Mental Health

Good Therapy Vs. Bad Therapy

I don’t like to brag, but I am really good at beating around the bush. If I do not want conflict or awkwardness, I shake a leg and dance around the taboo topic at hand before I say what I mean to express. This makes therapy expensive when you cannot express what you’re in there for the first 30 minutes, especially if it is something that you never have told anyone before.


So when I decided that I needed to tell the therapist I had been seeing about a bad experience that happened to me the week prior to my appointment, I felt confident that this was a time to process what I had experienced. I still felt shy and embarrassed to share my story; let alone grieved that I allowed it to happen. I wanted to say what had happened to someone I trusted, though, because I knew it would release me from the pain I was carrying from it.


First, let me say that as a practicing therapist myself, part of my critique about what good and bad therapy is legitimately founded by research and the fact that people’s stories, once told, must be met with empathy; a response that would reflect the courage and strength it took for a person to express their pain.


When I told my therapist that “a friend pulled me on his couch… I didn’t like it… he kissed me and kept kissing… I froze” she did not give me empathy. Instead, when I left her office that day, I had a new moral lesson in my back pocket that she gave to me. Kind of like a business card from a stranger, which no one really cares about. 


Five minutes before ending the session, she had at least summed up my trauma eloquently, “but now you know not to be in a guy friend’s apartment…See you next week!”


*cue my eye roll and scream*


This confused me for the longest time — why did it seem like someone giving me a moral lesson to my trauma seem so cheap? Why did it seem like I did something wrong after explaining I was manhandled? Wasn’t therapy suppose to be a space where I could express myself and look at things objectively? Well, yes, but I did not know this at the time. Instead, I chose not to go back to therapy for a while after this until I could figure out who I could talk to about this incident…


Think back to a time you felt fully understood for the strength and ability to share something difficult to someone. The cheesy “thank you for sharing” phrase may have been said by the person listening, but it still meant something to you to know that person recognized the courage it took to say what you wanted to say. Or maybe your friend hypothetically promised to beat the person up who hurt you. Whatever someone may have said or done initially for us to feel fully understood may been the first step to processing the trauma you’ve experienced rather than getting you to the finish line of developing a rational reason on why it happened.


Good therapy is not done with pointing out the purpose or lesson someone may have picked up from a bad experience. It can simply be the listening ear that someone needs in the moment.


There is a saying that best sums this up: empathy is when one person cries and the other tastes salt.


When I walked out of my therapist’s office the day she tried to give me a moral lesson or purpose to my story, I knew I was not heading back for a while. In fact, it took another year for me to enter back into therapy with someone who asked me a lot of questions, maybe too many, but I wholeheartedly appreciated for letting me explore my trauma without judgment, or a rush to see a purpose to it in my life. My new therapist gave me space and even silent moments to think about what I was saying or trying to express. She even caught on that I am one who likes to beat around the bush before I get to an answer.


Moral lessons only came if I saw a correlation to what I felt I was ready to release from the grips of trauma. My newest therapist does not push me to label everything to be purposeful or meaningful. In fact, all of it could be a red herring by the end of the session if I want it to be.


The point to good therapy is to help maneuver yourself closer to the conclusion of what you think your life is about. How do you view it based on events you remember? If there’s something specific you need to work on , then your therapist should have a game plan, but always ask for your consent before you start something together. 


I share my bad therapy session because I know what it’s like to be scared off from telling your story to someone. It can be scarier and feel more vulnerable if you’ve had just one more person not respond to it the way you want. I did not expect my therapist to have an answer for what was on my mind. Instead I wanted her to help me figure out what was going on my mind, and to help me release what I could no longer control that was causing me anxiety and depression. 


That is exactly what good therapy is.


by Regan Cunningham

Hello there! My name is Regan. I am a writer and therapist in Champaign, Illinois. I write personal essays and articles on faith and spirituality, often trying to challenge atypical ideas and thoughts. If you like my work, please check out more of my work on Windrose Magazine's website and my own self-care blog, Blueberries and Naps.


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