Though the stigma of mental health treatment has been lessening over the past years, there remain some discrepancies in understanding of what therapy actually is. And along with that, a misunderstanding of what therapists do.
In this article, I will attempt to dispel some common misconceptions about therapy. I hope this will address any hesitancy to reach out to a therapist and set expectations for anyone who may be considering it.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll address myths and misconceptions about therapists!
So let’s get into it. What the heck is therapy actually, and what is it not?
· Myth #1: Therapy is just talking about problems and venting.
Yes and no. Talking about problems can be cathartic. Further, speaking our thoughts out loud can give us an opportunity to identify more realistic, truthful, or self-compassionate thoughts.
For example, if you are experiencing some anxiety because your thoughts are moving steadily in the direction of worst-case-scenario, saying those thoughts out loud can be a reality check of sorts to recognize the unlikeliness that your fears will come true.
So, while talking is often a core part of the therapeutic process, it’s typically more about exploring and learning new ways of thinking that may be more helpful and beneficial. It might offer you an opportunity to reframe how you think about your circumstances.
There are also vastly diverse types of therapy, some of which don’t involve talking at all! It’s true that cognitive therapy (talking about, challenging old thought patterns, and establishing new thought patterns that lead to less intense distressing emotions) may be one of the most widely practiced types. There is also experiential therapy, somatic therapy, equine therapy, nature therapy, play therapy, and expressive arts therapy – plus probably a whole lot more we don’t have time to get into!
All of these modalities are what's called Evidence Based Practices, which means they have been researched and practiced over years or decades to achieve an understanding of how and why they work. Talking and venting about problems certainly has its place, but no need to pay a professional to do those things.
· Myth #2: My therapist will give me advice on how to change my life.
Therapists (unfortunately) don’t have a magic wand to fix everything or even necessarily know what needs to be fixed.
More importantly, you are the expert on yourself. Therapists spend a lot of time educating ourselves on how to improve our skills and techniques, but nothing can give us the information on what is going to be the most helpful thing for you and your amazing, unique self.
With that, it’s typically not helpful or appropriate to offer advice. That’s because what is best for one person is not necessarily best for you. Our life circumstances are different. Our needs are different. What is more important is to work collaboratively to identify what is best for you, and what might be standing in the way of you achieving that.
On a personal note, I myself have received horrible advice from a former therapist. While this advice may have been necessary and helpful for someone else, it could have been detrimental if I had heeded their advice.
Further, our job is not to fix you or fix things in your life. That is because. One: there is nothing wrong with you. And two: we don’t have the ability to change your life circumstances. Rather, we may be able to help you see some insight into how your circumstances are affecting you, giving you the opportunity to either change those things or change your relationship to them.
That brings me to my third and final (for now) myth…
· Myth #3: There’s something wrong with me if I go to therapy (aka, therapy is for the weak).
We’ve been sold a lie. That lie is that we are supposed to have everything figured out from day one. Do you know how ridiculous that sounds? Would you expect a newborn baby to have everything figured out?
Ok, but seriously. With that, we’ve also been told that we’re supposed to be able to handle everything ourselves. Humans, who will jump at the opportunity to help another human in need, tell ourselves that we should never need help.
Having been fed these ridiculous messages, I would argue that not only is it not weak to ask for help, but that (and I can't stress this enough) it takes an enormous amount of strength and courage to reach out for help despite life-long messages that we’re not supposed to do that.
And considering what we’ve all been through, whether that’s the harrowing experience of the last two years or some other various trauma(s) from our lifetime, how could we possibly expect ourselves to handle everything without help? Would you expect that from someone you love? If not, then why the heck would you expect it from yourself?
In the words of author Glennon Doyle, “I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world.” We shouldn’t be expected to navigate difficult things alone. And anyone who has lived in this messy ass world could certainly find some benefit from therapy. In a world where we are supposed to just handle everything, it takes a lot of courage to advocate for your own wellbeing.