As a counselor I am often asked, How long does therapy take? Unfortunately, I don’t have a simple answer for this question. Therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis or whatever else you want to call it, can take a very short time or it can take a very long time. There are people who can be helped in an hour because that is all they need for that moment in their life, and there are people who spend 20 years in therapy with little change in their overall functioning (think of a Woody Allen character.) I can imagine if you are asking how long it’s going to take because you are considering some therapy yourself, you don’t want to hear that it might take more than 20 years.
Here’s the thing. If you want to tackle one problem or symptom with work on a logical, rational level, you are likely to get out of therapy in a time frame that goes anywhere from one hour to six months, depending on how connected that problem is to unconscious (meaning subconscious) difficulties and how often you have to face this troubling problem in your daily life.
Let’s say, for instance, you have to go visit your mother-in-law for four days. You know she drives you crazy because her personality clashes with yours and you want to know how to handle the situation. You might need what I call strategic psychological problem solving, and it might take an hour or two. You could even call this kind of work, “coaching.” Other problems might require repeated practice at using certain coping techniques and take several months. For deep, lasting change, a longer time frame in therapy will be necessary.
To answer how long deep, lasting change takes is a much murkier game. Among other things, the process involves the development and resolution of something called a “transference,” and these things called “defenses” have to be understood, acknowledged and “worked through.” Experiences you had as a young person, (and I mean really young), are significant to how you function today. And be forewarned: The better you think your childhood was and the less you think is has to do with how you function today, the longer the whole process is probably going to take.
You can think of the different types of therapy as the difference between a well traveled, moderately strenuous hike you’ve never taken before and a scuba dive to an area of the ocean that has never been explored by anyone else that you want to map and claim as your own. Many unknown factors that are discovered on the journey and how much of the ocean you want to map will determine how long the work takes. If you want to find a therapist to help you on your journey, you might want to consider this information as you begin your search.