be best to meet once with each, and then pick one person. If after awhile, you aren’t getting what you wanted and are curious to go back to the other one, you can change your mind down the road.
    • Consider letting the therapists know that you are shopping around. This sets up an open dialogue from the start, and makes it easier to “break up” with them if you do go with someone else. It also opens the door to talking about what you’re looking for. Most therapists will be able to help you find a good match, even if it’s with someone else. Our egos can handle the rejection, and besides, it’s more important that you get the care you need.
  • Be clear about what you need. It’s okay if you’re not sure what exactly it is that you need, but be clear about the fact that you’re not sure! Some people are just looking for a sounding board, a place to “vent,” or a place to be validated and feel understood. Others are looking for a fresh perspective. Or, you might want to be challenged and given “tools” to take away and use in daily life. Often, people are sure on what they want the outcome to be (feel better, be more confident, have a healthier relationship, etc.) but are not sure what they want the journey to look like. That’s okay—tell your therapist those desired outcomes. That’s a good place to start.

Part 2: Figure out what is and is not working.

Therapy is one of those things in life that “works if you work it.” That is, you get out what you put in. If you are actively engaged and motivated to apply what you learn, it can enhance your life in a very meaningful way. Of course, this is most true if you have a strong therapeutic alliance, which I discussed in my last post, as well as if your therapist’s approach is right for you. If you’re giving it a fair shot, committing to the work, and regularly attending sessions, and you’re being honest with your therapist and with yourself, you’re doing your part. It’s important to be patient, but not passive. Keep in mind that things won’t change overnight, but if after several sessions you don’t think it’s working, here are some things to consider:

  • Therapy is not “one size fits all.” Every therapist has a unique style. This is influenced by differences in education, training, experience, personality, and preferences. You can read more here about different levels of therapist training. Many therapists consider themselves “integrative” in their approach to treatment, meaning they blend or pull from a variety of psychological theories. Some will rely more heavily on one theory or one treatment modality than others, or will pull from a given theory based on what symptoms or conditions the client is struggling with.
    • For example, I am trained in a variety of theories, but when I’m treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), I rely most heavily on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and exposure therapies. These two theories have the most scientific evidence for successfully treating OCD symptoms, and I am confident in applying them. However, another therapist might use a totally different theoretical approach to the same set of symptoms, and can be just as effective. You can read more about some of the main theories of psychology here and here.
  • In addition to theoretical approaches, every therapist has a different degree of training and experience with certain populations, symptoms, and disorders. Ask your therapist about his/her specialty areas, but also keep in mind that a lot of us are trained to work with a variety of issues, so it’s not vital to find someone who “specializes” in order to receive effective treatment.
    • If you’re feeling stuck, you may need a different specialty or style than what your therapist is providing. It’s okay to ask your therapist what theoretical approach(es) they are using and why, and if you’re curious about trying others, ask whether they’ve been trained in other approaches or if they can refer you elsewhere.
  • Speak up when we do something that either helps or doesn’t help. I sometimes guide clients through a meditation at end of session, and I always appreciate when someone comes in and tells me they want to do it, instead of just hoping I suggest it myself that day. I’ve also had clients ask for more structure, so we set a clear agenda at the start of the session to be sure we get to all of the topics they wanted to cover.  This is always helpful feedback to give your therapist so they can tweak what they’re doing and you can walk away from sessions feeling like you’re getting something from them.
  • This one is tough: talk about your relationship with your therapist. I know it can be a little awkward, especially at first, to open up to a therapist because the focus is on YOU entirely. This is different from how most people interact in everyday life, where it’s polite to have a more back-and-forth Q&A with other people and not just have one person do all of the sharing. You might not know much about your therapist, and that’s typically a purposeful ethical decision your therapist has made. However, even though we don’t disclose about our personal lives, you can still get to know your therapist’s personality. You’re not talking to a robot or a brick wall. Some use humor, while others are more serious. Some focus on thoughts, some focus on feelings, some focus on your physical posture, and some focus on a combination of these. Some will want to dive deep into your past and unravel childhood experiences, while others will only be concerned with the present situation. If you are struggling to trust your therapist, or if you get upset or offended by something your therapist says or does, as tough as it is to address this, it will only help you in the end.

Part 3: Maybe you just need to break up. We get it. No hard feelings.

Ultimately, I can give you all of these pointers but the biggest thing to remember is to trust YOURSELF when it comes down to who you keep in your life and who you let go. If you realize your therapist isn’t right for you, perhaps it’s time to say goodbye. If you’re still unsure what you’re looking for, this article talks about some more ways to assess whether your therapist is helping you.

  • Honesty really is the best policy. It might be tempting to “ghost,” especially if you’re someone who struggles with confrontation. Nobody will stop you from ghosting, but consider what you could gain from the tougher alternative. Sharing your feedback and being clear about your intentions are communication skills worth developing. Being able to express your feelings honestly, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so, might be one of the reasons you started therapy in the first place. It can be meaningful to walk away from a relationship that’s not working in your life (whether with your therapist or anyone else) by first asserting your needs, and then saying goodbye.
  • You might think that you’re sparing someone’s feelings by ghosting, but remember that your therapist is a person who cares about you and is invested in your wellbeing. You don’t owe us anything, but if you’re open about breaking up, we will know not to worry about your safety if we don’t hear from you again.
  • Most importantly, if we know you’re breaking up with us, we can help you find someone who is a better fit for you. You can let your therapist know that you’re ready to move on in person, by phone, or by email. If you tell us what didn’t work or what else you’re looking for, we can help you find a therapist who is a better match for you. Or, if you want to take a break from therapy entirely, we can discuss a game plan to check back in down the road and see whether you want to resume (or respect your wishes to be left alone if you no longer wish to receive communication).

The bottom line is that it’s YOUR life. At the end of the day, you’re the only one living it, and nobody else can tell you what you need. If you aren’t getting your needs met, please do what you need to do to advocate for yourself, as tough as that can be. If you need help learning to navigate these types of awkward encounters, that could be a great topic to explore with your next therapist!

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