counseling for men Good habits

One Reason Therapy Fails

More often than I like to think about, counseling fails to help people. I have a few clients who come to counseling week after week, we talk about how to improve their lives, they agree heartily with the suggestions I make, then come back and nothing has changed. Did you try the suggestions when you got home? No. Did you decide they weren’t going to work? No, they still sound good. Did you forget about them? Pretty much.

Therapy doesn’t work if you’re not going to try the ideas you get from therapy. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. So are you a failure if you go to counseling and don’t use the ideas from counseling? Not likely. Are you lazy? Probably no more so than average.

One of the reasons people don’t follow through with ideas from therapy is that you don’t have a specific plan to try them out. You think, that’s a good idea and I’m going to start doing that and see how it goes (sometime). From a behavioral standpoint, there are a few things that have to be in place for a new behavior to take hold. You have to set up a cue, or prompt, for when specifically you are going to do the new behavior. There also has to be a reward for doing the behavior. Some times we call this a reinforcement of the behavior. This can be just telling yourself you did a good job, or doing a little victory dance. It could be marking it on your calendar or starting a tally system where you make an “X” for every time you do it and keep looking at all the “X”‘s you made.

For some new behaviors you need to rearrange your physical environment to be frequently reminded of the new behavior you want to do. But if you don’t set up a reminder system, or prompt, you’re not likely to do the new behavior.

This is why after I help clients figure out what new behavior they are going to add that will help them get closer to a better life, I then ask them when specifically they are going to do it. Usually I want them to start it the same day as their appointment, not wait until tomorrow. I want to know specifically when they are going to start doing it. If they say, right after dinner, I want to know when specifically “after dinner”. When is dinner officially over? Is it when they put their fork down? Is it when they put the last dish in the dishwasher? Is it when they close the dishwasher door? You need a specific moment that prompts you to do the behavior.

For example, one of my clients wanted to started working out at home every day. He decided that it would be good to add it to his morning routine. Reflecting on his morning routine he recalled that he always drinks a glass of milk in the morning and thought after drinking the milk would be a good time to start. I pressed him about what the precise end of “drinking milk” was so he had a clear cue to walk to his workout area. He concluded that putting the glass in the sink indicated the end of this behavior so we figured out that he could “clunk” the glass down firmly to highlight the end of “drinking milk” and that was his new cue to walk to his weight bench. We next agreed that he would purposely drink milk and clunk the glass down when he got home from his appointment that day and then walk to his weight bench.

Doing the behavior the same day helped reinforce the new sequence for the next day. After he went to his weight bench he celebrated his success with a “woohoo!” to reinforce his success. Guess what? The next day he drank milk and remembered to clunk down the glass with vigor and walked straight to his weight bench. He was able to stick with the new habit by having a very clear cue to start the behavior.

If you’re not trying out good ideas from your therapy sessions, it may not be that you’re not motivated. It may be that you haven’t set up good and specific prompts to do the new behavior.

Gary Watson is a Solution Focused Therapist in Grand Rapids Michigan.  He provides counseling for couples, teenagers, and adults.  He can help with anxiety, depression, stress, college and work stress, relationship problems, and more.  For more information, please visit the website at