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I Tried Therapy Once And It Didn’t Work

3 minute read

Therapy is not for everyone. When all the research on the effectiveness of therapy is examined, it turns out that about 80% of people who asked for and received therapy feel better than the average person who didn’t get the therapy they requested. While this is an impressive result, it’s not a panacea, and there will be people who find therapy unhelpful. However, that’s true of many tried and tested medical practices too, and therapy is as or more effective than many interventions in cardiology, geriatric medicine, asthma, aspirin to prevent heart attacks, the flu vaccine and cataract surgery.

The research shows that the biggest influence, by far, on the outcome of therapy, is the client themselves. Just as we all respond differently to caffeine or exercise, and need different amounts of sleep, people vary widely in their response to the therapeutic environment.

Having said that, there are situations where the client could certainly benefit from therapy, but simply doesn’t click with the therapist. If you’ve tried therapy and you didn’t like it, perhaps one of the following three things happened:

“I felt judged”

Therapists are only human, and sometimes — particularly if the client’s behavior or emotions trigger something within the therapist — they can be critical of their clients. The founders of modern psychology used terms and concepts that are heavily value-laden. How could anyone avoid feeling judged when they’re told they’re stuck in the oral phase, that they use immature defenses, are narcissistic or secretly hate their mother?

What happens when we’re in therapy yet feel judged by our therapist? We unconsciously filter our thoughts, holding things back for fear of a wave of barely concealed disapproval from across the room. It becomes very difficult to really try to understand and accept ourselves. And without understanding and acceptance, it’s difficult to truly change.

“My therapist wasn’t very caring.”

When Sigmund Freud invented psychotherapy, he mandated that therapists should sit out of sight of their patients and say virtually nothing. This protected Freud from his critics who claimed he was coaching patients to invent sexual feelings from their childhoods, feelings which were scandalizing conservative Viennese society. And so was born the image of the remote, cold doctor sitting behind a patient saying little or nothing. That style of doing therapy is long out of vogue, but its influence still remains, and some therapists are careful not to show any emotion — which clients may interpret as not caring.

There are, of course, therapists who actually don’t care. Perhaps not many, but inevitably there will be those for whom this is just a way to make a living, or who have burned out, or who need to protect themselves from their clients’ pain by shutting them out emotionally.

It is difficult to make progress with therapists who don’t care about us. We sense their lack of interest, and that makes it difficult to explore our feelings and to try out new ways of thinking, acting and feeling.

“I didn’t like my therapist’s approach.”

There are over 400 different schools of therapy, many of which have their own explanations for the problems in living that we experience. Some say that our thinking is disordered, and if we change the way we think, our problems will go away. Others say it’s our behavior that causes the problem, and if we learn new ways of behaving that will fix everything. Still others say we just need to start thinking about solutions to our problems, or delve into our earliest childhood experiences, or create a narrative for our lives, or just have someone listen to us uncritically.

Most therapists will have picked one or two of these schools and will see our problems through the lens of that school. And that works just fine if their view of the problem makes sense to us. But sometimes we go to see a therapist who works one way when we would feel more comfortable working a different way.

Unfortunately, some therapists use their school of therapy the same way a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than illumination. When they’re facing a suffering client, they feel the need to do something — but what? Having a school of therapy to fall back on, a school that tells the therapist what to do in each session, is a great comfort. It’s not necessarily a comfort to the client, who might prefer to work in a different way, yet feels forced by their therapist to follow their path.

And so, when we sense that our therapists are critical of us, or don’t care about us, or see our problems in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, then we usually don’t make progress in therapy. The best response when that happens is not to say “I tried therapy and it didn’t work” but rather “I tried this therapist who didn’t fit me….and I’m going to try a different one.”


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