Why Isn’t Therapy Working?

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Published Date|
July 14, 2022

Why Isn’t Therapy Working?

As an intake specialist at KMA Therapy, I often hear people ask, how do I know therapy is working? When will I get better? Was therapy the right move? Some people who have attended therapy long-term have even said they don’t know if they’re making any progress.

It’s not uncommon to feel that therapy isn’t working for you. It is also totally normal to be confused about your progress or when you’re supposed to be “done”.

Let’s be real; therapy is an investment! It takes time and money to attend sessions, so it can be discouraging to feel that it isn’t doing anything. In this article, I’ll break down:

  • 4 signs therapy may actually be working
  • 3 reasons why therapy isn’t working
  • 3 signs it’s time to consider other options

Unlike taking aspirin to soothe a headache, therapy heals at different paces, and it’s not always clear if it’s working. The reality is; many times therapy is working, just not the way we thought it would.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of whether therapy is working. If it’s not working for you, you’ll know what steps you can take next.

4 Signs Therapy Is Actually Working

Therapy is becoming more mainstream, but there are still a lot of misconceptions about what to expect. One of the most common misunderstandings is that at some point, you’ll have a big breakthrough, and after that, you’ll be healed.

It would be nice to have that ‘eureka!’ moment and then turn your life around, but unfortunately, therapy doesn’t usually work that way. Yes, there are sessions when you’ll have realisations, and maybe even moments of catharsis, but those times will not instantly change everything.

The truth is that progress in therapy is gradual.

Sometimes, so gradual that we may not even be able to tell if it’s helping until we look back on weeks or even months of work.

But, of course, you don’t want to spend months in therapy only to realise that it isn’t for you. So, let’s break down some subtle signs that you may actually be making progress.

  1. Behavioural Changes

Even if you’re not all the way where you want to be, you may notice small things in your behaviour have changed. Are you sleeping better than you used to? Are you speaking up more often than you were before? Do you have more energy to complete tasks?

  1. External Relationship Changes

Your relationships with others may have changed. Maybe you notice that when you argue with your partner, you’re not as quick to shut down. Maybe when your parents say something that bugs you, you don’t blow up as quickly or as often.

  1. Internal Relationship Changes

Your internal voice is improving. Sure, you may still feel some anxiety when someone gives you criticism, but you’re able to recognize and interrupt the downward spiral. You may also spend more time appreciating yourself, or at the very least, less time scolding yourself.

  1. Improved Mood

You may still experience hard days, but you notice that they’re not as often now. If you couldn’t access joy before, now you can (at least sometimes). You may even feel optimistic about life, when you couldn’t before.

Sometimes, these changes are easy to miss, especially when you’re hoping for a big “everything is different now” revelation. Try keeping a journal where you track your interactions and mood. Looking back at the weeks, do you notice any changes? Even if you’re not all the way to your goals, are you closer than before?

If the answer is yes, it’s possible that therapy is working! Readjusting your expectations now that you know how therapy works may help ease some of your uncertainty.

3 Reasons Why Therapy Isn’t Working

Okay, you’ve reflected, and you still feel therapy isn’t working or that you’re not making enough progress. Now, let’s explore some reasons why this could be the case.

The first possibility is that you might be self-sabotaging your progress without even knowing it. You’re not alone. Let’s outline some things you may need to acknowledge to make sure you’re not getting in your way:

  1. You’re not doing the work outside of therapy sessions

This is a really common one. When you’re in session, you may be energised to reach your goals, but are you maintaining that stamina between sessions? It’s hard to do the work when you don’t have a cheerleader by your side, but changes can only be made out in the ‘real world’.

When you’re not in sessions, make sure you’re:

  • Doing the homework your therapist assigns
  • Trying your hardest to practice what you talked about during sessions, outside of sessions
  • Using the coping mechanisms you discussed out in the real world

I know, easier said than done, but you won’t see progress made without doing the work!

If you’re having trouble translating session work into your life, discuss it with your therapist. You may be able to come up with new strategies that work better for you.

