In February we shared five mental health tips that get recommended over and over but actually aren’t accurate. This month we asked different clinicians to set the record straight on more myths. Here’s what they shared.
1. Myth: It’s important to have a job you’re passionate about.
Fact: According to David Sternberg, LICSW, there’s a prevailing belief that “if you just follow your passion regarding work, then you’ll be far happier and your career will take off.”
Here’s the problem, he said: Not everyone is passionate about a profession. Not everyone is even passionate about their interests. Many people have overwhelming financial obligations, which preclude them from following their passion.
Individuals also might enjoy something tangential or intangible about their current jobs, said Sternberg, the founder and director of DC Talk Therapy. This might be
“the camaraderie they have with their colleagues or the sense of autonomy they have.”
Many 20-somethings fear there’s something inherently wrong with them if they don’t find passion and purpose in their work, Sternberg said. “This negative self-talk sometimes affects their mood as well as their view of themselves.”
For instance, Sternberg worked with a 27-year-old financial analyst who struggled with anxiety about his job. He worried he wasn’t doing enough with his life and should be doing something with passion and purpose. They spent several sessions exploring what that might be.
It turned out that the real issue was his beliefs about work, which were actually stopping him from enjoying his current job.
Sternberg commonly sees clients who believe they “should” have a career that involves passion and purpose, because that’s what they’ve heard in the media and from their peers. Instead, he helps his clients refocus on what they really want from their jobs.
“Sometimes that does involve passion and/or purpose, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
2. Myth: Positive affirmations eliminate panic.
Fact: In general, thinking positively can produce calm and pleasure, according to Julie Lopez, PhD, LICSW, a psychotherapist and executive director of The Viva Center. However, “when a person is highly anxious or struggles with panic, reassurances can paradoxically heighten [their] distress.”
Instead of trying to mask a fear with reassurances, what’s more helpful is to raise your tolerance for that fear, she said.
Last year Lopez worked with a woman who was experiencing full-blown panic attacks two to three times a month. She knew that her fear of imminent death was illogical. She kept using self-soothing statements.
But her panic only peaked. She and Lopez worked on systematically increasing her tolerance to her fears using exposure therapy. “[A]fter hard work and 6 months of zero panic attacks, we ended our work together.”
Take another example of someone who fears flying, or really that the plane is going to crash. The reassurance that “the plane won’t crash” still produces a “reluctant passenger white-knuckling it through the flight, drinking or taking Xanax,” Lopez said. That’s because they know that planes do crash. This false reassurance doesn’t target the source of the real struggle, she said: “low tolerance for the truth.”
3. Myth: It’s important to listen to your emotions to tell you what to do.
Fact: “Your emotions tell you how you feel, not what to do about how you feel,” said Susan B. Saint-Rossy, MSW, LCSW, a psychotherapist who works with individuals and couples in Loudoun County, Virginia, near Washington, D.C.
For instance, she shared this example: Your 6-year-old is having a meltdown because she can’t make the letter “b” face the right way. Utterly inconsolable, she wants you to make her feel better. But you’re frustrated yourself. And as her tantrum goes on and on, you start getting angrier.
“If you act on emotions alone, you might tell her that it’s not that big of a deal, that she just needs to stop her outburst and try again. Your emotions might tell you to start yelling yourself!”
The key is to wait and contemplate your actions, which you choose based on your emotions, reason and values, Saint-Rossy said.
In the above example, you soothe yourself so you can think clearly. You use logic to consider what’s helped in the past, what she needs and how you can help her calm down, she said. “You look to your core values to remind yourself what kind of parent you want to be — and act accordingly.”
According to Saint-Rossy, “Parents who interact with their children based solely on their emotional responses to their child or their own emotional needs tend not to be able to create a safe, secure environment with clear boundaries and limits that children needs to flourish.”
Lopez stressed the importance of recognizing that self-help has limitations. She also suggested starting a self-help journey with a trusted friend. “[T]hey might see things about you [that you] don’t see in yourself.”
It’s also important to be specific about what you need help with, Saint-Rossy said. “Self-help — whether it is reading books, going to seminars, joining a group, or attending a retreat — can be effective for specific problems.”
A book with information about overcoming an issue may be more helpful than one that claims to change your life (e.g., books on the “laws of attraction”), Saint-Rossy said. She gave the example of Brené Brown’s valuable book The Gifts of Imperfection about overcoming perfectionism.
Plus, “If the answers given seem magical or too simplistic, they probably are.” She also suggested considering these questions about who’s sharing the self-help information:
“What makes this person an expert? Education, training and experience? Do they have proof or research? Whom is the person representing? A company trying to sell you something? An organization with a certain set of beliefs or an agenda?”
Self-help can be very helpful. The key is to be an informed and discerning consumer.