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Why therapy doesn’t work

My husband and I have been working on renovating our 106-year-old house for over a year now.  We are big believers in salvaging and repurposing, so most of our free time is spent trying to turn trash into treasure.  Before we started this adventure, we agreed upon certain rules that we would follow without exception.  For the most part, this has worked out well.  But, if you have ever taken this approach to a remodel, then you know that there is always one project that turns into an absolute nightmare.  The one where success is possible but not before it wears you down to your very core. My current and very formidable nemesis is a set of dining room chairs.

After much research, conversations with “people in the know,” planning and encouragement from friends and family, I have everything I need to complete my dining room chairs.  But I just do not want to do it.  I am tired.  I pretend like I am working on them, but in reality that set of seven chairs is still sitting in the same place, in the same state as 18 months ago.  I really want to throw them in the trash and start over or better yet, have someone else do the work while I “direct.”  I am looking for the path of least resistance no matter what the consequences — rules smules, I say.  Of course, until now, I did not want to admit that publicly. My current public, and somewhat plausible, excuse is “the timing is not right,” followed closely by “the weather is not right.”  I continue to talk about these chairs all the time, the problems they have posed and the solutions that I have found. I need my illusion of progress to stay intact.  I promise people dinner invites because those chairs are going to be ready soon.  They aren’t.  I am just going through the motions.  This project is going to take more energy, effort and time that I am willing to invest plus this is a one-woman job.  The responsibility is all mine.  I have the know-how and the ability — remember all that research and stuff — now it is up to me to put that into practice.  And there lies the rub…I am the problem.

As a psychology instructor (and sometimes unofficial counselor), I often wonder why therapy/counseling isn’t more effective.  I hear more and more of my colleagues lament about working with individuals, couples or groups, pouring time and energy into these people, giving 110 percent with no real results in return. Could it be that the attitudes and behaviors that I exhibit with these chairs be some of the same reasons that therapy doesn’t work?  Could you be the problem?

There is an old joke that goes something like this: How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but only if the light bulb really wants to change.  Hardy-har-har, right?  The truth is, it’s not a joke.  Therapy rule number one: therapy only works if you are willing to do the work.  Whether it is secular or religious therapy, you have to be ready to make changes.  Most people in therapy will give you the lip service answer that they are ready to do the work, to make the changes, yet weeks, months, even years go by and nothing really changes.  Why?  Here are a few possibilites:

• The definition of “work” becomes “to show up to therapy on time and really listen.”  The individual thinks that “being in the know” about the cause of their issues is the same thing as doing something about their issue.  They become information junkies.  They know all the causes, patterns, triggers and pitfalls of their behavior but they never actually do anything about it.  It is the equivalent of thinking that the teacher is going to give you all the information without you ever having to read or do homework.  Litmus test: When a problem arises, your first thought is talk to your therapist rather applying behavior changing techniques that he has already taught you.  If it is religious counseling, you expect the counselor and/or everyone around you to pray for you more than you pray for yourself.

• The individual has the intent of “fixing” someone else, not themselves.  Make no mistake, if you are in therapy, it is going to be about “fixing” you.  Most therapist are going to adhere to the idea that an individual can only control their own behavior, thoughts and actions, not someone else’s.  Therapy is going to be about your behavior.  Litmus test:  If you constantly say “I know I have some issues, but he/she/they always do/say/behave…”

• We are OK with the illusion of progress.  We just aren’t that invested in real change.  We have seen the path of least resistance, and we couldn’t care less about the consequences of taking it.  But, we still want to save face, so we talk a good therapy game.  We do just enough so that at the end we can say “well, I tried.”   Litmus Test:  You say things like, “I know going to therapy is not really going to help but I might as well try anyway.”

• The old way of behaving is still getting you “results.”  We are creatures of habit and strongly resist change.  If we can do what we have always done and get the results we want, then why change?  Chances are you are not in therapy for behavior that is considered healthy to you or your relationships.  Just because it gets desired results does not mean it is OK.  Putting our own behavior under the microscope and thinking about how it impacts others is a very difficult thing to do, but it is paramount to therapy working.  Litmus test: You continue to make threats, manipulate, play the victim, abuse, etc. because you know others will give you what you want, and you really aren’t concerned with the consequences.

• We’ve become addicted to the attention, support, and encouragement you get from always being in crisis mode.  To “get better” would take away some of the reinforcing characteristics of being in a crisis.  We all want supportive, caring relationships but when we continue to use our drama to manufacture those responses in people, it is not healthy or beneficial in the long run.  We may even sever ties with people who challenge us or encourage us to make changes.  Litmus Test:  Your circle of friends has been narrowed down to only people who tell you what you want to hear.

• We do not want to accept that the responsibility to change is our own responsibility.  This is probably the hardest pill to swallow and the main reason that therapy doesn’t work.  Accepting that 90 percent of our drama happens because of us not to us is a harsh reality.  It cuts to the heart of our laziness, selfishness, apathy, irresponsibility and entitlement.  Therapy is hard work that will wear you down to your very core so that it can build you up better.  We just have to be committed and willing.  Litmus test:  If after you read this article, you immediately thought that someone you are in a relationship with needed to read it more than you.

Heather Emory holds a Master’s degree in Psychology and teaches in the Behavioral Science Division at Hinds Community College. She is a native of Franklin County.