How long will therapy last?

While most individual therapy sessions last for 50 minutes and are scheduled twice monthly, once weekly, or twice weekly depending on the needs and desires of a particular client, clients are frequently left wondering how long the therapy process goes on and when they are finished. The length of any course of psychotherapy depends on the needs of the client. Some individuals enter treatment with a specific difficulty that needs to be addressed. With this scenario, specific goals are established and treatment is completed when the goals are met. Often, with circumscribed difficulties and goals, treatment can potentially end in eight to ten sessions.

Other individuals enter treatment saying that they feel bad and are not pleased with the direction their life is headed, but they are uncertain about the reasons for their dissatisfaction. In these situations, the length of treatment is less predictable at the start of treatment, but continues to be within the control of the client. For the uncertain client, time in therapy is spent identifying and understanding sources of dissatisfaction and the various ways the individual might inadvertently be contributing to the dissatisfaction. Often, relief is found in certain areas of one's life with increasing understanding of the factors contributing to the difficulties. Then, it is up to the individual to decide whether the amount of relief from troubles or progress toward goals meets his or her current needs. If the answer is yes, the individual may decide to stop treatment. With this scenario, the individual may, at some time in the future, come back to pursue other goals, or life satisfaction is increased significantly with the treatment provided such that additional psychotherapy is not needed at any future time.

Yet other persons choose lengthier treatments either due to complexities in their life situations or due to a desire for intensive self-exploration. Longer treatments, in addition to the relatively greater strides in self-understanding and increases in life satisfaction, also tend to result in the learning of a process of listening to and understanding oneself that can be applied on one's own without a therapist and result in therapeutic gains even outside of psychotherapy. Regardless of the circumstances under which an individual enters treatment, the decision about the length of psychotherapeutic treatment is made by the individual in treatment with the assistance of his or her therapist.

The diversity of decisions about psychological treatment can also be viewed metaphorically by thinking about the number of options individuals have for maintaining their automobiles. Automobiles, like people, require periodic attention to their functioning. However, the way that each individual goes about automobile maintenance differs widely. Some individuals drive their cars without any maintenance, and merely discard or trade in the vehicle after it has served its use. This is similar to the individual who goes through life without any type of psychological treatment, content to and satisfied with his or her ability to handle problems that arise.

Other individuals darken the door of the auto mechanic only when their cars break down and will no longer run without some sort of mechanical repair. We might think of this situation as similar to the individual who seeks psychotherapy when there is a life crisis and only long enough to get through the crisis, at which point the treatment stops. Yet another group of individuals perform periodic oil changes and tune-ups before signs of serious trouble develop. This group of individuals might attend short (eight to ten sessions) to moderate (six months to a year) courses of treatment over their lifetimes after recognizing smaller difficulties that will become worse and more problematic without focused attention, but before a crisis develops.

The final group of car owners meticulously follows the maintenance guidelines that come with their owners manual and carefully attends to every detail of keeping the body of the car clean and free from rust. This final group of people might be those who choose longer courses of psychotherapy with a desire to thoroughly understand multiple facets of their psychological functioning and to make decisions that lead to the fullest in life satisfaction. They tend to be individuals who find the process of self-exploration appealing and respect the opportunity to diligently pursue it.

Just as there are infinite possibilities for the way a person can care for his or her automobile, there are an unlimited number of possibilities for the goals that individuals wish to pursue in therapy and the time and monetary investment they wish to make to meet their goals. However, self-exploration and self-understanding are developed with time and effort just as are musical talents, and greater gains result from a greater investment of time and effort.