How to Make Therapy Work for You

By The Fix staff 11/20/17

Therapy can be challenging. Here’s what you need to do to get the most out of it.

A woman with head in hands, sitting with a therapist

Many people in recovery come to therapy somewhat involuntarily, either through court order or because it’s part of the treatment plan at their recovery center. Talking with a professional under any circumstances can be helpful, but you’re likely to make the largest strides once you decide to make therapy work for you.

The Fix spoke with Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala, the chief clinical officer of Phoenix Rising, an outpatient treatment center in Aliso Viejo, California and her husband Ben Kaneaiakala, CEO of the center, about how to get the most out of therapy.

Find a therapist who respects you, too.

Finding a therapist is about fulfilling your needs. You need to choose someone who treats you with respect and an unconditional positive regard. This can help you repair attachment issues and other maladaptive coping strategies that you’ve developed, Alia Kaneaiakala says.

“A therapist is a person to practice feeling safe with, before you take that out to the world,” she explains. “It’s important that the therapist becomes an attachment figure at times and can be a safe haven.”

In order for that to happen, you need to feel confident in the fact that your therapist is not judging you and is keeping the space open for you to bring forward anything that may arise. If you get the feeling that this is not the case it may be time to find another professional.

“It’s an honor to be a therapist and have someone want to share the intimate details of their life with you,” Kaneaiakala says. “If someone isn’t taking that as the honor it is, it’s not going to work out.”


Allow yourself to build trust.

A lot of clients have reverence for their therapists because of the title and they accept the idea of patient confidentiality. However, to build real, meaningful trust takes time, Kaneaiakala says.

“It’s a very different feeling when it switches from reverence to knowing they actually do trust me,” she says. For some patients it can take three or more visits to begin establishing that deep trust. Once it’s there, the therapist and client can start doing harder work together.

“The space opens up and it’s easier to do gentle confrontations and address those harder topics once they don’t respect me just because of the title, but because they actually feel the safety and trust in the room,” she explains.

Choose someone who has experience working with people with addiction.

For people who are in recovery from substance use disorder, it’s essential to choose an addiction therapist who has experience dealing with people with substance use disorder. People with addiction have certain tendencies and are often the ability to justify or explain their actions. When that so-called addiction voice begins coming through, you need to know that your therapist can recognize it and help you break away from it.

“Most therapists are trained for the unconditional positive regard and to be very client centered, very validating and supportive,” Kaneaiakala explains. “If the addiction voice comes up and the client wants to come up with rationale for their behaviors, the therapist needs to be well versed enough to hear the addiction voice and externalize it from the individual.”

A great therapist will be able to recognize this even when the client can’t and address it in a way that is still supportive.

Value that professional insight.

People in recovery with strong fellowship networks might question whether or not it’s still worth it to have a therapist, particularly long term. However, seeing a professional still has many benefits, according to Ben Kaneaiakala, who has been seeing a therapist throughout his long-term recovery.

“Getting a professional view on you is valuable,” he says. “That’s part of the reason why I continued to do therapy.”

In a fellowship you develop a close bond with other members who can support you in specific ways. However, a therapist has tools and experience to help you work through the tough stuff.

“There needs to somebody who has education, experience, know-how to help me work through things that are struggles for me,” he says.

Phoenix Rising provides behavior health care services in Southern California. Find out more at and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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