Is it possible to spend a year in therapy and not have any change in your life? Of course, it is! And I find this happens far too often, both with adults in therapy and more often with children. There is a tendency to stick with therapy, even when it’s not a good fit. In this discussion, I hope to empower you to make better decisions about your initial choice of a therapist, and if you have made a bad one, it may be time to get out now.

Guidelines to Effectively Getting In (and OUT) of Therapy

1. Experience Matters: If you can, seek out experience. Study after study supports this as a practical metric that helps predict positive outcomes. The more complex the situation, the more important this becomes as a variable in predicting successful treatments.

Let’s imagine you needed heart surgery. Most of us would opt out of the brilliant young hands of the new surgeon and place our trust in the woman who has done these 10,000 times. Think the same way with your therapist.

2. Do You Feel Comfortable? It is also essential that you feel comfortable with the person who hears your life story and struggles. The session will be easeful, with good social and interpersonal skills. If they seem awkward, anxious, or struggling themselves, then pay attention. If they lack these fundamental skills as a therapist, it’s not usually a good sign. If it feels off, or you do not feel comfortable, get out of there. For me, this applies to treatment that is adult-focused or child-focused.

3. Trust Your Gut: At the end of your first session, what does your gut tell you about this person? Can you trust this person to give you their best, to maintain integrity, and to only tackle your situation if they can truly be of help? Forget what others have told you, look inside and listen… and rely on that inner decision.

Continuing to attend therapy, when you hold a lack of faith in your therapist will inevitably impede any progress. Why? Because you will not invest yourself fully in their guidance. Without trust in their direction, you will likely inject doubt and then hesitate to embrace their guidance fully. Likely this is a formula for poor results.

And guess what’s worse? Perhaps your gut was on track, and this isn’t a good fit for you, and you try to ignore this? Again, your time is about to be wasted.

The bottom line on this one is: Trust your gut. If it feels right, it likely is. If it feels wrong, honor that as well.

4. Expect Transparency and a Clear Game Plan: Seek a therapist who offers a concrete set of skills, and can articulate a game plan using those skills. And the game plan should make common sense to you, and not be clouded in some psycho-babble you can’t understand.

The real concern here is stumbling upon a therapist with a shortage of professional tools, so you get little more than an understanding listener, and no concrete strategies that change your life. A skillful therapist will be able to outline what will happen, when and give you a clear sense of predictable progress. Does it go perfectly that way? No, but the same therapist will work with you to explain incremental progress, stumbling blocks, and what adjustments are required to get back on track.

In other words, expect transparency with the game plan, and expect transparency about progress and the lack thereof.

5. Kindness, Clarity, and Honesty Matter: Your therapist should be kind, but also clear and painfully honest. You understand what they are saying, and they do not take your struggles personally. Thus, you would get emotional reactions to your challenges or questions. If you do, leave.

However, honesty is required from your therapist for you to grow and learn, even it is painful…and it often is. If you are fooling yourself, you need to hear about it and understand how it is happening. If you are hiding or running from a person or emotion, yet can’t acknowledge that your therapist will bring that to your awareness. Their job is to confront you with what you are missing, not just be a source of comfort.

6. Expect Growing Pains or Don’t Sign Up: Good therapy should stretch you, challenge you and get you to look at your limitations and your fears. This is painful. It’s a given.

If you don’t want to talk about what hurts, this is not a problem. Just don’t expect to get stronger or better.

I don’t mean to suggest that therapy should be torture. Not every discussion will provoke pain. But if you just want to be supported, I suggest you find a better friend. Use therapy for growth and learning. It’s a better investment of your time.

7. Results Matter Most: In the end, results in a matter. Don’t accept stagnation, excuses, and lack of progress. If you are showing up, doing your part, and following directions…you should experience real results. You should see change. You should feel better, behave better, and have better relationships based on the focus of treatment. If investing in your child’s growth and improvement, the same rules apply.

Here’s a guideline: If you spend ninety days in treatment, and you have little more than a dent in your pocketbook, please leave. Not all your issues will be resolved in a dozen sessions, but some significant improvement will be evident if you and your therapist are a good fit. Don’t keep waiting around for months, even if everything else here fits. You deserve more from therapy.

Expect real results, regardless of the ‘diagnosis’ given to you, or your child. Measurable, concrete changes are possible and within reach. Please know that, and accept nothing less.

Ultimately, You Must Do the Heavy Lifting

None of this will allow you to avoid one important fact: It’s your life, and you will have to do the heavy lifting. Your therapist can’t do that for you. It’s you that must follow through. So don’t blame them if you are not resolved to take action. Don’t complain, whine and blame others. You automatically victimize yourself with such complaints and whining.

Instead: Ask what you can do. Ask how you can do it better. Ask for a better plan and the tools to make it work. And if they can’t offer it, say thank you and goodbye. Then keep knocking till you find someone who can give you that better plan, and fill it in with better tools. They are out there! Don’t give up.