How Does Therapy Help?

Some people come to therapy only after having exhausted other options. For those with limited experience trying to understand themselves and the nature of their problems more deeply, therapy may seem pointless or airy-fairy. “How will talking about my problems make any difference?” is something incredulous clients ask me. I can appreciate this question because therapy is a time-consuming and expensive investment, so people want to be sure that it’s going to help. People may benefit from therapy for many reasons. This post is dedicated to clarifying these reasons.

Research has time and time again showed that the relationship between the therapist and client is one of the most potent forces for change in therapy. Many clients discount this fact. Nonetheless, having a reliable, non-judgmental, and attuned professional who can help you make sense of your experiences can lower feelings of loneliness and shame because these feelings intensify when we are alone with our distress or when we hide ourselves from others. The confidentiality afforded to clients in therapy and – often, as a result – the emotional depth and openness achieved, makes the process of treatment quite different than what is experienced by venting or seeking advice from your friends and family. Therapists are trained to notice patterns in your thinking and behaviour as well as understanding the meaning and context of your feelings so that you can understand yourself more deeply. As you come to trust your therapist over time, the depth of the conversations you have lends itself to ever deeper realizations of factors that organize and shape your behaviour so that you make choices that diverge from the well-worn path that makes you feel stuck.

Therapy is a place to process and reflect on your emotional experiences. Why does this matter? Simply put, emotions are information. People often forget or dismiss emotions – especially difficult ones – as needless encumbrances to daily living. “I’m rational” or “they’re emotional” are usually code for “emotions are for the weak” or “emotions are pointless.” The reality is that emotions are profoundly crucial to helping us understand what we do and do not like and cues us into action to make meaningful changes in our lives. If we are depressed, it might mean that we are unsatisfied with the quality of our relationships or feel hopeless about our ability to initiate actions that would enhance our career satisfaction. Paradoxically, doubling down on rationality and dismissing, minimizing, or rejecting emotions is inherently an emotionally driven process. Indeed, some people have grown up or currently exist in especially emotionally invalidating worlds that have compelled them to disconnect from their emotional experiences in order to manage pain and distress or be accepted by others. In other words, inflexible and rigid beliefs about the dominion of rationality over emotions are rooted in our attempts to limit experiencing pain and suffering. However, our ability to connect to others, to move toward things that interest us, and feel excited by the world necessitate having access to our emotions. More difficult emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, shame, and guilt signal to us what we need more or less of and organize our behaviour to make the appropriate changes. Habits based on avoiding those complicated feelings disconnects us from our needs. Just like we need physical pain to cue us to something that needs attention, emotions cue us to essential things in our world.

Understanding our behaviours or thought processes at work, in relationships, and all parts of our life is the first step toward making important changes. We are all shaped by early life experiences that impact the assumptions we make about ourselves, others, and the world around us. As a result, people are often moving through the world as adults using assumptions and filtering information through the prism of their childhood experiences. Understanding this cycle, challenging your assumptions and biases, and deliberately making different choices to challenge outdated modes of thinking, feeling, and being can be profoundly empowering.
Notably, a focus on new behaviours is limited by those currently living in abusive environments that make change dangerous. In these cases, it would be vital to focus more on safety and problem-solving effective solutions.

Finally, therapy can help you manage your symptoms more effectively. Mental health professionals understand your symptoms, what typically helps others who have experienced similar forms of difficulty, and can provide you with information drawn from scientific research and teach you skills that will help you manage your distress.

Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych. is an Associate at CFIR (Toronto). In individual therapy, he helps adults struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, as well as those trying to cope with the effects of past and/or current verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Dr. Kleiman has published numerous academic articles on topics that include suicide prediction, racial and social attitudes, and racial and sexual discrimination, and he’s completed his Ph.D. in clinical and counselling psychology at the University of Toronto.