Does Therapy Work?
Two days ago, I was telling my mother that I was feeling really anxious. I have always been an anxious person, since day one. I’m not even sure that one can born like that but I can tell you I certainly was. I have had a lot of “character” from the early days on.
Anyway, I have been in therapy for some years now, so my mother, with serious wonder in her eyes, asked me “but shouldn’t therapy have made you less anxious by now? I mean, you have been in therapy for a really long time, does that mean everyone has to be in therapy for a decade to feel better? What about people who want to go for a short amount of time? Is there no hope?” What she really meant was, “Does therapy work, after all?”
It does and it doesn’t. It all has to do with perspective and what you’re in therapy for. If you’re a person like me, who gets extremely anxious, you can’t expect that you’ll turn into a modern Buddha just because you went into therapy. If you expect that, be sure you’ll be disappointed.
But if you want to feel a little better, to find out what is it that makes you so anxious and how (and if…) you can manage all that (note that manage is one of therapists’ favorite words) then you’re in for some serious “success.” Ok, not always, but you get it. Of course, it’s not easy to completely change, and a lot of people go to therapy and wait for a total makeover to happen, like their therapist is a plastic surgeon who’ll make a new face for them.
I don’t blame them. When I was 22, I really wished for my therapist to know all the right answers. It struck me as odd that she didn’t. But later on, I found my own answers and that was really, truly liberating—to find out that I and I alone have the right answers and I can lead my life and that I’m responsible for its course. Yes, that was liberating but also frightening, because it comes with the weight of the responsibility you carry for every choice you make.
It also comes with the realization that you can’t change everything in life, some things are beyond you, and you have got to find ways to deal with that. So, a total elimination of anxiety would be an odd thing to wait for. Anxiety is what makes the world go round, after all. Would anyone do anything if they didn’t even care about it?
So, to get back to the conversation my mother and I had, I answered that I’m much better now than I ever was, because I’m more in touch with what makes me anxious and how to deal with it. And that also, I don’t want to fully get rid of my anxiety, we’re married for life, you know. Plus, there is this general existential anxiety that has accompanied me from a very young age. So, there is no total “cure,” if this is what you’re looking for. This isn’t a sickness that you’re trying to get over. This is life. And in life, there are a lot of things that you can’t do anything about.
Then I talked to my mother about all the things that make me anxious right now. And how I can’t seem to find a solution, because a solution would require practical changes that are not completely in my control. For example, my country’s current economic status and the record-high unemployment make me miserable. But there’s not a lot I can do to change that. Can I save my country with my money? Definitely not. Can my country provide me with a decent salary? No. This is a reality that makes me nervous most days, and I can’t change that (although maybe those politicians out there can help, but whatever). But there are still a lot of different ways to deal with this reality.
So, after this personal detour, let me get back to the hot question of the day:
Does therapy work?
It does. When you give it time, but take away your expectations. There you go.
-- Dimitra Athanasakou
Today's guest contributor, Dimitra Athanasakou, is a licensed psychologist and existential psychotherapist practicing in Athens, Greece.