In past pieces in the “Therapists Spill” series, clinicians have shared everything from why they love their work to how to lead a meaningful life. This month clinicians reveal the myths and misunderstandings that still persist about going to therapy.
Myth 1: Everyone can benefit from therapy.
Everyone who wants to engage in therapy can benefit. Not surprisingly, people who don’t have a modicum of motivation to change probably won’t. Psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, MA, stressed the importance of being ready, willing and open to therapy.
Some folks believe that therapy is right for everyone; that “who couldn’t benefit from a little therapy?”
While I personally believe that there are a huge number of people that benefit from our services, it is my experience that unless a person is truly open and ready to do their own work, then therapy can actually create a negative experience for the person so that when they might be truly ready to make a change, their experience with therapy was less than enjoyable.
…Hostile clients do not serve the client or the therapist. Our job is not to fix people; it is to support people who want to heal by reflecting their own strength back to them. There are clearly some clients who are 99 percent against changing their behaviors or thoughts, but it takes 1 percent, some thread of interest or hope, for the process to be successful.
Myth 2: Therapy is like talking to a friend.
According to Ari Tuckman, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook, while friends are a vital support, a therapist is uniquely qualified to help you.
It’s important to have friends to talk to, but a therapist is trained to understand these matters more deeply and therefore is able to offer more than just good advice. Life gets complicated and it sometimes takes a deeper understanding of human nature in order to move beyond the current situation.
Also, because therapy is confidential and the therapist has no vested interest in what you do, it can be easier to talk openly with a therapist and really get down to what is going on.
Myth 3: Therapy isn’t working unless you’re in pain.
Therapy often gets painted as a painful and miserable process. But this picture glosses over the fact that therapy equips clients with effective coping skills to live a more fulfilling life – and can be very rewarding. As Tuckman said:
Although therapy can address some pretty painful subjects, it doesn’t need to be all about pain and suffering. Therapy is often more about understanding yourself and others differently and learning how to cope with the sorts of things that most people deal with at one point or another: relationship dissatisfaction, loss, anger, uncertainty over the future, transitioning from one situation to another, etc. Even though most people go through these experiences, therapy can help you navigate them more smoothly and set yourself up for success on the other side of it.
Myth 4: Therapy entails blaming your parents.
“Therapy has come light years from the old days of talking about potty training,” Tuckman said. But while therapists don’t fixate on a client’s parents or their past, tracing their history helps provide a clearer picture of their experiences and current concerns.
According to Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, LLC, a multi-site counseling practice in the greater Chicago area:
Many people come into therapy and say they want to address a current life issue or stressor but do not want to talk about their histories because they don’t want to wallow in the past.
I explain that the first phase of therapy is information gathering, where the therapist asks questions about the client’s past in a process of getting to know and understand him or her.
My belief is that our past experiences often shape and mold us into who we are. We all unconsciously repeat familiar patterns until we make them conscious and work through them.
You certainly don’t need to spend years in psychoanalysis to make progress in therapy, but providing even a brief psychosocial history is an important part of even short-term, solution-focused therapy.
I explain to clients that it is not about blaming their parents or staying stuck in the past, rather it is about honoring their emotional experiences and increasing awareness of how these previous life circumstances are impacting them currently with regard to their presenting issue for seeking therapy. Addressing and resolving issues from the past can be the key to moving forward in the future.
Myth 5: Therapy entails brainwashing.
Amy Pershing, LMSW, a psychotherapist and director of the Pershing Turner Centers, actually heard this myth at a party. Some people believe that therapists push their ideas and agendas on their clients. However, a good clinician helps you re-discover or regain your voice, not lose it. She explained:
… There is a time in therapy, especially at the beginning, when the therapist, from only their own philosophical lens, helps a client understand the workings of their mind (and, at least in eating disorders treatment, their body), educates on the allegedly normative path of human development, and identifies the patterns clients may have developed to survive traumas of all kinds.
Every therapist does this from their own unique brand of wisdom, developing tools and strategies they believe in both professionally and personally. So is therapy about making people be “in line” with how the therapist sees things?
…Good therapy, to my way of thinking, always starts with creating a container. It is about building trust and safety, born from acceptance and “unconditional positive regard.”
These are commodities many clients [do] not have in abundance. The purpose of this container is not to convert, but to create space for clients to risk finding their authentic Self.
To do that, sometimes clients need to use parts of someone safe to help build a bridge back to that Self. They can try on things I suggest with the goal [of] listening for their true response (“Did this work for me?”), not practicing a lesson and ultimately passing some test.
…If clients say something because they think I want to hear it, we are not done with the work. If they say something because it is true for them, we have accomplished our mission.
…For those who have not participated in psychotherapy for fear they might lose their voice, I would invite them to challenge a prospective therapist with this very question. Their answer should in fact convince you that you will come away from the work not closer to being like them, but closer to being like you.