Therapy can be tricky. Before even walking in the door for their first appointment, many people already have a variety of preconceived notions. And these beliefs can become blocks in treatment, interfering with the therapeutic process.
Below two seasoned psychologists debunk common myths about psychotherapy and offer pointers on making the most out of therapy.
Misconceptions and Concerns About Psychotherapy
According to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California, “Some clients expect their therapists to give them direct advice, telling them who to date and what to study and when to break up.” It’s easy to think this way considering that TV therapists dole out advice without hesitation. “But most therapists resist giving advice because they believe it’s better for the client to learn to solve their own problems,” he says.
Clients also worry about what others will think. They wonder what’ll happen if their co-workers or friends find out they’re going to therapy. They might automatically assume others will think they’re “weak, flawed [or] crazy,” comments Chicago psychologist and life coach John Duffy, Ph.D. In reality, though, “More often than not, people tend to be very supportive,” he says. Plus, it’s up to you who you tell about your therapy, and confidentiality laws protect your privacy.
The therapy process itself can get confusing. According to Duffy, people might have questions like: “Is it brainwashing? Will it change my personality? What if focusing on my problems will make them worse, not better?”
These myths and concerns stem from various sources, including therapists themselves. Howes says: “…no two therapies/therapists are alike, the media does a lousy job of portraying realistic therapy, many people are still too ashamed to talk about it and therapists don’t always do a good job of teaching clients the best ways to get the most from their therapy.”
How to Make the Most of Therapy
1. Do your homework.
Be a discerning consumer by doing your research. Therapists “have different approaches, and come from different schools of thought,” Duffy says. For instance, you might learn the differences between treatment approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychodynamic therapy, he says.
2. Ask for referrals.
“It is difficult to determine on paper or via a website who will work for you,” Duffy says, “So ask around.”
3. Consider expertise.
“If you are seeking a therapist for a teenager, for instance, you probably want to avoid the therapist who focuses on couples work,” Duffy explains. Similarly, if you know your diagnosis, see someone who specializes in that disorder.
4. Be open to change and the process.
Change is hard. And it’s a pivotal part of therapy. As Duffy says, “By definition, therapy is a change process, and it will and should foster a bit of discomfort. This is not a bad thing.”
Engaging fully in therapy increases the chances of its effectiveness, he says. Think of it this way: “In order to get a different result, you’ll probably need to try a different approach,” Howes says.
So trust the process. “Some of the techniques therapists use — like the empty chair, reflective listening and thought stopping — can seem corny at first, but many people find them effective.” And keep in mind that some issues will require bigger changes than you initially thought, he adds.
5. Limit the process.
Another way to foster change is to remember that the therapeutic process doesn’t go on forever. “That is, if we think therapy has no end, we may put off the changes we want and need to make. If we know we’re working together for about 6, or 12 or even 20 weeks, that timing provides a context for us to think about and enact change,” Duffy says.
6. Make therapy part of your life.
Many people expect change to happen from an hour a week at the therapist’s office, Duffy points out. But “…in order for the process to foster real change, a great deal of the work has to take place outside of the therapy room.”
This “might range from a simple meditation to a significant change in work habits to ending a dysfunctional relationship.”
In other words, “Therapy is one of those ‘you get out of it what you put into it’ activities,” Howes says. He suggests “Keep a journal, show up to appointments on time, read books about your issue, do your homework and dive in.”
The key, Duffy says, is to hold yourself accountable for this outside work.
7. Be brutally honest.
For instance, whether you have positive or negative feelings about your therapist, don’t be afraid to bring them up, Howes says. In fact, “…this sort of discussion can provide some of the best results therapy has to offer.”
Consequently, he says, “Whether you’re talking about yourself, your past, your ‘craziest’ thoughts or the relationship with the therapist, brutal honesty is the quickest route to results.”
8. Realize that “things can get worse before they get better,” Howes says.
“After a few sessions of poking around in a person’s psyche, we’ve opened several cans of worms and it can feel overwhelming,” he says. It’s not uncommon that “…people come in to work on one problem and soon realize they have four.”
9. Talk about challenges regarding therapy.
Therapy requires resources, namely time and money, which as Howes says, “are increasingly hard to come by.” Also, some people might not have access to community resources or a good support system. Then there are also what Howes refers to as “backseat drivers,” “well-meaning loved ones who try to tell [clients] what to talk about in therapy, ask a million questions about it or even poke fun at them for being in therapy.”
Many clients don’t bring up these issues to their therapists. Instead, they might suddenly stop therapy or keep getting stressed out. Howes emphasizes the importance of talking to your therapist about these concerns, because together you can brainstorm solutions.
In general, therapy offers many benefits, whether you’re struggling with mental illness, a difficult life transition or other concerns. According to Howes, therapy is an opportunity “to try new things. It’s a place for thinkers to try feeling, busy people to practice slowing down, non-confrontational people to be assertive, people pleasers to practice thinking only about themselves, and cut-and-run people to learn the art of a healthy goodbye.”
He concludes, “It’s like taking a college course where you are the topic. Make the most of it!”
Photo by Code Pink, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.