This Is What Therapy Cannot Do for You (Says the Therapist)

“How does this work?”

It’s the first question many therapy clients ask. Those who don’t are probably just being polite. And it should be the first question. When I go to a medical doctor, I want to know what they’re doing and how it will heal my body. It’s totally reasonable to wonder the same thing about how therapy will heal your mind and your heart. So, I’m always happy to answer the question. But before I do, I have to ask another question of my own:

What does “work” mean?


Photo Credit: Yastremska (Bigstock)

In other words, what do you expect healing to look like? What will it feel like to “get better?” Because if we haven’t clarified what therapy can and cannot do for you, we can’t be clear about how it works. So, most therapy begins in an unexpected way.

Most good therapy begins by dashing some of our good hopes.

For instance…

Therapy cannot eliminate sadness from your life.

Nothing can. Because sorrow is an integral part of being human. Sadness is a sign we’ve cherished something or someone—that we’ve longed for something unattained and been disappointed, or attained something for which we’ve longed and been grieved by the loss of it. It comes and it goes—this is normal—so therapy cannot make it go away for good. But therapy can help us to stop fighting our sadness, to start feeling our sadness, and to discover that true freedom is not the absence of darkness but the confidence that we can walk through our darkness and into the light. Even if, one day, we have to walk through our darkness again.

Therapy cannot eliminate fear from your life, either.

Indeed, therapy will probably create more fear in your life. Because as a sense of safety grows in the therapy space, your true self will begin to emerge, and it will be rich with pent-up passions and unlived longings, and you will begin to set your sights on untrodden trails. The unknown is scary. Therapy beckons us into the fearful unknown. Yet, this is what therapy can do: it can help us to release our shame about being afraid. Life is scary. In therapy, we begin to discover that courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the choice to truly live, in spite of our fear.

Therapy cannot give you a sense of certainty.

In fact, once again, it will do the opposite. As you begin to question the narratives you’ve always believed about your past, your present, your future, and your self, you will feel increasingly uncertain. This will be a relief. Whereas you once thought the goal of life was to become certain, you will begin to see certainty for the prison it has always been, keeping your life small, defensive, judgmental, and lonely. Therapy cannot answer all of your questions, but therapy can help you feel at peace with not having all the answers. And peace is a pretty good thing to feel.

Therapy cannot help you maintain the life you have.

Ironically, many of us go to therapy because it seems like life is changing—for example, an old job is feeling like prison, a relationship is feeling toxic, or a faith is feeling flimsy—and we want to figure out how to hold onto the status quo. But therapy doesn’t usually hold you where you are; it’s more often a gentle letting go. It’s not life support. It’s death and resurrection.

Therapy is not a magic pill; it is a magical participation.

It is not a passive ingestion of advice and wisdom; it is an active conversation between two people, comparing notes on what it means to be human, and deciding on a better way. You don’t go to therapy to be saved by someone else; you go to therapy to be seen by someone else, and, once seen, to join in the process of healing. In therapy, wisdom isn’t bestowed; it is co-created.

Therapy does not cultivate perfection of the self; it cultivates compassion for yourself.

It helps us to embrace our story, our pain, and our mess. It helps us to realize the way we’ve been acting is the natural reaction to the way we’ve been acted upon. Then, once you have practiced being compassionate on the inside of you, you will be skilled enough at love to practice compassion toward everyone outside of you.

How does therapy “work?”

Therapy works to make you more fully human, and more fully accepting of your humanity. Therapy doesn’t take away your pain; it takes you into the depths of your pain, until you discover there in that abyss, the core of who you are. Your truest, most loveable self. Your heart. Your soul. In other words, your worthiness. Your beauty. Your love. Your reason for being here.

That’s how this works.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Loveable is available in paperback, digital, and audio and can be purchased wherever books are sold, so you can also purchase it at your favorite bookseller.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

23 thoughts on “This Is What Therapy Cannot Do for You (Says the Therapist)

  1. Thank you for writing and sharing that Kelly. Between the stigma that was heavy in the world, and the unrealistic expectations folks might have, more and more people are reaching out from their pain for some relief. A realistic understanding of what to expect, from both therapist and self, is essential to success, in my opinion.
    Thank you again, sharing this out.

  2. Yeah, therapy. When you think it might be a good idea, you have to get in line and wait for months. Then you have to go through that multiple times until you find a person you can connect with well enough to work through all the stuff. If you want therapy to fix it you will have to be pretty patient too.

