Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, has been shown to help people better understand themselves and those around them. It can give you the skills and tools to support your own mental health, which in turn, may improve the rest of your life.
If you’ve recently started therapy, you’ve taken a good first step in feeling better; healing from past traumas and learning new coping skills. But how do you know if you’re making progress?
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself to determine if therapy is working and next steps if it’s not.
Am I being honest with myself … and my therapist?
It can be scary to share private and personal information with another person—especially someone you don’t know. You might have been raised to guard yourself; to never show weakness or to sweep things under a rug. However, these belief systems leave us feeling isolated and lonely.
“If you aren’t being upfront with your therapist, then you aren’t going to accomplish anything,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Your therapist may even be confused about what you may need help with.”
The goal in therapy is to break negative patterns and self-talk that no longer serve you. One of the biggest benefits of being honest with your therapist is that you can solve the problems at hand.
“When we hide it, and we really need the help, we in fact make it worse,” Dr. Fox said. ‘Explaining your personal story frees yourself from any emotional pain or suffering that led you to come to therapy in the first place. If you aren’t going to place your trust in your therapist to be non-judgmental, then it will be hard for you to release that pain and difficulty.”
Am I moving toward meeting short-term/long-term goals?
Treatment can vary greatly from person-to-person and situation-to-situation, but it should always move in a direction toward an end point—even if that end point shifts or evolves over time.
Developing treatment goals is important to keeping you moving in a forward direction for future sessions as well as identifying your desired outcomes from therapy.
“One of the things therapists use to identify if therapy is working is to give patients the magic wand question: If you could imagine all your problems are solved, what would be different?” Dr. Fox said. “This encourages specific responses and examples of what they would want to change to improve their lives and helps guide treatment therapy.”
One of the most important things you can do with your therapist during the process is to check in and check out each session. This is key to gauging if progress is being made and can work for individual or group therapy. “Check in with your therapist and share what is going on and any struggles,” Dr. Fox said. “When your session is nearing completion, check out to see if you’ve been given the tools to better handle the situation.”
Am I starting to feel better?
Believe it or not, one of the most obvious signs that therapy is helping is that you start to feel better. Results won’t happen overnight, but over time you should gradually start to feel some relief.
However, remember growth isn’t linear—it’s a tangled mess of lines. Overhauling trauma, anxiety, depression or negative patterns requires patience. Some sessions you may make great headway and feel good. Then other sessions may bring up difficult emotions that don’t feel so good, but this is still a sign of progress.
“It may sound illogical or counterintuitive, but it means you’re addressing painful, emotional and difficult situations in your life,” Dr. Fox said. “The good news is that these feelings are limiting because you’ve started on the therapeutic journey to improve your life and feel better.”
Have I learned new skills?
You also know therapy is working if you’re using the skills you learned in session, outside of session. For example, are you better able to set boundaries with others, prioritize your own needs and demands, and effectively deal with situations without spiraling into a panic attack? These are great signs of progress.
Have friends and family noticed these changes?
Perhaps family and friends have noticed an improvement in your mood or a decrease in negative behaviors. Or maybe you have fewer arguments or conflicts because it shows you’re using conflict resolution skills effectively.
Why isn’t therapy working? Is it me or is it my therapist?
Maybe the client-patient relationship ran its course, or maybe your therapist isn’t a good fit for you. But ending a therapeutic relationship after years of progress is much different than saying goodbye to a therapist who isn’t a good interpersonal fit.
If you’re not connecting with your therapist, finding stagnation in your sessions or find that you’re not progressing, it’s absolutely OK to break up with your therapist.
“Like with relationships, there’s no settling in therapy,” Dr. Fox said. “If you do, you won’t get results.
“Most therapists should be accepting of the fact that it isn’t working out for the patient. Letting your therapist know helps them recognize there is stagnation in the work that is being done so they can help guide you finding some relief—whether that’s making changes to improve your client-patient relationship or connecting you with another therapist.”
Calling it quits with a therapist is also beneficial for you. It may allow you to reflect on what things worked and didn’t work and to make changes on your end to improve your relationship with a new therapist.
If you need help finding a new therapist, check out “Choosing the Right Therapist for You.”
Therapy can help you make significant changes in your life, but these changes don’t happen all at once. Remember to check in intermittently with yourself to see if you’re headed in the right direction.
If you have any doubts, don’t be afraid to ask your therapist if they think your therapy is progressing. Your therapist will always be open to discussing what’s working and what isn’t, so you can make sure you’re on track and getting where you need to be.