Starting individual therapy can be a transformative experience, but how do you know if it’s actually working? It’s not always intuitive to make sense of the fact that talking to someone you barely know (at least not in the conventional way) once a week can actually help you. But it can.
Though typically not a “quick fix,” therapists are trained to guide us through some of the most challenging, personal and transitional experiences towards psychological healing and growth.
While there are many different forms of talk therapy and endless potential reasons for starting therapy, some of the ways that your therapist can support you include:
- Understanding your thoughts, emotions and behaviors
- Identifying obstacles to improving your mental health
- Developing healthy coping strategies
- Improving your communication skills
- Understanding your mental health condition
- Coping with trauma
- Managing grief
- Exploring the roots of current challenges
- Learning to set boundaries
- Changing harmful habits
- Unearthing and healing relational difficulties
- Deepening your self-compassion and improving your self-esteem
- Recognizing your defense mechanisms
- Adjusting your inner dialogue
- Investigating messages from your unconscious
- Discovering more about who you are
3 signs therapy is working for you
There are many different reasons for a person to start therapy, each of which can impact the type of therapy they connect to as well as how their progress can be tracked.
Some motivations for starting therapy include:
- Getting support around a mental health condition (e.g., depression or anxiety)
- Coping with grief or loss
- Managing a crisis
- Adjusting to a physical illness
- Developing career goals
- Getting through a major life transition
- Processing a traumatic experience
- Strengthening relationships
- Managing anger
- Coping with challenging family or friendship dynamics
- Getting support around stress or burnout
- Improving self-esteem
- Exploring the meaning of success
- Getting to know oneself on a deeper level
Because every individual’s journey is unique, there is no definitive or universal checklist that you can run through to determine whether your therapy is working for you. That said, there absolutely are things that you can pay attention to as you evaluate your progress in therapy and consider whether you want to stay the path or shift gears.
1. You are moving towards your therapy goals
Certain therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy and solution-focused therapy are more symptom focused and often involve the development of therapeutic goals at the beginning of treatment. If your therapist sets goals with you, you can assess whether you are moving towards those goals, and use that as a proxy to determine your progress in therapy.
This may translate to your experience of therapy in many different ways including that:
- Your symptoms are improving
- You are living in greater alignment with your values
- You are being more kind to yourself
- You are not so swept away by your changing mood
- You are able to use healthy coping strategies to manage your distress
Some therapists use measurement-based care as a way to more formally track your treatment outcomes and goals and incorporate the results back into your treatment in an ongoing and collaborative way.
It’s important to acknowledge that your goals and expectations may change as you engage in therapy, and you may uncover things about yourself or make progress in ways that you did not initially expect or outline. Talk with your therapist about this if it happens to you.
Keep in mind that several forms of therapy, including psychoanalysis, often don’t include goal setting for these very reasons. This is also a completely valid approach, and you can discuss other ways to track your progress directly with your therapist.
2. You trust your therapist
Humans are wired to connect, and psychotherapy is a powerful stage for developing a trusting, caring and empathetic connection. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel A. van der Kolk wrote, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.”
Building trust and comfort with your therapist is healing. And current research tells us that the relationship between you and your therapist (also called the therapeutic relationship or therapeutic alliance) is one of most important aspects of therapy, regardless of the style or theoretical orientation.
Hundreds of studies demonstrate a consistent positive link between the therapeutic alliance and mental health outcomes. This has been shown to remain true no matter what the treatment approach is, whether the therapy is done online or in person or even what country the therapy is practiced in.
Building a strong therapeutic alliance might mean that the therapist and client:
- Are in alignment on treatment goals or processes
- Are able to collaborate
- Follow ethical guidelines
- Set boundaries
- Communicate effectively
- Create an empathetic and encouraging therapeutic space
There are several different validated scales that can be used to measure the therapeutic alliance with items including:
“I feel I can depend upon the therapist”
“I feel I am working together with my therapist in a joint effort.”
“I believe my therapist is generally concerned about my welfare.”
The bottom line is that your therapist should be reliable, ethical, non-judgemental and typically neither pushy nor passive. If you’re not feeling a connection and don’t want to give it time to evolve, it’s perfectly ok to move on to a new therapist.
3. You’re putting in the work
Therapy is not a passive process. Just as your therapist needs to be fully engaged and actively listening or participating throughout the entire session, you also need to show up and engage if you want to get the most out of the experience. This means that you’re not only able to consistently attend your sessions, but you can also bring authenticity, openness and active participation to each session and between sessions.
Through this engaged process, you may notice your “inner therapist” emerging between sessions. This can be one of the greatest benefits of therapy. The tools that you gain in the sessions can travel with you between sessions and be of service long after your therapy has ended.
Imagine this example.
Your plate is already overflowing with work, and your boss decides to give you one more task. You feel angry, disrespected and powerless to say no. Unrecognized, these feelings become overwhelming and add to your sense of burnout.
When you get home, you eat an entire box of cookies in an effort to seek some relief. But instead you feel worse. When you bring a scenario like this into your therapy session, you can start to understand and make room for your feelings, recognize your patterns and explore the roots of both.
Some people feel a need to do this therapeutic work in person, in a therapy office. Others find that online therapy allows them to engage in a more authentic way while they’re in the comfort of their own space. Neither is right or wrong, so do what works for you.
If the time and cost of transportation or being in an unfamiliar space feel like barriers to you, consider exploring online therapy. It’s an effective option for building a trusting relationship with your therapist, putting in the work and achieving the personal growth that you are seeking.
Kate Dubé is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) and mental health writer trained at UC Berkeley and UCSF. She specializes in creating a therapeutic space to work through daily stressors, anxiety, depression, trauma, relationship issues and life transitions, including parenthood. Kate incorporates her clinical expertise to create well-researched, accessible content on topics ranging from the individual to the systemic. When you-or a loved one-is struggling with a mental health issue, you can rely on her for evidence-based, empathetic, and useful information.Read more