Supportive Therapy

What is supportive therapy?

Supportive therapy is a form of psychotherapy that relies on the therapeutic alliance to alleviate symptoms, improve self-esteem, restore relation to reality, regulate impulses and negative thinking, and reinforce the ability to cope with life stressors and challenges.  

This therapy aims to preserve the client’s voice, authority, and agency.


What supportive therapy can help with

Effectiveness of supportive therapy

Studies have shown that supportive therapy is effective in treating a variety of emotional challenges and mental health concerns.  

Therapeutic alliance is a good predictor of successful psychotherapy; therefore, psychotherapies, such as supportive therapy, that are designed to promote this alliance are generally effective.

Supportive therapy is great for clients who are new to therapy, as it provides a less structured therapeutic environment.

How supportive therapy works

Supportive therapy occurs in almost every therapeutic interaction and is the type of psychotherapy provided to most clients engaged in therapy.

Supportive therapy works through the following intervention techniques:

  • Alliance building: Therapists build an alliance with clients by expressing interest and empathy, and by using a more informal conversational style where the therapist doesn’t utilize technical jargon and engages the client in a collaborative discussions that eliminates the power dynamic. This can help clients feel more comfortable with their therapists and make developing a rapport more seamless.
  • Esteem building: Therapists help clients to build esteem by reassuring and normalizing thoughts and feelings, and providing encouragement. This is an important technique, as building self-esteem is one of the main goals of supportive therapy.
  • Skill building: Therapists work collaboratively with clients to build skills by equipping clients with tools and offering guidance in anticipation of life stressors. Equipping clients with tools helps to maximize their adaptive capacities when faced with challenges outside of the therapy room.
  • Reducing and preventing anxiety: Therapists help clients to reduce and prevent anxiety by normalizing, rationalizing, and reframing thoughts and feelings. Anxiety is a normal part of everyday life, and when therapists help clients to realize this, they can then work together to examine and rethink situations.
  • Expanding awareness: Therapists work with clients to develop awareness through clarification, confrontation, and interpretation. The goal of this insight-oriented approach is for clients to experience that aha moment!

Supportive psychotherapy is typically used in conjunction with other types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Frequency of supportive therapy sessions  

Supportive therapy is less structured than many other types of therapy, so the frequency of sessions may be agreed upon between the therapist and client during assessment.  

How long supportive therapy treatment lasts

Supportive therapy on its own is not time-limited. This therapy usually works in tandem with other types of therapy and can be integrated into both time-limited or long-term therapies. Because this therapy relies so heavily on alliance-building, which can take time and trust, it is usually recommended as a long-term therapy.

How supportive therapy sessions are structured

In most therapies, rapport-building usually happens within the first few sessions. However, with supportive therapy, rapport-building is an ongoing process. This therapy is non-directive, so the therapist most often follows the client’s lead when structuring sessions.

The main goal of a supportive therapist is to build a therapeutic alliance, which can be conceptualized as:

  1. Bond between the client and therapist
  2. Agreement on the tasks and goals of the therapy
  3. Client’s capacity to perform the therapeutic work
  4. Therapist’s empathic relatedness and involvement

What happens in a typical supportive therapy session

During a supportive therapy session, the client and therapist collaborate to agree on tasks and goals. Most often, these tasks are behavioral, e.g. behavior rehearsal, role playing, relaxation techniques, graded exposure, visualization and imagery, etc.

Clients are often given homework in order to empower them to take an active role in their therapy. The therapist offers praise and encouragement in moments of success, and in challenging moments, emphasizes patience and practice.

What to look for in a supportive therapist

Supportive therapy can be provided by mental health counselors, social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Regardless of credentials, therapists who provide supportive therapy should possess:

  • Empathy
  • A non-directive approach
  • Knowledge of other types of therapy

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.