What Therapy Is (And What It Isn't)

By Amy Kim, Psy.D.

Many people may be curious about therapy but hesitant to try it because they aren’t sure about what to expect. Maybe you’ve heard that it’s a good and even life-changing thing, or that you should try it, or someone you know has benefited tremendously from it. But it can seem like a daunting thing to dive into, since there are no defined steps or guidelines about how therapy works, much less how to go about finding a therapist. There are also many different types of therapy as well as degrees of competence and fit with a therapist, so there are definitely numerous variables at play. 


In order to have an effective and worthwhile experience, it’s important that you be willing to invest in yourself: that means investing time, effort and money into growing yourself. Therapy is usually a weekly process that is at least a few months long, so you’re going to need to commit if you want real change to happen. As you go about searching for a therapist, you’ll probably start with an online search or ask people that you know if they know of someone good. Look at therapists’ profiles and websites carefully, and when you contact them, start noticing whether they feel good to you—Are they responsive? Are they professional? Do they sound competent? There is such a wide range of personality styles as well as range of fees when it comes to therapy. Decide what is in your budget and start calling around. Regarding fees: often you get what you pay for, so paying more tends to mean (but not always!) that you’re getting someone who’s a better-quality therapist. Decide what you can and are willing to invest and make sure that you’re getting value for what you’re spending.


When you schedule an appointment, really pay attention to decide whether you’re getting something out of it. It should feel like you’re gaining some benefit from the sessions, even if you can’t articulate exactly what that is. In therapy, there are multiple processes going on, all of which you don’t need to be aware of, but that are important aspects of growth. So when you leave your sessions, you should feel like you’ve been helped in some way. If after about three sessions, there’s no discernable benefit, then it might be time to consider working with a different therapist. Sometimes it takes meeting with a few therapists in order to find the one that can actually help you.  


Therapy is a process of consistently sharing, reflecting, gaining insight, and changing patterns and behaviors that aren’t working for you. A competent therapist points out the ways of thinking and doing that are causing discontent or problems in your life. A very skilled therapist will help you to address all lifestyle factors (sleep, diet, exercise, mindfulness, social life, technology use, work/money), give you “tools”, AND get to the root of what drives those patterns in the first place. Talking to someone (in real life - this is important too) who has no other agenda than to listen, understand, and help you is an experience that is powerful and healing in itself. But therapy is not simply talking about your problems with another person, and a therapist is not a “paid friend”. Therapy should give you much more than what you can get off the internet or from a self-help book, podcast, or YouTube video. Therapy is also not about getting advice from someone. And therapy isn’t just talking about your childhood, either. Instead, therapy is a focused dialogue and exchange that is meant to target your specific issues and give you the agency to help yourself as quickly as possible. The hallmarks of effective therapy are that not only do you feel better, but your life is actually better. Profound life transformations can happen as a result of quality therapy.