What is Therapy, Really?

Adults in the United States are seeking therapy and mental health treatment at increasingly high rates. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association that surveyed doctoral-level, actively licensed professional psychologists in 2020 and 2021 found that referrals more than doubled over the course of the year—from 37% in 2020 to 62% in 2021. In addition, almost 7 in 10 psychologists (68%) reported a longer waitlist to see patients in 2021 than the year before (APA, 2021). The greatest increases reported by therapists were from people seeking treatment for anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and trauma- or stress-related struggles (APA, 2021).

As beneficial as therapy can be, you may be unclear about what it really means to be in therapy. What is psychotherapy, really? And how can it help you?

What is therapy?

There are a few things that make psychotherapy unique—and very different from friendships, family connections, and other social interactions. As outlined by Corey (2022), unlike other relationships, psychotherapy is:

  1. A professional relationship in which a client pays a licensed provider for their service based on the therapist’s training in mental health.
  2. A one-way relationship, meaning that the relationship exists only to serve the clients mental health needs.
  3. A legally binding relationship that requires informed consent, meaning that the client and therapist have a signed contract with agreed upon expectations about their work together.
  4. A confidential relationship, meaning that the therapist cannot share any specific or identifying information about the client to anyone without a signed statement allowing them to do so.
  5. A relationship focused on a goal or outcome that the client hopes to achieve by working with the therapist.

So, unlike self-help resources, friendships, or other social relationships, therapy is a confidential, professional relationship with a mental health provider whose sole job is to help you improve your mental health in some way (Corey, 2022).

Why would you want to start therapy? How can therapy help you?

I’ll always argue that therapy is one of the best gifts you can ever give yourself because its sole focus is to benefit you! The entire job of the therapist is to help you evolve, grow, and develop in healthy ways. In that vein, some common reasons people start therapy include:

  • To overcome a mental health condition or diagnosis, like learning to manage anxiety, depressive symptoms, eating behavior, or body image concerns.
  • To cope with a difficult life event, like a breakup, the death of a loved one, or traumatic event.
  • To explore early childhood experiences and how they affect your development.
  • To support loved ones in their mental health journey.
  • To understand yourself more deeply and develop self-confidence.
  • To expand on your successes and make an already good life great.
  • Because you’re curious, going through a life transition, or want to understand themselves in a new way.

Also, it’s important to know that the goal of therapy is not to be in treatment forever! In fact, many therapies are time-limited such that they allocate a certain amount of time to working on a specific issue and then your work ends (Corey, 2022). Therapists differ widely—in their beliefs about human nature, the way they practice, their areas of expertise, and the way they conceptualize health. So, no matter why you enter therapy, there is probably a mental health practitioner who would be a good fit to help you based on your specific goals.

The Naked Truth is This: Having a professional mental health expert by your side to help you on this often difficult life journey can be incredibly helpful and healing. Decades of research suggests that psychotherapy is highly effective in helping people grow and overcome mental health struggles (Corey, 2022; Seligman, 1995). Whether you’re in desperate need of help to overcome a hardship or just interested in self-exploration, entering into a therapeutic relationship with an excellent mental health professional can dramatically and positively influence your life.

Copyright Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Note: This content is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. I cannot respond to personal requests for advice over the internet. Best on your continued journey.

Dr. Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP

Exposed to a diversity of cultures and lifestyles from an early age, Dr. Cortney was intrigued by the ways cultural and environmental conditions affected the psychological well-being of individuals, groups, and even whole societies.


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