Therapy is tremendously powerful for all sorts of concerns and conditions. “[T]herapy is a very unique, ongoing relationship that is created in a safe space that can undo the pain of your life, empower you, and direct you toward inner peace and happiness,” said Rosy Saenz-Sierzega, Ph.D, a counseling psychologist who specializes in working with individuals, couples and families.
But like anything worthwhile in life, therapy takes work. Which means that obstacles can arise, too. Below, you’ll find three common obstacles in therapy and what you can do.
Obstacle #1: Going to therapy for the wrong reasons
Some people seek therapy with misguided motives. For instance, Saenz-Sierzega saw a couple who’d been fighting for years. The wife felt like she was in prison and wanted to be able to make her own decisions. The husband wanted Saenz-Sierzega to tell his wife that she needed to obey him because he’s the man of the house. “Going to therapy with an agenda is never going to make sense; going to therapy with an unhealthy agenda could be traumatizing for all involved,” she said.
It’s not productive to attend therapy to change your partner—or anyone else, said Cheryl Sexton, LMFT, a psychotherapist in private practice who specializes in working with families and couples. We can’t control other people’s thoughts or actions, she said. “What we can control is how we respond to people, the boundaries we set with others and how we ultimately want to structure our own expectations and behaviors.”
It’s also not helpful if you only want to be validated. “While it feels great to be told you have every right to feel the way you do, you were wronged, you deserve better, and you’re an awesome person, there is much more to therapy than someone agreeing with you and validating your feelings,” Saenz-Sierzega said. Real change typically occurs when we’re challenged to rethink, revise and replace unhealthy beliefs and behaviors.
It’s also not helpful to go solely because of someone else. Which is different from going because someone has urged you to go, Saenz-Sierzega said. “[I]f you’ve allowed someone’s urgency to impact you, that means that person matters to you. It is because they matter enough to you that you are willing to try therapy. That to me, makes it about you.”
For instance, Saenz-Sierzega has had numerous clients start therapy because they didn’t want to lose their family or their marriage or their job. “My wife is going to leave me if I don’t get therapy” is different from “My wife wants me to go to therapy, but I have no idea why.”
Suggestions: Explore why you’re attending therapy. What do you really want? What are your intentions? What are your goals? You might answer these questions on your own, or discuss them with your therapist.