Let’s say we’ve been in psychotherapy for 2 years, or even a year. It’s going well. We go weekly, we talk, we cry, even laugh, and after 50 minutes, we leave, knowing we’ll be back next week, to familiar seating, smells, hellos and goodbyes. Too often we continue this routine, deriving a sense of comfort from it, which may even be necessary – for a while. It’s all too easy to feel lulled into this rhythm.
Therapy is meant to soothe, yes, and this rhythm is an important part of it, but more importantly, therapy is meant to enable us to soothe ourselves. We want our immediate need for therapy to eventually become obsolete, instead taking the experience with us as a firm memory of a sense of comfort.
And so, like with every intimate relationship, it’s necessary to pause and ask – where is this going? Is therapy working for me?
Therapy follows a trajectory, and has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning is of course the clearest, comprising the first few introductory sessions. It involves setting goals, defining intentions, and outlining what we’re looking for from therapy. The middle is muddier, and spans the extent of the therapeutic work between the therapist and us.
The end is a recognition that what we set out to do is coming to fruition, that we can now see ourselves existing in the world without therapy.
There are often no clear markers, but good therapists always know when their job is done and will tell us so. In case we find ourselves wondering, here are some experiences that could indicate that our therapy is moving in the right direction, towards fulfilling our emotional needs:
- We come to firmly feel that our therapist cares for us, and that conversely we can trust them. We feel like it’s alright to share some important and difficult things, if not everything, and that they will continue to care for us. Even if we’re not physically present in front of them, we can believe that we matter to them.
- We feel safe and often good when we leave therapy. This doesn’t always happen, but more often than not, we get the sense that things are slightly better, or that they will be. We do not feel judged, unworthy or downright rotten when we leave ANY session.
- We are able to bring up more difficult and deeper things with our therapists, instead of only talking about surface or imminently problematic issues.
There is a sense of clarity about the inner workings of our mind and heart. It’s a sort of wakeful existence, as opposed to a more robotic, day to day trudging. Therapy becomes a space to take pause and reflect about patterns and core issues, having moved on from the general sharing of prosaic troubles.
- We have something new to think about when we leave the session – perhaps a new way of looking at ourselves, those around us, or circumstances in general. We’re better able to be in our situation and can feel slightly more in control of our own thoughts and emotions. Equally, we come to realize that we cannot be in control of other people’s thoughts and emotions (much as we’d all like!)
- We steadily feel more comfortable in therapy and more confident in applying our learnings to life outside. Therapy stops being simply about a session, but expands into the ways in which we interact with ourselves and others from moment to moment.
We are closer to healthier patterns of being in the world around us, and to patterns that serve us well.
- We gain a sense of confidence – that the external situation may not be different from when we started therapy, or that difficult times may come up again, but we will be alright. We will have the ability to be alright in those situations. And have the knowledge that we may return to therapy again to seek support, should we need it.
- We can see the change and trace the trajectory of who we were and how we’ve travelled to this new, emotionally healthier point.
We can empathize with ourselves, and feel proud of the effort and care we’ve put into our mental health.
We feel held, understood, contained, supported by our therapists, and gradually are able to do this for ourselves.
Eventually, successful therapy is that which ends, even if it is many moons later. Of course, we may take therapy for years, and that’s fine. But when thinking about therapy as an intervening tool, and as being a resource and finance intensive undertaking, then it’s helpful to think of it as a finite engagement.
To end, we go to the beginning.
To know how successful our therapy is, or if it is working, we must set, with some awareness, a direction we want to take.
This should be discussed in the first 2-3 sessions. This can keep evolving with us, changing as therapy progresses, but it’s important we start this way and remain mindful of our goals throughout. Not only does this help us develop a vision for a healthier self, it also empowers us to work towards it.