You’ve had the consultations and done the work in finding the right therapist match for you. The next question you may be wondering is, “how long should I commit to therapy?” With therapy being a commitment of both time and finances, it is natural to wonder how long the process will take. What may seem like a pretty straight forward question is actually pretty complex, and varies based on a variety of different factors.
What am I hoping to work on?
An important factor when assessing how long you should commit to therapy is developing an understanding of your goals for the work. Some people come to therapy for a specific problem or issue. For example, if you are struggling with panic attacks that typically occur when experiencing social anxiety, you and your therapist may have a clearer idea of what goals to set. This is what clinicians often refer to as “solution focused” therapy, which has a stronger focus on targeting and changing specific experiences or behavior for the client. You can work towards identifying triggers, developing coping skills, etc., all with the specific goal of helping deal with panic attacks. When you come to therapy with a specific, behaviorally based goal in mind, you might expect a shorter period of time in therapy.
That being said, even with a more focused goal, it’s important to remember that there is still no guarantee that you will complete your therapy in a specific amount of time. Numerous factors, such as the frequency of your sessions, the modality of the therapist, or commitment and ability to practice skills, can all impact the length of time spent in therapy.
There are also plenty of instances where goals for the work are less defined. Oftentimes people begin therapy with a general feeling of what they want to change, but without a strong sense or understanding where some of these feelings are coming from. When therapeutic issues are less behaviorally based and clearly defined, you may expect to spend a longer time exploring life experiences, both past and present, in a less structured way to see how this may be impacting your current situation. This all makes it harder to predict exactly how long it may take to work through these feelings.
Therapy can be an ongoing process
I find that many people new to therapy sometimes consider it a one-time deal. They think, “I’ll come in for a certain period of time, my goals will be reached, and I’ll move on.” While this is definitely the experience for some individuals, some people move in and out of therapy over the course of their lifetime as different things come up from them. If you began therapy and reached the goals you outlined for yourself, that doesn’t mean that your journey in therapy needs to be over forever. New obstacles and changes are always coming up over the course of our lives, and you can always reengage in therapy after taking a period of time off. Other therapy clients choose to look at therapy as a long-term commitment that’s a part of their self-care routine, participating in ongoing services for years.
Developing a trusting relationship with your therapist matters
Another important aspect to consider when assessing how long to expect in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. Research has shown that the best predictor for positive outcomes in therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. It’s my belief that in order for therapy to be effective, there has to be a trusting and authentic relationship between the therapist and the client. Building a trusting relationship takes time and the early parts of therapy are often spent simply getting to know the client, understanding their worldview, and building rapport, rather than focusing in on solving specific problems.
The most honest answer I can provide clients when asking how long they should commit to therapy is it really just depends. That being said, when I consult with people who are beginning therapy for the first time, I always encourage them to make about a six month commitment as a jumping off point, and seeing where the work moves from there.
Samantha Waldman (she/her) is a NYC-based psychotherapist and a Bridges Co-Founder. One of her passions in her work and education has been exploring biracial or multiracial identity, multiethnic identity, transracial adoption, and Asian-diaspora identity. Samantha was trained at Teachers College, Columbia University and currently works as a member of the Intuitive Healing Psychotherapy team.