    • sorry JC I understand your pain. It’s hard work to get to the place of good therapy. There are many bumps and bruises along the way. But… in the end if you don’t start the journey you will be struck in same place the next year, and the next year, and so on. It starts with baby steps and sometimes backward steps. The journey is worth it when you finally reach that day and say yes I made a little progress. God bless and good luck on your journey. I’m on a life long journey my friend.

      • Theresa, this is wise advice, and JC, I hear your exasperation. I want to encourage you, though, if you decide to pursue it, your patience and perseverance will bear much fruit.

  3. Gosh, Kelly, thanks so much for putting into words my exact experience with therapy. I’ve been seeing a therapist for 2 1/2 years, and you’ve described the process perfectly. Especially this: “It is not a passive ingestion of advice and wisdom; it is an active conversation between two people, comparing notes on what it means to be human, and deciding on a better way.” I was reluctant to see a therapist at first because I didn’t want someone telling me what to do. And my therapist has never done that. The whole being seen part, too, yeah. She has spoken words over me that I could not speak to myself. So, so good. I was most surprised to learn that sometimes the best therapy doesn’t involving any talking at all: silence and crying have been some of the most powerful forces in my therapist’s office. Anyway, from someone who has “been there,” you’re right on target! 🙂

    • Lisa, I’m so glad this reflects your journey as well. I suspected, with all the beautiful, insightful writing that you do that it was coming from a place of deep healing. Your therapy is redeeming so much.

  4. Kelly,
    You describe the therapy process with a competent and excellent therapist. Not all therapists are as gifted as you and the people in your office. I’ve been in therapy (forever!!) and really didn’t make significant progress until I met your group. Your perspective is unique in the way your group approaches their clients and very powerful as well as affirming. My caution to people is to find a therapist that gently pushes you out of your comfort zone as that’s the only way, in my experience, true healing can begin. I’m healed now and a different person because of the work you and your group has done with me. Thank you!!

    • Patricia, thank you for your kind words about Artisan, and I’m thrilled to hear we could be a part of your journey in this way. We’ve been careful to put together a team that shares a view of what it means to be human and what that means for healing. Grateful our paths crossed with yours!

  5. I have found these statements to be so true, “It helps us to embrace our story, our pain, and our mess. It helps us to realize the way we’ve been acting is the natural reaction to the way we’ve been acted upon. Then, once you have practiced being compassionate on the inside of you, you will be skilled enough at love to practice compassion toward everyone outside of you.” Once I believed and received the grace given to me the door was opened for me to give grace to others. Ha, but, it is a daily practice, not a one time event-much patience and grace needed for all. But Grace is always there to help me.

      • I just finished listening to your interview on Ashton Gustafson’s podcast. I have a question about the voice of shame. Could it be possible that the unrecognized voice of shame in us be so loud in our mind or soul or wherever it is, that we think we hear it from someone else when really it is not them shaming us, but us shaming ourselves? Does that make sense?

        • Absolutely, Ginny. That is very well said. Sometimes, when we think someone else is shaming us, it’s really just the shame that already exists within us. It is important to invite the feedback of others we trust in the process of discerning whether someone is shaming us, or accidentally stirring up our “pre-existing condition.” 😊

          • Thank you. That clarifies things for me. And thank you for all your writing. It is a gift to us.

  6. WOW. That sounds like what therapy shoiuld be. Helping me discover the core of who I am, my worth, why I am here. To practice compassion toward everyone outside of me. My expereince has not been nearly that.

  7. Kelly
    This is so beautifully written. Knowing what something ‘isn’t’ is helpful in knowing what is, and especially as it relates to therapy. Your comments about courage are so true; not the absence of fear but really, faith and fear at the same time. And that’s ok.
    I’m currently in a Masters (Counselling) program and having sat in the ‘client’ chair, all of what you wrote affirms the importance of understanding expectations of the process. As of late, I’ve had this “aha” moment about the value in ‘resting in the unknown’ , ie, that it’s ok to not be ok. While I know it’s not about me fixing or providing the solution, being part of the journey with a person as they move from uncertainty to them (hopefully) accepting their own humanity (great words of yours), that is (will be) a privilege.
    I will be printing a copy of this post. Thank you!

  8. thanks so much, Kelly. I’ve been seeing therapist for 2 years and I can swear every word you wrote

Comments are closed.