Going to see a therapist is a little different than going to see a dentist. And not just because a responsible therapist will never dose you with laughing gas.
When you get a tooth pulled, it’s generally a one-off thing. You wouldn’t shop around at different dentists to see who does the best job pulling out your tooth. If your first dentist botches the job and only gets the tooth pulled out partway, you wouldn’t simply head on down the street to the next dentist to try again.
But therapy is more complicated. Getting your psychological “teeth” pulled is more of a drawn-out, imperfect, subtle process. And therapists are professionals, but they’re also humans.
Like any human relationship, the therapist-client relationship is complex. A therapist being well-qualified or even brilliant isn’t a guarantee of a good rapport. You don’t know exactly how things are going to work out until you actually go and start therapy.
Of course, we all understand this intellectually, but it can still be demoralizing, even devastating, when therapy doesn’t work.
For many of us, seeking therapy the first time is a big step. It’s scary. And we expect that because entering therapy feels like a big deal, there’s going to be some payoff — this is a professional who’s going to finally give you the answers you’ve been looking for.
But then you don’t get those answers, and you don’t get better. When you realize what’s happening, it might give you that sinking feeling. “Here’s the person who’s job is knowing how to address my problems, and even they can’t help me.” When psychotherapy fails, it can be deeply disheartening, isolating, and it can make the original problem worse.
Here’s the thing, though: just because work with one therapist fails doesn’t mean therapy in general has failed for you. All it means is that it’s time to try another therapist.
That’s why shopping around and trying multiple therapists can be the way to go. Entering therapy doesn’t necessarily mean putting all your faith in the first therapist listed in the phone book. You want to find a therapist who understands your situation and you want to find a therapist who gets you.
In this Ask the Therapist video, Marie Hartwell-Walker and Daniel J. Tomasulo share tips for how to handle it when therapy doesn’t work or even makes things worse, including a strategy for how to approach the process of finding a therapist. Watch it below, and check out the Psych Central YouTube channel for more Ask the Therapist videos.