When you’re seeing a therapist, there are bound to be off-days when you wonder if you’ll ever make progress, or when the therapist makes some random remark that shows that they just don’t get you. But how do you tell a temporary blip from something that has become a waste of time and money?
How do you know if you’re simply being a wimp in wanting to run away from the difficult stuff that it is, after all, therapy’s job to throw at you?
And how can you be objective about the service you’re getting when the chances are you’re in a bit of a state?
When doubts creep in, it’s tempting to crawl back under the duvet and take the easy option: stick to the devil you know. That’s how Lesley felt after a year in therapy: frustrated, but reluctant to act.
“The idea of leaving is a huge deal,” she says. “It’s not like changing your hairdresser or doctor, because it’s an important relationship based on history and knowledge. It is disturbing to contemplate another change at a time when perhaps you’re not emotionally stable enough to cope with it.
“At times I find the thought of starting all over again with another therapist totally overwhelming. What if the new therapist isn’t what I need either? The temptation is to stick to what you’ve got in the hope it gets better.”
In a bad place
There’s not much to go on when judging a therapist’s performance, apart from comparing notes with friends who have also been in therapy. Obviously that’s not ideal, because experiences of therapy are so subjective. One person’s empathetic therapist is another person’s cold fish.
But talking to friends can be useful up to a point, and it helped Lesley come to a decision. She says: “For about two months I had been feeling that the therapy was taking me to a very bad place, and while I had expected the work to be hard I didn’t feel I was getting the support I needed to deal with it.
“Sometimes I felt so traumatised afterwards that I couldn’t face seeing friends for a couple of days.
“I felt I needed a more collaborative approach from my therapist; more intellectual discussion and context. She seemed a bit wishy-washy, and I felt she wasn’t giving me the tools to break patterns of behaviour.”
Eventually Lesley researched other options and decided to tell her therapist that she was seriously considering giving up. It took gumption: Lesley is not the only person in therapy with issues about upsetting other people.
Initially, she planned to fudge the reasons. But a friend persuaded her that honesty would be far more productive. The friend was right: “The thought of upsetting the therapist by telling her that she wasn’t giving me what I needed was horrible. I was tempted to be polite and not tell the truth.
“But it turned out that telling her how I really felt led to some very constructive conversations in the next few sessions.”
What makes the relationship between therapist and client unique is that it’s a curious mix of intense intimacy and objectivity – and often dependence.
Distinguished psychotherapist Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), emphasises the importance of a good match of personalities.
He says: “The key element in getting somewhere in therapy is the quality of your relationship with the therapist, being on the same wavelength and being able to find a common language with someone who has the right personality for you.
“If you think your therapist is a cold fish, chances are that will inhibit you. However, if you think every therapist you meet is a cold fish then yours is the problem – and you should just get on with it.”
If you are looking for a new therapist, or embarking on therapy for the first time, Hodson’s advice is to give prospective therapists a tough audition before making a commitment. From the outset, both sides should agree what the task is and how to recognise when they are getting near it.
After all, therapy is not to be embarked on lightly, not least because it doesn’t come cheap (though a good therapist is a pearl beyond price).
Equally importantly, to make any progress, therapy demands hard work that goes far beyond the hourly sessions; what Lesley describes as “joining the dots”.
Phillip Hodson is equally tough about the length of time clients should spend in therapy. In his experience, nine months to two years is average. He suggests that questions need to be asked if therapy lasts much longer than that.
Ending therapy completely
Finally, there is clearly a big difference between leaving therapy for good and moving on to a new therapist, in many ways a much more daunting task. In both cases it is advisable not to leave suddenly. However furious or frustrated you feel, resist the temptation to storm off in the middle of a session vowing never to return.
Of course the therapist can’t stop you leaving, but any therapists worth their salt will suggest at least one more session, because it’s good practice to make sure any outstanding issues are dealt with.
The sessions that follow this kind of showdown are often highly productive, as Lesley found. Indeed, the anxious anticipation of calling her therapist to account turned out to be much worse than the reality, which proved to be a golden opportunity to air key issues.
Lesley says: “It was really important to me that my therapist listened to my concerns and responded. It helped me to feel that my year with her hasn’t been a waste of time, which I might have felt if she hadn’t listened.
“I still don’t know if I’m going to continue with her, but whether I do or not I’ve found that facing up to the issues – rather than letting things just drift on – has been empowering.”
Further advice: BACP has a directory of therapists, and helpful information on what to expect from therapy, at It’s Good to Talk
Further reading: Couples counselling holidays