As we approach both Christmas and the New Year, many of us like to take stock of the past year and to make concrete plans for the next. Usually those plans involve improving ourselves in some way, and therapy is one avenue to take when looking towards self-improvement. Therefore, just in time for the Christmas season, here are 5 things that make for a solid therapy experience so that you can reach your goals.
Your therapist should be both empathic and an active listener
There is a clear difference between the therapist who is merely allowing you to take up the therapy hour by talking, and the therapist who gives you the forum to speak, but does so in a way where you feel both heard and understood. The way in which therapists help you feel heard and understood is via empathy. While empathy may seem at first like its just a matter of the therapist agreeing with you, it actually helps with neural integration and thus with the ability to form a healthy self and healthy relationships (see Daniel Siegel’s work). Additionally, therapists actively listen to you, which means that we try not to jump to conclusions while you are talking, and we seek to not formulate what we are going to say next while you are inviting us into your life. This type of listening allows your therapist to hear what your friends and family may have missed.
Your therapist tells you the truth with charity
Mercifully, the days are gone where therapists are expected to check their own thoughts and values at the door and to be a blank slate for the patient. When a patient asks us if something they do is beyond the norm we are encouraged to let them know that what they are doing is indeed abnormal. However, that does not mean that a therapist is supposed to be uncouth in how they speak with their patients. People come to us because they feel misunderstood, scared, and lonely, and we have the privilege of being the face of Christ for our patients each day. Thus, your therapist should be firm with you, but never uncharitable.
Your therapist’s work should be based on both faith and reason
While good therapy is always based on scientifically proven methods, it is almost more important that it be based on a solid faith-perspective. Regardless of how scientific a therapist is, we all have some philosophical departure point which cannot be empirically proven. For example, some therapists believe that life is inherently meaningless, and that we are charged with creating meaning for our lives. Others, including myself, believe that each person has a specific God-given vocation in this life that only they can fill. Thus, each life has meaning and each life is loved and needed (Benedict XVI, 2005). Your therapist should see that science can only go so far, but that science does help to purify us against any harmful dogmatic beliefs.
Your therapist should help you help yourself
Solid therapists do not give advice to their patients. One of the positive explanations for that requirement in therapy is that giving advice robs the patient of the chance to become empowered and solve the problem him or herself. If you have chosen your therapist wisely, he or she will believe in the inherent human capacity to solve life’s problems. As mentioned in a previous article, giving advice sets up an unhealthy dynamic within the therapeutic relationship since it sends the nonverbal message of, “You cannot live your life without me guiding you.” Instead, your therapist should seek to help you explore all aspects of a decision, and then empower you to make your own decision so that one day therapy is no longer needed.
Your therapist should always allow you to set the pace
Good therapists allow their patients to go at a speed at which they are comfortable. That means that we only talk about what you are ready to talk about. I have found that it is quite useless to try and push a patient to process a point or event in their life before they are ready since it only leads to their frustration and their ultimate resentment of their therapist. Additionally, your therapist should not interpret your reluctance to talk about something as resistance to treatment. Instead, they will hopefully view it as a legitimate fear you have of sharing an intimate detail of your life, and a clear sign that they need to continue making you feel safe enough to talk about said point. My patients have time and again told me what they received the most out of therapy was the feeling that they were both safe in the room and in control. These feelings then helped them feel competent, and thus able to deal with their problems on their own.
While there are many more factors that comprise high quality therapy, hopefully these five points give you a picture of what to look for in terms of your own search for the right therapist. Remember that finding a proper therapist can take some time. Some people search for a year or two before they find a person whose style and personality fits well with theirs. It is vitally important that you and your therapist have a good rapport with each other as the relationship factor is the strongest predictor of success within therapy. Finally, as we approach the beginning of another year perhaps it is time for you to consider making peace with some problems which have been plaguing you for a while by seeking out mental health services. If you do so choose to undertake this journey, I can promise you that you will not regret it and that you will find some peace this side of heaven.