How to Know When You Should Be in Therapy

So, before I make this list, I will make an obvious disclaimer: I think you should be in therapy! I am a therapist. I love therapy—as a therapist it is endlessly interesting and amazing to work alongside people as they explore their internal worlds, and as a patient, I have found tremendous capacity for growth, change, and understanding that I doubt I would have encountered outside of therapy. That said, my perspective is clearly biased, and many people find healing in all sorts of contexts. I recognize therapy might not be the place for you to explore yourself, and I also recognize that there are as many forms of therapy as there are therapists—therefore it might take a few tries before you find a helpful fit.

All of that said, here’s a list of some things that might be clues that you could benefit from taking a spin on the proverbial couch.

1. People are telling you to go to therapy.

Are you getting feedback from important people in your life that they think you could benefit from seeing a therapist? This feedback could originate from myriad sources. Maybe you are in conflict with your partner and they are noticing some patterns to your reactions and feelings that could benefit from some reflection and support outside of your relationship. Maybe you are struggling in your relationship with your family and someone is noticing that struggle and thinks it could be helpful for you to talk about your family dynamics with a therapist. Maybe a friend is starting to feel fatigued by conversations you’re having about your problems at work/with your sweetheart/in finding your purpose and they’d like for you to bring a professional into the mix.

None of these scenarios mean that people in your life no longer want to be part of your system of support—the thing is, therapy is unlike any other relationship (read: therapy is pretty weird!) and it allows for a space in which you can do something with and about your patterns of thinking and relating that repeat endlessly if you don’t take the time and effort to understand them. If people in your life are encouraging you to seek therapy, they may be noticing that you seem to be struggling in ways that are new or lasting. Consider asking them what they are noticing and see if you might be noticing this, too.

2. People going to therapy are telling you to go to therapy.

Another reason people in your life might be telling you to go to therapy is that people in your life might be going to therapy and finding that it’s awesome/interesting/transformative/wild/helpful and they think you might like or benefit from this awesome/interesting/transformative/wild/helpful experience they are having. This is not unlike a friend returning from a trip to Iceland or posting a movie review on Facebook—your friend is excited about therapy and they think you might be, too. And… you might be!

That said, I wouldn’t recommend that you see your friend’s/girlfriend’s/cousin’s therapist. If you want to test-drive this weird new experience, it’s worth having your own weird new experience. If you’d like a recommendation for a therapist, your friend’s therapist is likely to have some suggestions.

3. Your feelings are stuck.

This is a totally normal experience most (or all) of us have. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, at all, but it might mean that there is some information contained in your feelings that you aren’t able to access without some help and support. This experience of feeling like your feelings are stuck can take a lot of forms—maybe you notice that you aren’t feeling much of anything or you notice that you are feeling a lot of one thing, or maybe you notice that one specific feeling comes on much stronger than the rest. This might be happening in a way that is disruptive to your life and your relationships, or it might be more pervasive and last for a while before you notice it.

Working with a therapist to explore what’s happening in your internal world could allow for more movement—I think of therapy as a path toward internal liberation, a way to move toward feeling freer and more alive. Sometimes when we find our feelings are stuck or that we are stuck on or with a feeling, it can inhibit our access to our fullest selves, and therapy might be a way to (re)gain access.

4. Something else is feeling stuck.

Maybe you feel stuck in a relationship or a pattern of relating. Maybe you feel stuck in a job or situation or a moment in your life. Often when we feel stuck, we can be hard on ourselves, badgering ourselves to make a decision or a move that will get us out of the stuck place. And often when we are hard on ourselves, we end up feeling paradoxically more stuck and then we are even harder on ourselves. This cycle can go on for a long time and while there are many things that can shift it—sometimes it seems like the universe intervenes with a crisis or an opportunity that gives us some direction or forces us to take a step—therapy offers something in addition to motivation and change.

Working through the feeling of being stuck in therapy could offer deeper understanding of the experience of being stuck and all of the dynamics that contribute to it, as well as the pattern of being hard on yourself and how that might be part of the stuck feeling. While there are many ways to make change in our lives, lasting change usually comes with some element of understanding, and that is one of the most valuable benefits of therapy.

5. You are curious.

You do not need to be having a hard time to start therapy. You don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental illness or to feel like you are on the edge of crisis. Maybe you are curious about therapy. Maybe you are curious about yourself. Maybe you want to know more about your internal world, about your feelings, about your patterns, about your potential. This is a totally valid (and, quite frankly, awesome) reason to seek therapy. Some therapists and forms of therapy are focused on goals and problem-solving, while other therapists and forms of therapy are more inquisitive and open to a general exploration of the self.

At any point in your life, you might find a generative relationship with a therapist to support your growth as a human (being a human is hard! Growing is hard!) and as a person who faces challenges and problems.

Alex Samets

Alex Samets is a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, Maryland. Information on her work and practice can be found at her website.

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