By Deana Riley, L.P.C.
The hard earned money and commitment of time clients spend on therapy is too much to gamble and waste. After 36 years practicing as a mental health therapist in Georgia and over 20 years as a counseling practice owner, I have witnessed many common mistakes clients and therapists have made that have unintentionally sabotaged the effectiveness of the results of their therapy. I’d like to share these with you in hopes that you’ll avoid these pitfalls.
#1: Seeking the Right Therapist Match
All therapists are not created equal. Likewise, all clients' needs aren’t the same. As the client/consumer, consider what type of personality traits in a therapist may feel the most helpful and motivating for you. Do you need someone with a soft, gentle approach or someone who may be more direct and firm? Do you like a lot of psychoeducation to fully understand the technique your therapist implements or would you prefer a more experiential experience in therapy? Do you want someone who can integrate spirituality into your care or someone who doesn’t? Are you seeking a therapist sensitive to issues that are personally relevant to you such as being LGBTQ friendly or of a certain race or from a certain culture? Do you need a counselor with specialty training in a certain area like trauma, post affair recovery, couples counseling, play therapy, family therapy or grief and loss issues? As the client, you have the right to ask for these customized needs to be met. Sometimes this means changing therapists and other times the needs can be met by your therapist once you share your concerns. As competent therapists, we are not offended if a client did their best to seek for their needs to be met but realizes after some time working with their therapist that it isn’t the right match afterall. Effective, ethical therapists want their clients to have the best possible match for their needs to be met. Likewise, a quality therapist is always assessing whether they are the best therapist to meet their clients needs. If a therapist realizes that they are not the best matched therapist to meet their client’s needs, they have an ethical obligation to discuss this with their client and possibly make a referral to a better matched provider. I realize these conversations are sometimes difficult or uncomfortable for a client or therapist to have but they are essential for setting up clients and therapists for success. I believe the best approach to starting this conversation is to be open about how difficult it is to have the conversation. By stating this first, you give your client or therapist a compassionate reminder that there is no intent to harm but every intention to help.
#2: Attend Therapy as Needed
When you begin therapy, your therapist will spend some time hearing about your history, the struggles you are currently having and what you’d like to get from therapy. Once your therapist has this information, he/she can recommend a frequency and length of time for each session that is likely to best meet your needs. It is very important to regularly attend and participate as recommended. I can’t tell you how many times I have spoken to people who have said therapy didn’t work for me and when I asked more questions, it was revealed that they missed numerous sessions that caused them to fail to follow the recommended scheduling to best meet their therapeutic needs. Another common therapy failure scenario I’ve encountered is someone saying, “we tried therapy for a year and it didn’t work” only to find out that either they never stayed with the same therapist long enough to get traction or they attended sporadically. Most outpatient therapists recommend a minimum of one session per week in the initial phases of therapy. These consistent weekly sessions allow for both the building of trust between the therapist and clients and for the therapeutic process to gain traction and momentum. Skipped sessions can cause each session to feel like starting over and this can be frustrating for the client and therapist. If there is a reason why initial weekly sessions aren’t possible, ask your therapist if the scheduling frequency you need will be therapeutic. I’ve found that for some clients, weekly sessions for the first couple of months and then every other week sessions can still be effective. Likewise, I have also had clients that initially needed either longer sessions or more than 1 session a week to have an effective result from their therapy. Many factors go into a therapist making these decisions. Is the client coming in the middle of a crisis or tragedy? Has the client waited so long to start the process that they are struggling to function? Does the client have previous experience in therapy that was helpful? How urgent are clients' needs? Is the client seeking growth or intervention? Answers to these questions and discussions about the therapeutic recommendations and client scheduling needs are crucial to set up therapy for success.
#3: Explore a Realistic Time Frame to Meet Therapeutic Goals
Sometimes a client enters therapy with an unrealistic idea about the length of time needed to begin meeting the goals they are seeking to address in therapy. Many of the same issues that were relevant above, also apply in this category. Is the client coming in the middle of a crisis or tragedy? Has the client waited so long to start the process that they are struggling to function? Does the client have previous experience in therapy that was helpful? How urgent are clients' needs? Is the client seeking growth or intervention? Generally speaking a year is a common amount of time for therapy. There are rare circumstances where clients are coming in for a specific issue like a loss that may be well addressed in 6 - 8 months of therapy. Three months would be considered an extremely short amount of time in therapy. Clients participating in many years of ongoing therapy is not unusual. Clients can decide how in depth they want their therapy to be. Are they seeking to meet a very narrow need like seeking support and guidance to navigate a specific change in their family life or is the client seeking healing from a complicated history of trauma and losses? Clearly, the time needed for these different goals are far apart on the spectrum. Another common scenario that I have experienced with my clients is that you may have a targeted set of issues you’d like to address and once you’ve addressed them you take a break from the therapy process and then return when you’re ready to address other specific issues. I also have clients who have been in therapy for years and it is part of their self care. Often these clients are addressing long term issues as well as seeking support for struggles they are experiencing in real time. Some of these same clients may only need to come every other week or even once a month. As I’m sure you’ve guessed there is a broad range of time in therapy that is dependent on what needs the client is seeking to meet.
#4: Make Sure Your Therapist is Trained in the Speciality You Need
Since this category has already been referenced in another context, I can sum this up short and sweet. Therapists are trained in a variety of specialty areas. You can’t assume that all therapist are qualified to work with couples or families; many are not. Also, many therapists are trained in some very specific issues within the work with a certain population of people. For instance, I am not only trained to work with couples but I also have specialty training in a specific couples therapy technique (EFT -Emotionally Focused Therapy) and specific issues of relationships like post affair recovery. I also specialize in trauma recovery that specifically includes training to seek healing from experiencing abuse. When you are seeking a counselor, ask or research whether they are specifically qualified to help with your specific needs.
#5: Don't Give Up To Soon
Having an unrealistic expectation for how long it may take to address your specific therapeutic needs can result in giving up on the process too soon. If you are feeling like progress is slow or the process is taking longer than you expected, ask your therapist about this. It’s also appropriate to ask your therapist early on in therapy, how long it may take to address your specific needs.
Look out for Part 2 of my post next week! My hope is that your counseling journey is enhanced by these tips. If you are currently looking for an experienced therapist, you can call 770-451-0404 to schedule today!