What Good Therapy Can Do—and What It Can't
A Personal Perspective: Therapy won't save you. That doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.
Let me start by saying that I love therapy. I’m a therapist and was an enthusiastic therapy client for years before becoming one. For me, therapy is fun. (Whatever impression that gives you of me is probably accurate.)
When I decided to become a therapist, I knew it would be challenging–and it is! But it’s a challenge I feel suited for. I enjoy sitting with people in their hardest moments. I love existential questions and feel energized by brainstorming with my clients as they grapple with life’s greatest hurdles. I believe most people could benefit from therapy, and therapists do enormous good and alleviate much suffering.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s my less likable take: Therapy won’t save you. It won’t solve your problems, make your life easy, and keep you from ever experiencing anxiety, self-loathing, or despair. It won’t do that for me, either.
That’s because therapists aren’t miracle workers. We can’t pluck you from a broken society and place you somewhere safe. We can’t make you immune to the complicated realities of being a person; the best therapists know this. If a therapist implies that therapy can solve all your issues, maybe think twice about working with them. They might be a teensy bit out of touch.
It’s not that life has to be torture or that there’s no way to improve our well-being. If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health symptom, I strongly encourage you to reach out to a professional. Therapy can almost certainly offer some relief.
Still, no matter how much healing we do, we must live in the earthly realm. If you haven’t noticed, things have gotten pretty weird here. Most of us living in the United States have to fight almost every day to meet our basic needs. We’re lonely, overworked, and worried about the future.
Many therapists are in that fight alongside their clients. Plenty of us deal with the chronic pains of prejudice, poverty, and disability. We drink unsafe water. We live in fear of guns. We keep cutting our own bangs, even though they have never once looked good.
If anything, our experience engaging with the hardships of the modern era is part of what makes us good at what we do. A good therapist will draw from their own history as well as their education. They won’t try to act like they have it all figured out or are above you in some way. They won’t gaslight you into believing things make sense or that life would be easy if you just made the right choices.
They will teach you to find and build community so you won’t have to lean on them alone. They’ll validate your struggles and efforts to survive because they will have struggled in some way too. They’ll assist you in accepting the bitter truths of living in a time when the sky is sometimes on fire, and many good people are having a very hard time.
A good therapist will help you see that you’re not struggling because you’re weak, doomed, or a terrible person. You’re just living in a pretty tough place. They’ll help you understand your thoughts and feelings so you can embrace the power you do have to make your life more manageable and meaningful.
A good therapist will get to know you. They’ll help you figure out what problems can actually be solved and which you’ll just have to live with. They’ll teach you skills that apply to your unique situation with its particular pitfalls and possibilities. They’ll help you make the most of a less-than-ideal situation and hopefully help you feel good about being alive, even now, smack dab in the middle of this wild, messy, beautiful world.
Chelsea Harvey Garner, LMHP - Website - Book: A Pity Party Is Still a Party: A Feel-Good Guide to Feeling Bad