When Peter, a 44-year-old animator in New York, first went to couples therapy many years ago, it didn’t save his relationship. But it did confirm what he already suspected: He and his girlfriend weren’t right for each other. “I was telling a story about one of the fights, and the therapist laughed a little. I just ate that up,” Peter tells me. His ex, who picked the therapist, was furious about it and “left more angry than when we got there.”
A few years later, he found himself back in couples therapy with a woman he was considering proposing to. But since they had moved in together, they struggled with class differences. He was from a working-class family on the South Side of Chicago; she was from a family of doctors on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She suggested therapy and picked the therapist, but like before, they still broke up. Only this time his ex, who was struggling to accept the breakup, asked him to attend one more session to unpack their issues.
“She really just wanted to air her grievances about me breaking up with her, and I kept agreeing with her until she got frustrated and walked out,” Peter explains. After which, he sat with the therapist, who had apparently had it with his ex as well. “The therapist said to me, ‘Pete, I’m surprised you stayed with her this long.’ It was way inappropriate, but clearly she took my side. I also felt like I won.”
Since then, Peter has gone to individual therapy to work on some of his past relationship problems. But his main focus has mostly been on “winning” these sessions, which he admits has been counterproductive (and led to a revolving door of therapists). “I’m left wondering, ‘Am I not participating in this correctly?’” he tells me. “It’s not 100 percent clear, and I’m still not sure what is helping and not helping.”
Peter’s perspective is pretty common, but often detrimental, psychotherapist Jennie Steinberg warns. In more than a decade of practicing therapy and supervising other clinicians, Steinberg has found that many people come into therapy with a flawed fantasy that their therapist will tell them that they’re perfectly fine. “Even if it’s what they thought they wanted, the people I know who have had these experiences have found the experience to be deeply damaging,” Steinberg explains. “What they’ve heard from their therapist is, ‘I’m not willing to work hard to see the real you, under this facade you’re putting up.’”
The urge to frame therapy in these terms comes from the myth that therapy is supposed to feel good if you’re doing it right, when in reality, it works almost the opposite way. Honestly addressing negative patterns and past traumas is often a painful process that can take much longer than people expect to produce noticeable results. It requires a level of trust that many cannot access — especially when they’re busy turning therapy into a “winnable” game. “Clients may expect some miraculous breakthrough like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting,” marriage and family therapist Michael Ceely says. “Such portrayals of perfect therapy sessions and linear progress are common.”
Certain personality traits can make some people even more intense about “winning” therapy. In particular, those who struggle with perfectionism, people-pleasing, defensiveness and generally being vulnerable and uncomfortable are more likely to treat therapy like a sport. Moreover, if they’re highly competitive in other areas of their lives, they’re more likely to be highly competitive in their approach to therapy, too. “If someone is trying to win therapy, it may be because letting themselves appear to be messy — a necessary factor for effective therapy — is impossible for them,” Steinberg explains. “If they admit [they’re imperfect], the whole house of cards comes crumbling down.”
To combat all of this, it’s partially the therapist’s job to educate clients on how long therapy takes to produce results, what treatment goals are realistic and the limitations of the process overall. “Providing this information upfront can reduce overly optimistic expectations,” Ceely says. “This is called informed consent for treatment. It should include the risks and benefits of therapy. It should state that some people may feel worse before feeling better.”
That said, it’s not just up to the therapist to stop the gamification. If you suspect that you see therapy as primarily something to win at, especially if you can’t seem to keep a therapist, it’s important to mention this at your first appointment. With the right information, therapists can help you reframe the motivation to win as the motivation to do the hard work that’s actually required for personal growth.
When Kelly, a 27-year-old teacher in Illinois, started going to therapy three years ago, she made it clear to her therapist that she tends to look at life in terms of winning and losing. Over time, her therapist helped her realize that she depends a lot on external validation to cope with her anxiety. Now that she sees that, her goals have evolved, and she’s working on strategies for sitting with her anxiety and allowing it to pass, instead of trying to alleviate it by seeking praise.
The need to be perceived as “good at therapy” will still sneak up on her sometimes, though. For instance, she tends to over-plan for what to talk about in sessions. “I go into every session having overthought it for hours, starting with an end goal in mind, because I want to feel like my session was successful,” Kelly says, adding that she’ll sometimes write down two or three goals ahead of time.
However, her therapist almost always pushes her to go deeper. And although she ultimately has grown to trust her therapist to direct the conversation where it needs to go, she tries to anticipate what her therapist will say and act accordingly. “I don’t know if that’s unhealthy exactly, but it feels good to dig deeper on my own,” she says. “Maybe that’s like winning.”
While there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead for sessions, it’s crucial to let therapists take the lead. “Therapeutic goals are like the mountain on the horizon, and each session is like a section of highway,” Ceely explains. “A good therapist will allow the client to comment on the scenery, while steering things in the right direction.”
Only then do you really win.