Although it can be difficult to admit as a psychologist, talk therapy does not work for everyone.
In fact, some critics of psychotherapy would argue that it does not even work for the majority of people.
I can see the validity in the arguments by these critics. I have always been a firm believer that talking to a friend, family member or spiritual leader can be as effective as working with a professional therapist.
In fact, some research has shown this to be the case, particularly among certain cultures.
Although it is not a cure for all things psychologically distressing, I tend to believe that therapy works for most people…to varying degrees. It really depends on how you define “works”.
Change Is Not Always Quick
If your patient goes into the therapy process with the idea that eight to 10 meetings with a trained professional is going to erase years of hardship and struggle, then he or she will likely be disappointed with the results.
Unlike taking an antibiotic for 10 days to rid the body of an infection, psychotherapy can require months (years in some cases) of ongoing treatment.
This fact can be a hard “pill” to swallow in our fast-paced, fix-it-now culture. This perception is influenced in part by the field of psychiatry.
Those patients who seek pharmacological intervention as the first or sole approach to care may believe that psychotherapy is similar-appointments are brief check-ins and are spaced out from several weeks to months.
In reality, psychotherapy requires a more in-depth analysis of the patient’s problem(s) and the establishment of a deeper relationship is required.
Your patient’s satisfaction and patience with therapy also depends on his or her expectations and how they define success. Instead of being a “cure” like an antibiotic, therapy helps people change how their perceptions influence their feelings and actions over time.
It helps them adapt and incorporate their difficult past life experiences into a new way of living. In turn, this process helps the person lead a less distressing and more fulfilling life.
To be successful, in most cases, measuring symptom reduction is not sufficient. Learning how to live differently and manage life problems more effectively is required. This method takes a commitment of time, money and emotions-three things people are often reluctant to give.
Finding the Right Person
And don’t forget about the importance of selecting a good match. Finding the right therapist is key if your patient wants to maximize the benefits from talk therapy.
And as much as we may not want to admit it, at times, we may not be the best fit for all of our patients. We are more easily able to develop trust and a strong alliance with some and not others.
It is important that your patients work with someone they trust and can talk to openly and honestly. If not, they will feel like they are getting nowhere, become frustrated with the process and eventually drop out.
That is why I encourage people to shop around for a therapist. If a patient tends to respond well to clear direction and guidance, he or she may want to see someone who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
If they are more of the introspective and curious type, consulting a therapist of the psychodynamic persuasion may be a good choice.
Ask the Question ‘Is Psychotherapy Needed?’
Then there is the reality that your patient may not need psychotherapy. Maybe he would benefit from more traditional forms of healing like talking with friends and family, exercise or focusing his efforts on helping others who are also struggling.
It’s not that therapy isn’t important. It is more of an acknowledgement that, for thousands of years, people overcame tremendous hardships without the help of a psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker.
This idea is not to minimize the important role we play in many of our patient’s lives. It is just a reminder that healing can occur in many different places and from many different people.
Therapy can be a highly effective treatment for a range of psychological problems and people. Our roles as therapist and/or counselor are important. We have much to offer and countless lives have been improved and saved because of our work. However, psychotherapy is not a magic bullet.
A previous version of this article was published in Dr. Moore’s column Kevlar for the Mind in Military Times.