Therapy is a wonderful space to work through difficult issues, gain insight into problematic behavior, heal from trauma, and grow in your understanding of who you are and what you want.
Many people start therapy with optimism and hope for change, but sometimes they encounter barriers that prevent them from achieving their therapy goals. This experience can be discouraging as well as perpetuate some of the very issues that brought them into therapy to begin with.
When this happens, they may feel frustrated and discouraged, wondering if therapy just isn’t for them.
Often times, though, therapy itself isn’t the problem, but rather one or more barriers that are arising and preventing forward progress.
Here are 6 common barriers to progress in therapy.
You aren’t clear on your goals for therapy.
Most therapists, at the onset of therapy, support their client in identifying their goals for treatment.
For a lot of people, though, defining goals for therapy can present challenges. They want to “feel better,” “less anxious,” or “understand myself better.” But these goals lack the specificity to really help them recognize if they are on track toward their goal and, more importantly, how to know if they’ve reached their goal.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself to help you to create quantifiable therapy goals: How would I know if I was feeling better? What would I be doing more or less of? How would I be acting differently than I am now?
The more specific you can get on your therapy goals, the more effectively you’ll be able to assess your progress along the way and ensure that you are taking meaningful steps in the right direction.
Be sure to do this either in conjunction with your therapist, or share your goals with your therapist. That way, the two of you can be a team, united in the mission of helping you reach your therapy goals.
You don’t connect with your therapist.
Research has shown that approximately 30 percent of whether or not you find therapy successful can be attributed to your relationship with your therapist.
For this reason, therapist shopping should utilized. In order to find the best fit for you, interview various therapists to get a sense for their approach and feel out whether or not you get a good vibe from the interaction.
Many therapists offer free consultation calls where you can ask questions about their approach. That way, you don’t have to commit to the cost of an initial session without first assessing whether they seem like a good fit.
But if you still aren’t sure whether a therapist is the best fit, consider having a full session with two therapists and then making your decision about which one to continue with.
There’s also nothing wrong with breaking up with your therapist. If you’ve been seeing a therapist for a while and don’t feel heard or understood by your therapist, the therapist says something inappropriate and doesn’t repair, or you feel like the therapist isn’t providing the kind of support you need, then it’s absolutely okay to end the relationship.
While it takes time and effort to find the right fit, it’s worth it to invest the time so that you can feel confident that you’ll have the best support for your growth and healing journey.
You’re not being completely forthcoming with your therapist.
Transparency is an essential element to seeing progress in therapy and meeting your treatment goals.
Your therapist can only be as helpful as the information they have. While of course trust is built over time, the relationship should progress to the point where you can feel comfortable sharing relevant details.
You should be able to give feedback to your therapist on their approach as well as share information that will inform how the therapist supports you and which tools and resources they provide.
If you are struggling to open up to your therapist, ask yourself if it’s you or them. If it’s your own difficulty opening up, then consider sharing this with your therapist so that together the two of you can set a pace that you’re comfortable with. They’ll also be able to engage you in exercises that build trust and rapport between the two of you and help you gain the tools to become more comfortable with vulnerability.
If you attribute your reticence opening up to your therapist, then you might want to ask yourself these questions: Is the therapist pushing me to open up before I am ready? Is the therapist engaging in behavior that makes me feel unsafe? Did the therapist break my trust and then not repair?
Depending on your answer to these questions, you may find it healing to work through these issues with your therapist, or you might determine that the therapist isn’t the best fit for you.
You aren’t ready to do the work to change.
Some clients come into therapy with the expectation that the therapist will change them.
There’s no doubt about it: change is hard, and takes commitment to the work in and out of the therapy room.
Therapy should provide a safe space for you to have support and encouragement and gain tools to create the change you wish to see in your life. But make no mistake: the therapist should not work harder than you, and the therapist cannot do the work for you to change.
If you are struggling with your readiness to change, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not the right time for therapy. Your therapist can support you in recognizing, naming, and overcoming these barriers to change.
You might need to try a different style of therapy.
When it comes to the approach your therapist takes, there’s no one-size-fits-all. During the consultation call, be sure to ask the therapist which therapy modalities they utilize.
For example, if they only use CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), you might want to do some research to see if this approach aligns with the type of work you want to do in therapy, as some approaches are more behavior-based and others are more exploratory and insight-oriented.
Many therapists offer integrative and eclectic approaches that cater to the needs of the client. It can be helpful to see a therapist who takes this approach as you may feel more confident that the therapist will be able to adapt to your learning style and provide interventions that resonate with you.
Another benefit of an integrative approach is that certain elements of one type of therapy might provide the foundation for deeper work that will come later on in treatment.
For example, you might learn distress tolerance skills taken from DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) which then pave the way to be able to do trauma work with EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).
There are many approaches to therapy, and not every style might resonate with you. This is where it can be helpful to ask about the therapist’s preferred modalities and understand their philosophy on accounting for individual differences in learning, healing, and growing.
You might be using the session just to vent.
Some people come into therapy for a space to vent. Maybe their family members or friends have gotten tired of them “complaining” all the time so now they seek out a therapist to have a space to be heard.
Venting is helpful to release emotional distress and feel the relief of having your problems, fears, or issues witnessed by someone else, especially by a therapist who will validate and provide empathy.
But venting alone can be a barrier to reaching treatment goals. Venting, without gaining insight, using it as a tool to work through emotions, or as a vehicle to problem-solve issues and facilitate behavioral change, is likely to leaving the client feeling like therapy isn’t working.
Change requires action, and while venting can be a precursor to action, it’s not capable of effecting change in and of itself.
If you find yourself spending the session venting, ask yourself: How do I feel in the days between session? Are the issues that brought me into therapy getting better? What am I gaining from venting? How might venting alone be holding me back from effecting the change I wish to see in my life or solving the problem that brought me into therapy?
Venting can be mitigated with the support of your therapist. Consider asking your therapist to set an alarm or keep an eye on the clock for 10 minutes at the start of session for you to vent. This can help to balance the desire to “get it out,” while also ensuring that you leave sufficient time for creating the change you wish to see.
Therapy is a resource that can be immensely powerful in helping you to sort through your feeling, identify your values, eliminate unhelpful behaviors, work through relationship issues, and heal from trauma.
But simply attending therapy, without putting in the work with a therapist that’s a good fit for you, will likely leaving you wondering if therapy actually “works.”
Being mindful of common barriers to therapy progress can support you in getting the help you are seeking and grow in your relationship with yourself and others and ultimately live a joyful and fulfilling life.