I'm in therapy but nothing is happening

Should I find a new practitioner? A new method? Or just keep going every week and hope for change?

By Cary Tennis

Published August 3, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

I read a lot of advice columns and often see the letter-writer referred to a therapist. I've been to three therapists. The first one was my college student-health guy. I dragged myself there in tears and the man told me he didn't have time to see me if I wasn't suicidal or anorexic. The second one I saw in my mid-20s; she was a brusque, analyst type who never betrayed any emotions; I respected but also hated her. I went for a couple of months.

The third is my longest therapist relationship. I've been seeing her for the last nine months or so and I don't quite get it. She's nice to talk to, but I don't feel like I am any different than I was last fall when I first went to see her. I've brought this up with her multiple times. She came to therapy later in life, but she is certified, and I don't want to discriminate against her for not knowing she wanted to be a therapist straight out of school; if anything, the fact that she went through a major revision of what she wanted to do with life seems to her credit.

And yet. I lack a clear understanding of what I am supposed to be getting out of this. I face our meetings with mild dread, as I've never been good at talking about myself. One of the main issues I'd like to tackle is my struggle to get close to people. I rarely open up to anyone, but my work in communications means that I'm a champ at coasting along on superficial conversation. Guess what! I do that with my therapist, too. And she doesn't push back, not hard enough.

I keep going to see her because the thought of giving up on therapy makes me feel hopeless. I almost wish I did have a medical condition, alcoholism or anorexia or clinical depression, so there could be steps to measure along the way.

If you've written about this already, or know of some good resources, please send them along. Otherwise I'd love to know your thoughts.


Looking for Change

Dear Looking for Change,

If it's not changing your life, you're not doing it right.

It's time to find a new therapist and a new method.

Talking is your way of avoiding. So naturally talk won't work. You're too good at using talk to avoid feeling.

Find someone who describes themselves as a somatic, experiential or phenomenological practitioner.

"Neurobiology research shows that much of our memory is buried in parts of the brain and the body that are not easily accessed by talk or thought. These discoveries demonstrate why the addition of action to the therapeutic process can be so valuable," says the Action Institute of California.

There are many ways to get around the sterility of language. The Action Institute uses psychodrama.

Yep, you heard that right. Psychodrama. Try it, you'll like it! There are many other ways. Look into experiential psychotherapy and also look at what is called somatic psychology.

A related field is phenomenological psychology -- and don't let this complex and in-depth Wikepedia description scare you off. As one of Edmund Husserl's charming descendants once put it to me at the Cafe la Boheme, it's sometimes as simple as asking,  "What do you see?"

What do you see? What is happening right now? What are you feeling? Sometimes that's all there is to it.

You'd be surprised how much is actually going on right now, and how much we can change in an instant once we stop talking long enough to breathe and feel. 

So identify some practitioners of these forms of therapy and contact them. Talk. Tell them just what you told me -- that you want to talk less and experience more. Pay attention to how you feel about the therapist you are talking to. You need to find someone powerful, someone who can surprise you, someone you think you might fall in love with or someone who scares you. We like people who scare us, don't we? Or is that just me? A certain frisson, a certain je ne sais quoi? A certain demonstration of competence, too. Don't let some quack fool around with your subconscious!

Anyway, you've had enough experience to know what you want. Now go and find it!

These techniques in the hands of the right practitioner can help you break out of the prison of accustomed language and experience a deeper reality.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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