Stepping into the therapy room for the first time can be a daunting experience for some, and a complete relief for others. There is no single way that therapy should be done, and no single way that it should feel. There is no single approach to therapy that is the perfect solution to every problem and every client. So how do you know if the therapy experience that you are having is working?
There are a few tell tale signs that all good therapy will have – and there are few tell tale signs that let you know that you should probably find yourself a different therapist. Regardless of which therapy professional you see (The Many Faces of Therapy), good therapy is certainly easy to tell apart from the not-so-good type of therapy.
So what should you be looking for, to know if your therapy experience is everything that it should be?
“How this therapist works fits for me”.
Different therapists will have different personal styles – we are all human after all. You should feel like, even when you are feeling challenged by your therapist, that their personal style fits your needs and preferences well. To understand more about the therapy relationship read What Makes Therapy Work. You will know that your therapist is a good fit for you by how you feel during the vulnerable, difficult, challenging, and insightful moments of your therapy – you will feel supported (not forced), nurtured (not uncomfortably so), and respected as the driver of your own therapy experience while your therapist offers some navigation assistance. Your red flags should be alerting if you feel that your therapist is forcing, controlling, directing, or harming you in any way.
“When I don’t know the boundaries, my therapist does”.
You are not expected to automatically get how this therapy thing works – and that includes the boundaries involved in an good therapy relationship. A good therapy experience will have occasions in which your therapists kindly and clearly alerts you to a boundary that is needed to keep your therapy relationship exactly that – a therapy relationship. After all – this is not a new friendship in the making (although you will often feel that you and your therapist would make good friends!) – your therapist is a season in your lifetime, there for a special purpose.
If your therapist is making a lot of contact with you between sessions, socialising with you outside of session, allowing you to call them whenever you please, or being overly affection or touchy – your red flags should be alerting.
“I don’t always come out of therapy feeling totally happy”.
If you are coming out of every session beaming with happiness and positives – you may find that your therapist isn’t doing so good for you. This is why. You likely came to therapy because you were struggling with something, right? Doesn’t it make sense that therapy is going to feel a little uncomfortable sometimes as you address this struggle? During good therapy you should feel challenged, defensive, resistant, vulnerable, maybe even a little embarrassed to tell your story in its completeness. Good therapy should include experiencing sadness, anger, confusion and all other emotions also. People learn the most when they find their own discomfort. But here is the thing – a good therapist will help you find these discomforts, while also supporting and nurturing your wellbeing. Therapy should feel like the safest place to feel your discomforts – no judgement, no criticism, no punishment, and no disrespect. So be ready for a journey through the whole spectrum of your emotions with the most trusted travel partner keeping you on track – sitting right beside you.
“Just for a change, it was all about me”.
Good therapy will be about you. Seems obvious right? This is your time, and while you are here, you are the most important topic of conversation! Your therapist should be more interested in hearing your story, sharing your experiences, indulging in your insight building, than in themselves. Don’t get me wrong, some therapists do have a very transparent and authentic personal style, and will share small insights into themselves or their own life experiences. This is usually done with a special focus on being relevant to your story – having a purpose to boost your understanding of your own experience, or to help you recognise that we are all humans having very human experiences. This is totally acceptable in good therapy. However, if you find that most of your session is not about you – or you feel that you are learning way too much about your therapists life – then your red flags should be alerting.
“ I don’t always understand what’s going on, but things are changing in my life for the better”.
Therapy is a bit of an art. This is not a chat with a friend. Your therapist probably spent many years (and yes you should ask about this as part of choosing your therapist) studying and learning the refined art of therapy. So you may not always completely know why they took a particular tack in your session or why they have asked you to try a particular exercise. Often, regardless of giving as much explanation as possible, clients will still explain that they have no idea how EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing) works. Yet their safe therapeutic relationship and trust in me allows them to ‘give it a go’ and as a result see subtle yet significant changes occur in their lives following this treatment. So if you aren’t supposed to understand it all completely – how do you know when you have entered red flag territory? When the effect of any therapy technique is ongoing distress, feeling more unstable, or making you feel unsafe in any way – you are in the red flag zone.
“I feel like I am the one making my own choices”.
This one is pretty straight forward.
A good therapist will know and respect this. They will make sure that you also know this, and as such will walk with you, but will not drag you along. A good therapist will see that although you are struggling, you are also capable and have the right to your own choices. Classic red flag examples include being told to leave a partner, to cut yourself off from friends or family, or that you have to engage in a treatment that you are not comfortable with.
So despite there being a whole range of pathways of training to become a therapist, regardless of the pathway or the profession, the journey that you take with a good therapist will be a distinctly different experience from the one that you will find yourself in with a ‘not so good’ therapist.
Notice your red flags – find the face of therapy that fits best for you – remember these common qualities that can be your sign posts along your therapy journey.