  1. You’re not being honest during therapy sessions

It can be challenging to talk about your life. Your past may be difficult to open up about. It’s never easy to discuss the mistakes you’ve made. You may feel shame, guilt, or intense pain about a person, event, or experience.

Remember, your therapist isn’t there to judge you, they’re there to help you.

They can only do that if they know what’s going on. If you feel like you can’t open up, that’s okay. Being vulnerable and real takes time.

Let your therapist know what’s going on, and from there, they can help you disclose information in a way that feels safe to you.

  1. You don’t attend therapy sessions regularly

Every once in a while, things come up, but if you’re late or cancelling sessions regularly, therapy simply won’t work the way it’s supposed to.

Check in; why are you avoiding therapy? Does it make you emotionally tired? Is it too much work? Are you scared of the topics that may come up?

You can always let your therapist know if sessions are getting too intense or tiring. While therapy should be uncomfortable sometimes, they can reconsider their approach to make it more tolerable for you.

If you notice these patterns, you may need to consider that you have a role in your lack of progress. A therapist’s job is to support you, but they can only work with what you give them!

When It’s Time to Consider Other Options

It’s entirely possible that you’re doing all you can, but therapy still doesn’t work. If that’s the case, you may need to consider other options altogether. Let’s discuss some reasons why therapy simply isn’t working:

  1. Your therapist is not good

We’ve all heard stories about bad mechanics, bad teachers, even bad doctors! Unfortunately, the therapy field is no different; bad therapists exist.

Some signs that your therapist is simply not good are:

  • They judge or shame your actions, feelings, or thoughts
  • They don’t listen to you
  • They make unfair assumptions about you
  • They don’t challenge you/they always agree with what you say
  • They impose their religious, political, or social beliefs on you

It is extremely discouraging to have a bad therapist, and it will affect your therapy progress. Opening up about vulnerable parts of your life is difficult enough when you’re working with someone supportive, it can be distressing with someone who responds inappropriately.  

If you notice one or more of these signs, it’s time to find someone else. Don’t give up on therapy altogether, there are good therapists out there! Check out the article I Don’t Like My Therapist: What Should I Do? for more information on your options.

  1. You and your therapist are not a good match

Sometimes, it’s not that your therapist is bad, but that they’re not the right fit for you. Maybe your personalities don’t match so you don’t know if they ‘get you’. Maybe they don’t have training related to the issues you need help with. This may affect the progress you make towards therapy.

If you feel that you and your therapist are not a good match, it’s okay to present questions or decide to move on. There’s nothing wrong with asking your therapist what training and experience they have. It’s also totally fine to find someone who you think you’ll click with better. If you’re wondering whether you and your therapist are a good match, check out this article.

  1. Other forms of treatment may be better for you

Lastly, therapy may not be working for you because you need other forms of treatment. Perhaps you’re in individual therapy when couple’s therapy would be more suitable, or you’re doing Cognitive-Behavioural therapy when Person-Centred therapy is the better fit. Maybe medication by itself, or alongside therapy would be the right avenue to take.

Talking to your therapist about different types of treatment could make all the difference. They can make appropriate referrals and help you reach the professional that’s right for you!

Next steps When Therapy Isn't Working

There are many reasons therapy isn’t working. It may be something you don’t even notice you’re doing. It could also be that your therapist or treatment simply isn’t well-suited to your needs. You may even find that therapy is working, but not in the way you thought!

Whatever your journey is, remember: you never have to stay in a situation that makes you uncomfortable. It is good to challenge yourself, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen to your gut.

If you want to make changes in your therapeutic journey, try some of these strategies:

  • Ask questions about your therapist’s experience and training
  • Talk about tweaking your therapy goals or approach
  • Ask for a referral to a different therapist, or a different mental health specialist
  • Find a different therapist on your own

If you’re wondering what mental health professional is right for you, check out the article What Are the Different Types of Therapists?

If you want to know if therapy is the right move for you, check out Will Psychotherapy Help Me?

Author |
Julieta Melano Zittermann
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