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When Therapy is Working


Photo Credit: Lindsay Henwood

By Chay Tanchanco, PPS, AMFT


So you’ve gotten into the habit of opening up your soul to another human being--and then packing up and emitting pleasant farewells as you make your way out of another session.


You walk out one day and you ask yourself: “...is this working?”


You feel good, you like your therapist, and you seem to be talking about things that matter. But is that all that you need, or is there something more to it?


Even as a therapist myself, I honestly still find therapy to be a strange profession. We are essentially investing in skilled, genuine human connection so that we can, in turn, connect with others more efficiently and easily. We are paying for a relationship with a mental health professional; but in the deepest sense, we are financially, mentally, physically, and emotionally investing in a renewed relationship with ourselves. In this sense, this investment begins to yield when we see ourselves differently.


As I go through therapy and talk to fellow colleagues and friends about the therapy they have experienced (the good, the bad, and the ugly), there are three things I recommend people look out for as they develop through therapy.


1. Relational growth

Think of every beginning of the relationships in your life. They started somewhere. Maybe you and your best friend were an instant match from high school, something just “clicked”. Or perhaps you started off with a rocky start, but you overcame obstacles together and grew stronger over time.


Your relationship with your therapist should grow as well. You may find yourself venting nonstop, as though you haven’t been breathing for a long time and every session feels like gasping for the air of validation. Or perhaps you are the opposite: you’re wary of trusting another soul with your life, and you test out little by little how much this person can really handle.


No matter which angle you’re coming from, in a healthy therapeutic relationship, you will experience shifts, layers of trust being built as walls of insecurity, fear, and loss begin to crumble.


2. New self-awareness

The more work your therapist does with you, the better you’ll be able to see yourself.

I remember a moment of literally looking in the mirror and recognizing myself as though seeing me for the first time in a long while, after working through some past trauma with my therapist. I noticed how tired I had been, how long I had been looking for validation in places and people who were never going to give me the understanding I was seeking because I needed to claim it for myself.


Therapy holds a mirror to you; it should be uncomfortable, challenging, and empowering.


3. Therapy is working if YOU are working.

Similarly, you will also be able to see others and your routines in a new light. In a way, it’s like going to the optometrist and getting a new prescription for your eyes. You’ll notice smaller, finer details when you’re getting up in the morning, going to work, making plans, talking to friends or coworkers; you’ll recognize the causes and the stages of being excited, or feeling disappointed, or getting upset, rather than only coming to an awareness after the dust has settled.

This only happens if you are putting in the work while you’re with your therapist, and then applying what you’ve learned when you step out of their office.


You and your therapist are creating a sort of “test tube” or “incubator” for your relational, social, emotional, and mental health. You’ll run different diagnostics, you’ll run over past and present scenarios, you’ll problem-solve ways to address the future and imagine what creating your life would be like. This experiment between the two of you will then step out with you into the real world, and you’ll collect data. You’ll bring it back, and you’ll change your methods, you’ll try new tools.

And you’ll step out of your comfort zone.


Therapy and healing are never a straight line, and there will always be lulls or feelings of stuck-ness or frustration. But if you’re finding elements of change in your life, then something is definitely working.

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