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Anxiety

5 Things Therapy Can Do for You

... and 3 things it can't.

Sigmund/Unsplash
Source: Sigmund/Unsplash

What a great therapist can do for you

1. Help you learn to trust. Therapists are trained to be consistent and reliable. They're not moody. They're always emotionally available and responsive during sessions. They keep good boundaries—during your sessions, the focus is completely on you and your needs.

Many people who come to therapy have either an anxious or avoidant attachment style. People with anxious styles commonly fear that their emotions and needs will overwhelm others and result in them being abandoned. People with avoidant styles fear their autonomy will be encroached upon. A great therapist won't do either of those. They'll support your autonomy, and your distress won't overwhelm them (really, it won't). You'll talk to them about your flaws, and they still won't reject you.

2. Help you learn to differentiate your emotions. Good emotion regulation starts with being able to accurately label your emotions. This allows for granularity.

Similar emotions are subtly different. People who struggle with emotion regulation often recognize feeling only one emotion in a very dominant way (e.g., they feel like they're always anxious, angry, or irritable). Or they use non-specific words, like "I feel weird," to describe their emotions. Research shows that when you label your emotions more accurately and specifically when you're distressed, that distress will feel less intense. If you'd like to get a head start on learning emotional granularity, the book Emotional Agility by Susan David is a great primer.

3. Help you learn to be values-driven (rather than behaving in ways that minimize experiencing difficult feelings). Decades ago, therapy used to be focused on helping people minimize their "negative" emotions. For example, if someone was scared of flying or spiders or leaving their house, the therapist would try to help the client see those experiences as less dangerous.

Modern therapy has a different focus. It helps you learn to act on your values, even when you're feeling distressed. For example, I value being good at my job and disseminating my ideas and skills more than I value avoiding anxiety. Therefore, I'm willing to endure the anxiety of things like getting feedback, sending cold emails, posting on social media, etc.

A great therapist will help you learn which values matter more to you than avoiding negative emotions. They'll teach you skills for handling your distress so that you can still pursue what's most important to you, even when emotions like anxiety or self-doubt are swirling intensely within you.

4. Help you see your strengths. Many people who come to therapy have a restricted view of their strengths. They often over-rely on just one or a few strengths as their main source of self-esteem. For example, someone might view their smartness, work ethic, persistence, or loyalty as their only important redeeming quality. This causes problems. For instance, if you view your grit or persistence as the only thing that gives you worth, it will lead to you over-persisting in situations where that's not helpful. You won't have the flexibility to change your approach based on the situation because doing so would threaten your identity.

Your therapist will help you see strengths in yourself you didn't know you had. This will assist you in diversifying your sources of self-worth, which can help you become more resilient, more flexible, and less of a doormat. Therapy helps you learn that while you have flaws, they're not fatal flaws that will result in everyone rejecting you or you losing your status within your work role, family, and community.

5. See your thinking errors in action. If you're a regular reader here at Psychology Today, you'll probably have some idea of what your thinking errors are. For example, you might recognize if you tend to jump to the worst conclusion or assume other people will reject you. Even when you know what some of your thinking errors are, it can be hard to notice when they're occurring in real-time. As you chat with your therapist, they'll help you notice when you're making a thinking error right then and there.

What therapy can't do for you

1. Make your life decisions for you. Your therapist can't and won't tell you if you should break up with someone, have another kid, sell your house to buy an RV, or quit your job to go to grad school.

2. Get your loved ones to do what you want them to do. Sometimes people come to therapy with the goal of getting someone else to change. Sorry, folks, it doesn't work like that.

3. "Fix" you. Therapy won't fix you because you don't need "fixing." For example, I'm anxious and disagreeable by nature. My expert psychology skills haven't made that not true, but they have helped me feel peaceful about my natural personality.

In society, we're often told that to succeed and be loved, we need to be a certain way. We're told that to be accepted by others, we need to be cheerful, easy-going, and flawlessly consistent and reliable (something very difficult if you're, say, prone to depression). If your personality isn't easy, and you're not bulletproof, you may fear you'll eventually be rejected by everyone, or your success will crumble. Therapy won't make you a different person, and it won't make you bulletproof, but it will help you see you don't need to be.

What More Do You Need to Know?

If you're curious about what therapy with expert therapists is like, a good way to get some quick insight into this is the Dear Therapists podcast, hosted by Guy Winch and his co-host, therapist Lori Gottlieb.

Sometimes people fear going to therapy because they're not sure exactly how they're supposed to behave in therapy. Are you supposed to cry? Lie down on a sofa? Any great therapist will help orient you, but the podcast I mentioned can help you get the idea too.

You'll see that the role of being a therapy client includes behaviors like being as honest as you can be, allowing the therapist into your world, being generally courteous (as you would in any professional interaction), telling your therapist anything important they don't specifically ask about, and, very critically, letting the therapist know if any of their interpretations don't fit and don't seem accurate to you. Telling your therapist when they are off-track in their interpretations or have minimized something important is one of a client's most crucial roles in therapy. It's actually central to point number one of this article. We learn to trust not through another person being perfect but through them being receptive when we need to correct them.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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