What Do Clients Find Most Helpful About Therapy?

When clients first begin their therapy journey, they often ask to be taught specific skills to help them achieve their particular goals.

Clients believe that if they can be taught these skills, they will overcome their difficulties or the problems that led to them entering therapy. They will then have no subsequent complications or need for additional treatment in the future.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a short-term treatment that clients can easily understand. CBT is based on the premise that all difficulties arise from unhelpful cognitions (beliefs, expectations, assumptions, rules and thoughts) and unhelpful behaviours. Therefore, CBT aims to help clients see that their cognitions and behaviours are unhelpful and tries to teach them skills that can help them replace these unhelpful cognitions and behaviours with more helpful ones. If this is achieved, the assumption is that clients will change and therefore improve.

I believe that if a client can have more helpful cognitions and behaviours, they will have significantly improved psychological health and overall well-being. I’m just not sure if I agree that the process required to get to this outcome is the same as what many CBT clinicians would believe. For example, focus on distorted cognitions has been negatively correlated with overall outcomes in cognitive therapy for depression studies (Castonguay, Goldfield, Wiser, Raue, & Hayes, 1996).

What leads to improvements in treatment?

The article “What Leads to Optimal Outcomes in Therapy?” answers this question in detail and shows that the outcome is dependent upon (Hubble & Miller, 2004):

  • The life circumstances of the client, their resources and readiness to change (40% of overall outcome variance)
  • The therapeutic relationship (30% of total outcome variance)
  • The expectations about the treatment and therapy (15% of global outcome variance)
  • The specific model of therapy (15% of overall outcome variance)

For cognitive therapy for depression, both therapeutic alliance and the emotional involvement of the patient predicted the reductions in symptom severity across the treatment (Castonguay et al., 1996). Many therapists are now aware of these findings, but clients are generally not.

What do clients view to be the most valuable elements of therapy once they have improved?

By the end of treatment, especially if it is a successful outcome, clients tend to have a much different outlook on what they think are the most valuable aspects of therapy compared to what they were looking for at the beginning of their treatment.

Irvin Yalom’s excellent and informative book ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’ goes into detail about a study he conducted with his colleagues that examined the most important therapeutic factors, as identified by 20 successful long-term group therapy clients. They gave each client 60 cards, which consisted of five items across each of the 12 categories of therapeutic factors, and asked them to sort them regarding how valuable these items were across their treatment.

The 12 categories, from least helpful to most helpful, were:

12. Identification: trying to be like others

11. Guidance: being given advice or suggestions about what to do

10. Family reenactment: developing a greater understanding of earlier family experiences

9. Altruism: seeing the benefits of helping others

8. Installation of hope: knowing that others with similar problems have improved

7. Universality: realising that others have similar experiences and problems

6. Existential factors: recognising that pain, isolation, injustice and death are part of life

5. Interpersonal output: learning about how to relate to and get along with others

4. Self-understanding: learning more about thoughts, feelings, the self, and their origins

3. Cohesiveness: being understood, accepted and connected with a sense of belonging

2. Catharsis: expressing feelings and getting things out in the open

1. Interpersonal input: learning more about our impression and impact on others

The clients were unaware of the different categories and only rated each of the 60 individual items concerning how helpful it had been.

When looking at these categories, giving advice or suggestions about what to do is often not found to be a beneficial element of the therapy process, even though this is precisely what most of the clients are initially looking for. Instead, it is far more critical to develop a more in-depth knowledge of themselves, their inner world, and how they relate to and are perceived by others in interpersonal situations.

The top 10 items that the clients rated as most helpful were (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005):

10. Feeling more trustful of groups and of other people.

9. Seeing that others could reveal embarrassing things and take other risks and benefit from it helped me to do the same.

8. Learning how I come across to others.

7. Learning that I must take ultimate responsibility for the way I live my life no matter how much guidance and support I get from others.

6. Expressing negative and/or positive feelings toward another member.

5. The group’s teaching me about the type of impression I make on others.

4. Learning how to express my feelings.

3. Other members honestly telling me what they think of me.

2. Being able to say what is bothering me instead of holding it in.

1. Discovering and accepting previously unknown or unacceptable parts of myself.

All 20 clients had been in therapy an average of 16 months and had finished or were about to complete their treatment. These items were about group therapy, so the most critical factors for change in individual treatment may be different. However, even with individual treatment, Yalom believes that the relationship heals in the end.

For more information, feel free to check out Chapter 4 in ‘The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy’ by Irvin Yalom and Molyn Leszcz (2005) or any of the other studies out there that look into the outcomes or therapeutic factors involved in change across psychological treatment.

Suppose you have ever wanted to discover and learn more about yourself, accept yourself more, express yourself better or develop more trust in others. In that case, longer-term psychological therapy may be just what you need!

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Published by Dr Damon Ashworth

I am a Clinical Psychologist. I completed a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at Monash University and a Bachelor of Behavioural Sciences and a Bachelor of Psychological Sciences with Honours at La Trobe University. I am passionate about the field of Psychology, and apply the latest empirical findings to best help individuals meet their psychological and emotional needs.

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