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When Therapy Fails

What to do when therapy isn't helping you. 

Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kyle Broad on Unsplash

Are you frustrated with your weekly sessions and thinking of quitting therapy? Perhaps you have friends who gush about their therapist and brag about the progress that they are making. You wonder why you don't share their excitement. (See "Is Your Therapist Helping You Enough?")

What do you do when therapy isn't delivering results?

When therapy isn’t working

Let’s consider some possible reasons why therapy is failing you:

1. A lousy therapist: Just as there are bad plumbers or teachers, there are bad therapists. A burnt-out, inexperienced, or poorly trained therapist isn’t likely to be very dynamic or even helpful. If your therapist looks bored, disinterested, or isn’t challenging you enough, confront him or her about it. If nothing changes, move on.

2. A poor fit: Therapy isn’t one size fits all. If you don’t feel safe, comfortable, or understood by your therapist, chances are that you’re working with the wrong person.

3. A severe mood disorder: If you’re suffering from extreme anxiety or overwhelming depression, talk therapy alone may not be enough, particularly if you have a long family history of mood disorders. It may be time to consider adding medication to your treatment.

4. Lack of motivation: If you’re attending sessions, but your heart isn’t in it, you’re not likely to see much progress. Waiting for your therapist to cure you without putting forth effort isn’t going to produce sustainable results.

5. Poor self-care habits: If you're not exercising, your diet is dismal, you don't have creative outlets, you engage in unhealthy relationships, or you abuse drugs or alcohol, such choices can undermine the benefits of therapy.

What to do if therapy isn’t helping

Before you fire your therapist or abandon treatment entirely, take a moment to identify what went wrong, and consider the following options:

1. Be choosey: Too often, people go with the first therapist that they meet. They rush into therapy without considering the actual therapists that they are hiring. Take your time; interview at least three therapists before you decide. Bring a list of questions to your first session. Trust your intuition. If the therapist transmits confidence and inspiration, that’s a great start.

2. Try different kinds of therapy: There are more types of therapy today than ever before, such as art or dance therapy. You may benefit from a more engaging and stimulating treatment than traditional talk therapy.

3. Consider group therapy: When it comes to social anxiety, chronic relationship problems, or self-isolating tendencies, you can’t beat the power of group therapy. Joining a group of individuals who are committed to each others' growth is an incredibly healing experience. I’ve led groups for 25 years, and I’m still awed by the progress I’ve seen in group members. (See "The Benefits of Group Therapy.")

4. Educate yourself about different schools of therapy: Certain forms of therapy target specific symptoms and are most effective. For example, if you’re struggling with symptoms of OCD or phobia, studies have shown that CBT or DBT therapies are your best choice.

5. Explore other interventions: If therapy isn’t working, consider other interventions, such as working with a nutritionist, life coach, or consulting with a psychiatrist. Keep trying until you experience the personal breakthrough that you crave.