5 insights about effective therapy

Here are some guiding principles I’ve learned through the years when trying to make therapy truly helpful.

What makes therapy effective?

Here are some guiding principles I’ve learned through the years when trying to provide a truly helpful experience to my clients.

1. Effective therapy helps you talk less and experience more.

Often, the heart of inner change occurs with very little talking. It's more about having an experience that resolves something that is stuck inside.

The other day I had a session with a young man who has a high-achieving, competitive, driven Type “A” personality.  When we got to his reason for counseling, he was ashamed to admit that he often loses his temper when he doesn’t get his way. 

We started out talking about when this typically happens in daily life. However, we soon stopped talking altogether as I had him reimagine the exact scene in his life where he learned this reaction - watching a hockey game when he was a kid. After several minutes of mostly silence, he happily reported that he had worked through the issue and felt all the anxiety and tension he had been carrying in his chest dissolve into a sense of peace and joy. He felt confident that he could move forward with a more mature balance of competitiveness and cooperation. 

While he thanked me for helping him unburden years of shame on this issue, I cannot claim credit except for getting out of his way and giving him limited guidance . . . while he did the work himself!

2. Focusing inward.

Most of the time we live on autopilot to get through the day. It can be hard to make feeling our feelings a priority, and some people do not know how to enter into and explore their inner lives. 

A good therapist can gently guide you into replacing …

… Anxiety, avoiding, and stuffing 

 with … 

Facing, feeling, and dealing.

Therapy helps you to replace anxiety, stuffing, and avoiding with facing, feeling, and dealing.

To do this, the therapist will guide you through a step-by-step process to access a deeper level of awareness of your feelings, beliefs, and coping strategies. 

3. Tracking with compassion.

Therapy is marked by moment to moment tracking. You and the therapist work together to make shifts in your interior life. The therapist will constantly observe your state and state shifts, ask what you are “getting” or experiencing in the moment, and invite you to share any doubts or blocks that come up to interfere in your inner work. Your job is simply to be open and honest with what you are experiencing or not experiencing.

4. The therapist helps you explore with curiosity. 

Therapy is about being curious. The therapist will lead with curiosity, but will not jump to conclusions about the root cause of a problem. The client can follow this lead.


Several years ago, I had a middle-aged widow walk in to my office visibly upset, shaking and teary-eyed. She kept experiencing waves of anxiety without knowing where they came from. After many sessions of cognitive behavior therapy, grief counseling, looking at sleep, diet, and exercise, and trying mindfulness, I eventually learned how to get out of her way, and simply lead from behind…with nothing but curiosity. 

True scientists observe and ask questions out of their curiosity, and come up with hypotheses only after collecting lots of data. They do not play the expert and feel like they have to have the answers. An effective therapist will actually lead you to come up with your own answers. They guide you to the “aha” rather than competing with you to find it first! 

Thankfully, this woman eventually figured out the exact root cause of her anxiety - an unprocessed memory from childhood that installed a phobia of certain triggering situations. After processing the memory in a matter of minutes, she walked out with confidence and lasting freedom from the phobic anxiety she had come in with. 

5. Effective therapy is contained. 

Inner work should be safe and contained; that is, it should not intrude excessively into your everyday life. You and the therapist will pay attention to your level of distress and provide you ways to calm and to re-settle anything that becomes unsettled during session. At the end of each session, you should feel grounded and ready to move on with the rest of your day. 

+ Take it to a deeper level...

As a Catholic therapist, I encourage clients to understand whatever they are going through in light of their Faith and their relationship with God. It is possible to get relief from a psychological problem, then move on as if it was never there in the first place. It is better to use the experience of change/healing to enrich your relationship with God and others at that deepest level of the heart. One can do this by asking...what does this struggle, healing, experience mean in relation to God?

Image link to bio for Marcel Lanahan, LMHC

Dr. Marcel Lanahan

Founder, Lead Clinician

Marcel is a Catholic therapist, husband, and father of five. He is dedicated to supporting fellow Catholics with guidance on their healing journeys.

Sign up for a free consultation today!

I am currently offering a free 30 minute call by phone or secure video conference.