What to do when therapy is not working for you?
I recently saw a post on Instagram where a therapist suggested that if a client does not do their assigned homework outside of therapy then they should expect therapy won’t work for them. This prompted me to reflect on the larger question that the post may be referring to – what do you do when therapy is not working for you?
One answer as the post suggests is that you’re not doing your homework. This answer assumes that therapy is as good as you make it. The therapist is there to provide you with the tools, and it’s up to you to make use of them. If you do make use of them, great success! If you don’t – well what did you expect, you’re not doing your homework. While, I can appreciate this hard-ass, tough love attitude (maybe it works/has worked for some people) it does not align with my own assumptions and understanding of what therapy is. In my view, therapy should be a tailor-made experience not a one-size fits all assignment.
Now, what does it mean when I say that therapy should be a tailor-made experience? To answer this question, I’d like to share my own tailor-made experience – the time that I got a suit.
I walked into the store and found that there were no physical suits at the store. It was a store that was completely different from the suit stores I was used to. It was just pictures of suits on the wall and two long rows of fabric. I was greeted by an exceptionally handsome and well-dressed man (he was wearing a suit). He asked if he could help with anything. He was polite, he was present. I said that I wanted a suit. He said that I had come to the right place. We stood in silence, until I got bare it no further and asked the first question – where should we begin? It was only until that moment that he took that as invitation to begin, and he began - gently, patiently, at my pace, and on my terms, he led through the rows of the various fabrics. Along the way he asked many questions – what is this suit for? What color was I thinking? Pattern or Solid? He didn’t assume anything and only offered his point of view if I asked for it, if I was stuck, or if he genuinely felt that I was making the wrong move. I felt I was in charge, the expert of my own suit. I left that shop not just with an order for a suit but with greater knowledge about colors, patterns, textures, and styles. I left with an understanding of what a tailor-made experience is. I compared that to the time that a suit salesman told me that I should gain a couple of pounds just so I could fit into a suit I really liked (and that he was trying to sell).
The contrast is stark. But that experience of getting a tailor-made suit taught me a lot about psychotherapy and counselling, and the experience that I want the clients I see to have. I learned the following:
· Never assume you know what the client wants or needs. When in doubt – ask.
· Ask a lot of questions to get the context around why they are there, and what they’re looking for, and how they’ll know that they’ve got what they wanted.
· Be gentle, patient, and present. Let the client lead, they are the expert.
· Offer your view only when asked. This is about the client – not about you.
· The client should leave more informed, more empowered, more hopeful than they came in.
In essence the original question - what do you do when therapy is not working for you – could be reframed as– what do you do when your suit does not fit you? Talk to your tailor, tell them that the suit is not fitting, it’s not working for you. A skilled and experienced tailor would listen to that concern attentively. They would ask what is going on for you, what about it is not working. They might offer adjustments. They would take responsibility – surely, something must’ve been missed. In my view, a therapist should operate in the same manner. A skilled therapist might see a client not doing their homework as an opportunity or an invitation to inquire about what else is going on, what about the homework is not working, or is homework even a thing to be doing? Maybe its time to revisit, refine, or redefine the goals for therapy. Therapy can work for everyone and anyone, just like anyone and everyone can wear a suit.