By Erin Newton, LCPC, PMH-C
Hello everyone and Happy *almost* Fall!
The practice has been really hoppin’ this summer, and that includes our referrals and requests for services! With four months left in the year we have already surpassed our number of calls from last year. We are honored and humbled to be this trusted in the community and hope that you continue to trust us with your mental health needs.
If you are considering therapy for yourself or therapy for you and your partner, I am so proud of you! That is amazing and brave and hard. For so many of us, just the decision to get help is one that took years to muster up the courage to ask for, and I like to honor the bravery of my clients who actually walk through my door and sit on my couch.
I think that for a lot of people, therapy can be quite mysterious. Sometimes I feel like people really think I’m going to have some sort of magical insight or something to say that’s going to change everything for them. I really, really wish that was the case, but it just isn’t. The truth is that therapy is hard. Therapy is exhausting. Therapy means being vulnerable and raw and open in a way that maybe you haven’t been with anyone, ever. Therapy means sitting with your feelings and sometimes your partner’s feelings (even if that’s really uncomfortable). Therapy means being open to trying new things, even if you’re afraid they won’t work. At its core, therapy is about inner work and inner discovery and struggle.
So, in learning about what therapy is and what it is not, here are five things that therapy cannot do for you:
1. Fix your marriage…especially in four sessions or less.
Ok, so if therapy can’t fix your marriage, why go to couples counseling? Couples frequently come to my office telling me that they are in crisis and that this is their last shot at keeping their marriage together. For many couples, things have been unchecked and escalating for years. I often hear that couples avoid marriage counseling because they’ve heard it will lead to divorce, but that’s not the whole picture. The average couple waits six years before seeking help, and after six years, some behaviors are hard to forgive or change. It’s not the counseling that is the problem – it’s how long things have festered before counseling is explored.
The truth is that only you and your partner can fix your marriage. Your therapist is meant to be a neutral guide in helping you do that – intervening in arguments to help both people regulate and feel heard, identifying unhelpful patterns in your relationship and suggesting ways to change them, helping both partners to identify needs and feelings – but there is nothing magical that a therapist is going to say or do that is going to fix it for you. 90% of the work that you and your partner do while engaged in counseling happens outside of the office. Also, don’t be surprised if your therapist suggests your own individual counselor as well, or says that both of you need your own therapy before marriage counseling will be beneficial. It is often the case that a couple is not ready to do the work of marriage counseling until they’ve healed parts of themselves first.
And finally, therapy takes a looooong time. I remember as an intern, sitting in my first session with real, live people and realizing…oh this is going to take forever. Not only does it take time for us to share our lives and struggles with our therapist, it takes time for most of us to feel safe and comfortable doing so. On average, couples who start counseling with me and commit to the process are in therapy with me for at least a year, with the first 3-6 months involving weekly therapy. It takes 4-6 weeks just for me to get to know a couple, and likely a minimum of 12 weeks before we see any change at all. It’s not uncommon to be in therapy for several years (I have clients going on almost five years with me…) and even after regular therapy has ended, I often check in a few times a year with my couples, just to make sure they’re still maintaining what they learned.
2. Fix problems or behaviors you don’t think you have.
Years ago, I had a client who told me during the intake that they didn’t know why they were in therapy, and that their partner said it was something they needed to do. Over the next couple of weeks together, they told me frequently that according to their partner, they had “anger issues.” But they couldn’t tell me what those issues were or how they manifested. Even if I asked them to report about what their partner would say, they simply had no idea. After six weeks together, and much frustration for my client, I asked them how I was supposed to help fix issues that they didn’t think they had. They didn’t know…and neither did I!
Therapists only know what you tell them, and they only can make suggestions or provide insight based on that information. If you are only going to therapy for someone else, chances are that therapy isn’t going to be very successful. Base your choice to seek treatment on behaviors that you clearly see and are willing to work to change.
3. Change the people around you.
Want to go to therapy to process and vent and receive validation about the rude and crazy ways the people around you act, and how to better deal with them and regulate yourself? Please! Come on in and let’s get to it! Want to go to therapy so that you can learn how to change others and bring them into my office so that I can make them do what you want…ummm….not so much (parents, I’m lookin’ at you). The hard truth here is that the only person who can change you is you, and the only person who can change the people around you…is them. Focusing on how to change the behaviors of other people is exhausting and a waste of your time. Instead, focus on how to deal with your own reactions and responses and to set boundaries where necessary. This also goes for parents seeking therapy for their teenagers. If those teens are open and receptive to the idea, then therapy can be a helpful and positive experience. If they are extremely resistant and closed off, chances are you are wasting your time and money. Even an amazing therapist cannot change someone who is dead set against not changing.
4. Make your partner stop drinking, using drugs, or acting in ways that are unsafe or unhelpful.
This one is very similar to #3. I often have couples enter therapy and one of them has a drinking or substance abuse problem. Part of the reason they are coming to therapy is because they want me to make them stop. While there is great alcohol and drug abuse treatment available, even the initiative to seek and participate in that rests on the person with the problem. If you don’t think you have a problem, you won’t work to change anything. Entering into a therapeutic contract with a client in active addiction is also contraindicated, and can lead to serious harm in some cases. Addicts and alcoholics often lack coping skills that are not alcohol or drugs, and when therapy gets tough (which it often will) they often turn to those coping skills to get them through. This goes double for domestic violence and abuse in relationships. Partners engaging in active violence are not appropriate for couples counseling and instead should be referred to an abuser intervention program for treatment. If that is completed successfully, couples therapy can often be helpful in healing emotional wounds and reestablishing connection.
5. Cure your depression, anxiety, ADHD, etc.“Cure” is the word I take objection to here. If you have anxiety, for example, then I’m sorry to tell you that you will likely always struggle with that anxiety at certain points in your life. Therapy can help you beef up your toolkit for when your anxiety flares, it can help you set boundaries, and it can help you understand what things make your anxiety better or worse. But cure it, so that it’s completely gone and never at issue again? Not so much. Things like anxiety and depression often wax and wane and flare and recede. It’s very typical for these disorders to flare during stress or exposure to new environments. Therapy can help you recognize when that is more likely to occur and how to better cope, but it’s not going to get rid of those responses for you. It’s important to remember that just because you’ve been in therapy for years and still feel anxious or depressed sometimes doesn’t mean that therapy is useless or doesn’t work. The end goal here is just different than maybe you want it to be.
Obviously, I believe in the power of therapy (I would hate my job if I didn’t!). And I have seen clients make beautiful, healing changes over my last decade as a therapist. I have been an integral part of many of those changes and it is a privilege I have as a therapist to witness. If you are ready to listen with an open heart, grow, and make an effort towards change, then therapy is the place for you! I am proud of you for being vulnerable and stepping out of your comfort zone! I wish you much growth and healing on your journey.
Erin Newton has been working with individuals and families for almost nine years now. She specializes in perinatal mental health, birth trauma, and anxiety related issues. She strives to help her clients feel seen, heard, understood and to give them the tools they need to start their own journey of healing.
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