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.
Therapy “requires a strong therapeutic relationship between therapist and client, mutual trust and honesty, and a whole lot of information gathering, data collecting, and processing,” Saenz-Sierzega said. Are you willing and open to putting in the work?
Obstacle #2: Not working between sessions
“Sometimes when clients come to therapy, especially for the first time, they incorrectly assume that they can just show up to sessions and that things will significantly improve,” Sexton said.
However, the work happens both inside and outside your therapist’s office.
Sexton likened it to earning a college degree: You can’t just show up to class and expect to graduate. Rather, you’ll have to attend class and do the homework, projects and research papers. You’ll have to study. You’ll have to apply yourself both in and out of the classroom.
In therapy, you’ll work hard during your sessions. “Sometimes you will leave feeling more raw and vulnerable than when you walked in,” Sexton said. And you’ll work hard after your sessions. You’ll sit down with your partner to have a difficult conversation about sex. You’ll take the subway alone to face your fear of having a panic attack.
Suggestions: If your therapist hasn’t assigned homework, find a way to practice what you’re working on during session on your own. Or ask your therapist to give you homework. Consider having an accountability partner you trust and can be vulnerable with, Sexton said. Pick someone you can process your sessions with, and accept feedback from.
According to Sexton, “That person can kindly point out when you are getting sucked back into your unhelpful cycle or pattern of behavior… They can remind you to keep firm boundaries with a toxic family member.” You also might practice a speaking gig or job interview with them. You might practice having an anxiety-provoking conversation.
Obstacle #3: Resisting change
“Many times, clients come to therapy because something is not going well and they want their feelings, their circumstances, their relationship, their thoughts, or something in their life to change,” Saenz-Sierzega said.
The obstacle they run into is continuing to do the same thing. Many clients “want to engage in the same thoughts, behaviors and situations and yet expect to feel differently or for change to happen without actually changing anything.”
Which is understandable because change is hard. Clients also might not want to endure the pain involved in the process—of leaving a dead-end job and then going on job interviews; of ending a toxic relationship and being alone or starting to date, Saenz-Sierzega said.
Suggestions: Start by believing that you are worth making this change in your life. Make a commitment to give therapy a genuine chance, which Saenz-Sierzega noted is about four to six sessions or a month. Be “honest with yourself, taking in the information and guidance you are being given, and applying it—or at least practice applying what you are learning in session.”
Or simply attend one session. Many clients have told Saenz-Sierzega that they assumed they’d never like therapy or wouldn’t get anything out of it. Many have told her they believed their first session would be their last—but they returned and ended up benefiting greatly.
Ultimately, consider the cost of things remaining as is, she said. “If in 3 months, 6 months, a year everything is exactly the same as it is today, what will that ‘cost’ you, psychologically speaking?” Saenz-Sierzega asks her clients to remember that doing something difficult now makes your life easier later.
It’s natural that obstacles will arise before you get to therapy and when you start attending. The best thing you can do when facing a challenge is to talk to your therapist. And if you don’t feel like you and your therapist are a good match, it’s time to find another one.