Today, you’ll find myriad advice about improving your emotional health and relationships. This is a good thing. But, unfortunately, not all of it is accurate. And some of it can even be damaging.
We asked psychotherapists to share the self-help myths they’ve seen suggested over and over — and to set the record straight. Below, you’ll find a list of five myths and facts.
1. Myth: Thinking abundantly will manifest abundance in your life.
Fact: According to clinical psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, since “The Secret” came out years ago, many people believe that if you think the right thoughts then you’ll attract good things into your life. For instance, if you believe financial abundance will come your way, then you’ll have more money.
However, your thinking is just one piece of the puzzle. It’s true that many people are trapped in negative thinking. They think “in terms of scarcity and anxiety,” Duffy said. They think they have bad luck. They think good things won’t happen to them.
Naturally, this negative frame of mind doesn’t invite positive or abundant experiences or things, he said. However, “hopeful cognition alone will not create abundance, but thought and action will.”
In other words, your thought process is important. But you also need to make an effort and take action, said Duffy, author of the book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful, Resilient and Connected Teens and Tweens.
2. Myth: If all else fails, see a therapist.
Fact: “It is often taught that we need to try everything we can possibly think of, and then seek help as a final attempt,” said Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah, who works with individuals, couples and families.
This is a big reason why people believe that therapy doesn’t work, she said. “…[B]y the time we seek help, we may be so burned out that we no longer have the energy to keep trying.” Even if your concerns can be fixed, it still takes more time and money to get better than it would have if you sought help much earlier, she said.
This myth also perpetuates the stigma surrounding therapy. Therapy is “seen as a last resort, a place where only crazy, desperate people go.”
However, therapy is a healthy and valuable tool, especially when used early on, she said. This is similar to seeking any kind of help or support, such as going to the doctor or talking to loved ones.
“We are not helpless, and it’s OK to try and help ourselves. However, we don’t have to be alone in our struggles, and it can be just as healthy to reach out.”
3. Myth: Better communication is the key to a healthy relationship.
Fact: Good communication is helpful. “In fact, you have to know how to communicate on some level in order to sustain any type of relationship,” Thorn said.
Many of her clients come to her believing they need to learn how to communicate. However, as they start working with Thorn, they discover that what’s actually missing in their relationship is “understanding, validation and the feeling of emotional safety and attachment.”
That’s because the actual key to healthy relationships is emotional connection, she said. This goes beyond simply knowing how to talk to each other, she said. An emotional connection “allows you to be vulnerable, feel secure and ultimately gives you the ability to even attempt communication.”
4. Myth: When you’re upset, serve others.
Fact: There’s a lot of advice that suggests that instead of focusing on our own problems, it’s better to focus on helping others. That’s because “we’ll feel so good that everything else will fall into place,” Thorn said.
And sometimes serving others does support our well-being. But overall, as Thorn said, “when we’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed [or] depressed, it’s not helpful to cast those feelings aside and add more to our plate.”
In fact, when many people try to help others and still feel the same or even worse, they begin berating themselves and believing there’s something wrong with them, Thorn said.
“It is important to know our own limits and include ourselves in our circle of care.” When we don’t take good care of ourselves, we don’t have anything left to give to others.
For instance, you might take care of yourself by saying “no,” standing up for yourself, asking for help, taking breaks throughout the day or doing something you enjoy, Thorn said.
“Everyone has different, specific things that do and don’t work for them when it comes to getting calm and re-energized. The important thing is taking the time to ponder and experiment with different things until you know what works for you.”
5. Myth: Just be positive.
Fact: You also might’ve seen advice that says something like “Just think happy thoughts, find the brighter side of life, and things will be OK,” Thorn said. Being positive isn’t a bad thing. But when people are overwhelmed or depressed, they may not be able to do that. And some people might not know how to do that in general.
Like serving others when you’re upset, this becomes another thing to beat yourself up about. Plus, being positive doesn’t just happen. It’s a process, Thorn said.
It “requires looking at your life and trying to change whatever you can control, and reaching out for help and support.” It requires taking specific steps. And these steps can look different for each person, she said.
Some people might benefit from challenging negative thoughts, Thorn said. Others naturally become more positive when they set goals, exercise, form new friendships and practice their religion, she said.
“Because we all have different personalities, we all respond differently to things. Again, the key is taking the time to find what types of things actually work to helping us think and feel more positive, and begin [incorporating] them into our lives.”
Ultimately, remember that no insight is a “cure-all” or right for every situation, Thorn said. “Before choosing to follow any advice, it’s important to look at who and where it’s coming from, the context it’s being presented in, and decide whether or not it makes sense in your particular situation.”