Providing psychotherapy? Keep these principles in mind

Author and Disclosure Information



Although the biological aspects of psychiatry are crucial, psychotherapy is an integral part of psychiatry. Unfortunately, the emphasis on psychotherapy training in psychiatry residency programs has declined compared with a decade or more ago. In an era of dwindling psychotherapy training and resources, the quality and type of psychotherapy training has become more variable. In addition to helping maintain the therapeutic alliance, nuanced psychotherapy by a trained professional can be transformational by helping patients to:

  • process complex life events and emotions
  • feel understood
  • overcome psychological barriers to recovery
  • enhance self-esteem.

For the therapist, effective psychotherapy usually involves warmth and empathy, active listening, an authentic and genuine positive regard for the patient and his (her) experiences. The therapist should also pay attention to her (his) own emotions and internal responses, as well as the patient’s, while having the perseverance to address and help the patient work through challenging aspects.

When providing psychotherapy for adult patients, consider these basic, but salient points that are often overlooked.

Refrain from making life decisions for patients, except in exceptional circumstances, such as in situations of abuse and other crises.1 Telling an adult patient what to do about life decisions that he finds challenging fits more under life coaching than psychotherapy. Through therapy, patients should be helped in processing the pros and cons of certain decisions and in navigating the decision-making process to arrive at a decision that makes the most sense to them. Also, it’s not uncommon for thera­peutic relationships to rupture when therapists give advice such as suggesting that a patient divorce his spouse, date a certain individual, or have children.

There are many reasons why giving advice in psychotherapy is not recommended. Giving advice can be an impediment to the therapeutic process.2 What is good advice for one patient may not be good for another. Therapists who give advice often do so from their own lens and perspective. This perspective may not only be different from the patient’s priorities and life circumstances, but the therapist also may have inadequate information about the patient’s situation,1,2 which could lead to providing advice that could even harm the patient. In addition, providing advice might prevent a patient from gaining adequate agency or self-directedness while promoting an unhealthy dependence on the therapist and reinforcing the patient’s self-doubt or lack of confidence. In these cases, the patient may later resent the therapist for the advice.

Address the ‘here and now.’1 Pay attention to immediate issues or themes that emerge, and address them with the patient gently and thoughtfully, as appropriate. Ignoring these may create risks of missing vital, underlying material that could reveal more of the patient’s inner world, as these themes can sometimes reflect other themes of the patient’s life outside of treatment.

Acknowledging and empathizing, when appropriate, are key initial steps that help decrease resistance and facilitate the therapeutic process.

Explore the affect. Paying attention to the patient’s emotional state is critical.3 This holds true for all types of psychotherapy. For example, if a patient suddenly becomes tearful when telling his story or describing recent events, this is usually a sign that the subject matter affects or holds value to the patient in a significant or meaningful way and should be further explored.

‘Meet the patient where they are.’ This doesn’t mean you should yield to the patient or give in to his demands. It implies that you should assess the patient’s readiness for a particular intervention and devise interventions from that standpoint, exploring the patient’s ambivalence, noticing resistance, and continuing to acknowledge and empathize with where the patient is in life or treatment. When utilized judiciously, this technique can help the therapist align with the patient, and help the patient move forward through resistance and ambivalence.

Be nonjudgmental and empathetic. Patients place trust in their therapists when they disclose thoughts or emotions that are sensitive, meaningful, or close to the heart. A nonjudgmental response helps the patient accept his experiences and emotions. Being empathetic requires putting oneself in another’s shoes; it does not mean agreeing with the patient. Of course, if you learn that your patient abused a child or an older adult, you are required to report it to the appropriate state agency. In addition, follow the duty to warn and protect in case of any other safety issues, as appropriate.

Do not assume. Open-ended questions and exploration are key. For example, a patient told her resident therapist that her father recently passed away. The therapist expressed to the patient how hard this must be for her. However, the patient said she was relieved by her father’s death, because he had been abusive to her for years. Because of the therapist’s comment, the patient doubted her own reaction and felt guilty for not being more upset about her father’s death.

Avoid over-identifying with your patient. If you find yourself over-identifying with a patient because you have a common background or life events, seek supervision. Over-identification not only can pose barriers to objectively identifying patterns and trends in the patient’s behavior or presentation but also can increase the risk of crossing boundaries or even minimizing the patient’s experience. Exercise caution if you find yourself wanting to be liked by your patient; this is a common mistake among beginning therapists.4

Seek supervision. If you are feeling angry, frustrated, indifferent, or overly attached toward a patient, recognize this countertransference and seek consultation or supervision from an experienced colleague or supervisor. These emotions can be valuable tools that shed light not only on the patient’s life and the session itself, but also help you identify any other factors, such as your own feelings or experiences, that might be contributing to these reactions.

Next Article: