Unfortunately, therapy still remains a shrouded subject, and many myths persist. The problem? These misunderstandings can prevent people from seeking help and getting better — and gives something valuable a bad name.
Below, Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, CA, reveals the realities behind nine myths about therapy and therapists that just won’t go away.
1. Myth: Therapy is for people with “serious” issues.
Fact: Some people believe that you must be diagnosed with a psychological disorder or be profoundly struggling in order to seek therapy. In fact, research has shown that most couples, for instance, wait about six years before getting help. Waiting only exacerbates problems and makes them that much harder to untangle and resolve.
And in reality, there are many reasons people see therapists. According to a 2004 Harris poll, 27 percent of adults received mental health treatment within two years of that year, 30 million of whom sought psychotherapy.
“People go to therapy to cope with disorders, relationships, stress, grief, to figure out who they are and learn to live life to the fullest,” said Howes, who also writes the blog, In Therapy. “There’s no shame in wanting a better life.”
2. Myth: “Therapists are all New Age-y, warm fuzzy, ‘you’re good enough, smart enough…’ cheerleader types,” Howes said.
Fact: According to Howes, “Most therapists are encouraging and empathic, and some therapy models emphasize this warm support more than others, but certainly not all therapy works this way.” Therapists also challenge and educate clients. “Cheerleading therapy makes for good TV, but not always good therapy.”
3. Myth: Therapists are all about the money.
Fact: If therapists were really in it for the money, they would’ve picked other careers. As Howes put it, “if therapists wanted money we would have gone to business school or law school instead of psychotherapy school.” He added, “Therapists who thrive in this work have a deep respect for humanity and aren’t driven by the almighty dollar.”
4. Myth: Therapy is common sense.
Fact: You often hear that therapy is pointless because all therapists do is rehash common knowledge. But, according to Howes, “Common sense is wisdom that applies to everyone, but therapy gives insight, which is wisdom unique to you.”
He describes therapy as a college course where you’re the only subject. “Therapy will give you a place to focus only on you with the support of a trained expert who works to understand and guide you to reach your goals.”
5. Myth: Therapy is unnecessary when you can just talk to good friends.
Fact: There’s a pervasive belief in our culture that simply the support of a good friend can substitute for therapy. Social support is important for everyone, especially when you’re super stressed. “Friends give love, support and wisdom that can be invaluable,” Howes said.
But therapy is very different from relationships with friends and family. Howes gave several important reasons why. For one, therapists are highly trained professionals who’ve spent years learning and practicing “how to diagnose and treat cognitive, emotional, behavioral and relational issues.”
Secondly, relationships are reciprocal, Howes said. Typically friends go back and forth discussing each other’s issues. When you’re in therapy, however, each session is devoted to you.
Also, in therapy, you can let it all hang out. With friends you’re more likely to censor yourself, either because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or portray yourself or others in a bad light. “Friend conversations sometimes require mental gymnastics,” Howes said. In other words, “You may avoid or sidestep or sugarcoat some topics because you know your friend so well and anticipate how your comments might affect her.”
And, lastly, therapy is confidential. “Therapists are legally mandated secret keepers (with a few exceptions). For some, this alone makes therapy worthwhile.”
6. Myth: Therapy is too expensive.
Fact: Price prohibits many people from seeking therapy. But there’s actually a wide range in fees. According to Howes, “Therapy prices range from free in some community clinics to almost-lawyer hourly rates in the nation’s top private practices.” Also, some psychotherapists offer their clients a sliding fee based on their income.
Howes also encouraged readers to consider the gains and investment you’re making. For instance, compare “how much money you spend [each year] on things that help you feel good about your life superficially” — such as cars, clothes, nice dinners, vacations and gifts — “with the cost of working directly on thoughts, feelings and behaviors in therapy.” He added, “Think about how much money you could be making if you reached your full potential and were able to set aside all the obstacles holding you back.”
7. Myth: Therapists can help only if they’ve experienced the same thing.
Fact: There’s a common belief, particularly in AA circles, that in order to truly help someone, you must experience and overcome the same struggles. If you haven’t been there, you won’t be able to understand or provide a successful solution.
According to Howes, wanting your therapist to have resolved the same issues “is more about wanting to be understood than actually sharing a diagnosis. People in pain, regardless of their particular issue, want to know that someone understands what they’re experiencing and how they feel,” especially if they’ve felt misunderstood before.
But sharing similar experiences is just one path to understanding, Howes explained. “Training, clinical experience and our personal experience of the same emotions or conflicts in a different context can help us have that understanding.” Most therapists have the education, “training and experience to understand and treat the problems clients bring to them, and if they don’t they are instructed to refer them elsewhere.”
8. Myth: People who go to therapy are weak.
Fact: Think about it this way, Howes said: Are people who go to school too weak to teach themselves or people who see physicians too weak to heal themselves? Of course not.
Sadly, having emotional or cognitive concerns is seen as a moral failing or character flaw. Not fixing your own problems is viewed as weak, so therapy tends to get stigmatized as a shaky solution. But it’s just the opposite. Seeking help for your problems means you’re taking action. Howes emphasized that “asking for help often requires more strength than passively staying stuck.” Plus, consider other successful individuals who’ve had help from coaches, mentors and psychologists, including top athletes, executives and Nobel Prize winners.
9. Myth: Therapists choose this field to fix their own problems.
Fact: Most therapists, Howes explained, have a personal reason for picking this as their profession, “whether it’s a good experience in our own therapy, a deep curiosity about psychological issues or a passion for helping those in need.” But whatever the initial reason, the ultimate goal is helping clients. “If a therapist isn’t able to make their client’s healing their top priority, they probably won’t enjoy or succeed at being a therapist.”
In general, remember that every therapist is different. If you don’t feel comfortable with one practitioner, find another one. Shopping around is a smart way to find a good therapist for you. Here’s more insight on picking a qualified clinician.