What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy is often called “the talking cure”. It is a form of treatment for dealing with life’s problems. It is a process that unfolds as clients talk about their difficulties with a therapist trained to bring about relief from distress and resolution of obstacles. The ultimate goal is for the client to find fulfillment by fostering changes in problematic thoughts, feelings and actions.

We welcome you to take a look at our psychological evaluation page, many times these evaluations make highly valuable contributions to evaluating psychological conditions.

Who needs it?

Suffering because of emotionally distressing symptoms (such as depression, anxiety, and self-doubt) that interferes with normal functioning is a common reason for seeking psychotherapy. Some other common reasons for therapy include problems with persistent self-defeating choices, behaviors and attitudes leading to personal dissatisfaction or relationship difficulties.

What is Therapy like?

People usually have clear ideas about this based on the reports of others, or from their own past experience. Therapists portrayed in the popular media also shape our expectations, for better and for worse. What one actually encounters, however, is often quite different. Therapists personal styles vary widely, as do the theoretical models, or therapeutic “schools” that guide their work. As a result, there are many differences in characteristics such as therapist activity (who does most of the talking?), focus (what is talked about), directiveness (who decides what the client should do), and intervention method (e.g., direct advice, challenging assumptions, making observations and interpretations).

While approaches to therapy differ widely, what all have in common is that they work by fostering understanding. The more aware we become of our motives, assumptions and feelings the better we are able to make different choices and change habitual patterns. The more we do so, the better we can tolerate life’s ups and downs, respond rationally to challenges, and behave in ways that do not undermine our own happiness or hurt the ones we love.

Specific therapeutic approaches

Discussions about therapy invariably involve references to “brand names,” often spoken with a certain elevated reverence. Certainly this reflects the therapist’s investment in their chosen method, but it also conveys a sense (if it’s not stated directly) that it ought to be important to clients as well. So one will hear about, or be recommended to specific “types” of treatment such as Cognitive-Behavioral therapy (CBT), Solution Focused therapy, Interpersonal therapy (IPT), Psychodynamic or Psychoanalytic therapy. It truly is a confusing array of treatment approaches, and what’s more, their similarities and differences are rarely described adequately—or fairly.

Much like the economic marketplace, the therapeutic marketplace is a competitive one. “Sibling” rivalries abound, as practitioners jockey for market share; advocating their orientation as the “gold standard” for an increasing proportion of the domain of human suffering. This can be misleading. There is now a substantial body of professional literature making it clear that all the major, established psychotherapy systems are effective. Furthermore, and contrary to often heard partisan claims, no one approach has any area of the market cornered as “the” way to deal with a given problem. Theoretical orientation, while important to therapists since it guides how they work, is not critical to treatment outcome. There really is, as the saying goes, “more than one way to skin a cat.”

What is important to success in therapy?

Personal readiness for, commitment to, and hope for change. Also essential is a feeling of confidence in the collaborative relationship between client and therapist. Once a client brings their committed effort to the task, it is the therapist, not the therapy that matters. The therapist’s skill, experience, and sensitivity and thoughtfulness enable them to foster that sound, collaborative relationship that brings about meaningful, productive change.

How long does it take?

Once making the difficult choice to seek help, one naturally hopes for rapid, transformative and permanent relief. It must be noted that the problems that bring us into therapy have usually been a long while in the making and, accordingly, cannot be expected to resolve immediately. With that said, the length of treatment does vary depending on the nature, severity, complexity and duration of the problems.

Additionally, the more ambitious the goals for treatment, the longer it will take. In general, meaningful and lasting change requires a minimum of a few months. Within this period, however, noticeable relief from distressing symptoms is often experienced early on in the course, while a sense of having addressed the underlying issues follows to consolidate the earlier treatment gains.

Alternatives to Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, especially when done well, can be an intensely meaningful and deeply personal experience leading to profound change in our lives. Therapy, however, is not the only “game in town” as a means to bringing about relief from distress or a change in perspective.

No Treatment

Some problems, such as those arising from situational crises (grief, for example), are time-limited and usually resolve on their own. Most people, however, do not rush into therapy. When problems are so troubling or long-lasting that one begins to think therapy might help, it is usually an appropriate option.


Religious belief is foundational in our culture and history, and for many, remains a deeply personal touchstone of modern life. Religious faith and practices have an established impact on mental health and well-being, and are often an important source for promoting growth as well as providing support and strength in times of adversity. Sometimes these practices are not a sufficient alternative to therapy, but many individuals remain reluctant to seek help out of concern that many mental health practitioners may hold antagonistic views of religion and will not respect their values as a result.

Occasionally, differences in values between clients and therapists can interfere with psychotherapy. An ethical therapist can be expected to promptly identify such difficulties if they arise. Usually, differences in values are irrelevant in psychotherapy. For therapy to work, a therapist need not agree with a client’s perspectives, politics, or principles in order to respect them. What is important is that clients feel safety to discuss any concern on their mind, and that there is nothing that they might want to say that is an unwelcome topic for conversation.


Physical and psychological symptoms often interact. Medicine can be an important adjunct to treatment. Your family physician or a psychiatrist is the professional best able to advise you regarding medication.


Psychological self-help, often called “pop-psych,” is everywhere these days. It is a reflection of the popular trend toward “do it yourself” solutions for life’s many problems. Sometimes self-help can be useful in situations where information or advice is exactly what is needed. If it works, use it, especially since these resources are accessible, plentiful, and inexpensive. Self-help, however, is often unhelpful. When therapy is warranted, it is personal self-understanding, rather than general “off the shelf” information that is lacking. More to the point, in circumstances where therapy is appropriate, our lack of self-understanding is actively maintained by blind spots, or defenses that prevent our understanding why we think, feel, and act the ways we do. This is an awareness deficit, not an information deficit, and it requires the independent perspective of a professional to guide us to seeing what we (unconsciously) refuse to see.

Where to Go

Psychotherapy should be sought only from properly trained professionals. When considering with whom to invest your time, effort and trust, one is well advised to ask a prospective therapist if they are trained, licensed and experienced in providing the services offered. Many feel uncomfortable “challenging” a professional in this way, so most do not ask. Your therapist should be prepared to answer your questions without hesitation. Once satisfied a therapist is qualified, the most important issue for working successfully together is “fit,” or compatibility with your therapist. How does a novice evaluate their compatibility with a therapist? You can tell a lot for yourself from the first interview, if you examine your reactions to the session. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel at ease talking to this person? 
  • Did s/he listen to me carefully and patiently? 
  • Do I feel heard? 
  • Does s/he seem genuinely interested to understand me? 
  • Did s/he respond to me in ways that help me feel safe to confide deeply personal, emotionally distressing material?

Your affirmative answers to these questions should be encouraging, while negative responses should invite careful reflection on what was wrong.