So naturally many myths and misconceptions abound. The problem is that these views can interfere with the therapeutic process or stop people from seeking professional counseling in the first place.
Below, clinicians reveal the most common myths they’ve encountered about therapy along with the facts behind each one.
1. Myth: All therapists are created equal.
Fact: Even though a therapist has a degree and is highly visible online or in your community, they might not be a good clinician or the best fit for you, said Susan Lager, LICSW, a psychotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
When you’re looking for a therapist, “talk to trusted friends and contacts about whom they’ve worked with and would recommend.” Then search for more specific information online to give you a better sense of the therapist’s style.
Also, research your specific concerns and find clinicians who have the training and credentials to do the work you need, she said.
“I often hear of horror stories couples report, having worked with a previous therapist who apparently had no real training in couples therapy.”
Once you’ve found several individuals, contact them over the phone to get a better idea of whether they’re a good fit for you, she said.
“Remember, you’re a consumer of a service, and it’s appropriate to do some ‘shopping around.’”
2. Myth: Therapy is for people with serious illnesses.
Fact: Therapy is absolutely beneficial for people with mental illness; however, it’s helpful for all sorts of issues.
Many people seek therapy for issues such as low self-esteem, communication concerns in relationships and problems with organizing their lives, said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
“[O]thers go to make a good life great and seek guidance for reaching their full potential in their career, relationships or spirituality.”
3. Myth: Therapy is only helpful when you’re feeling awful.
Fact: Psychotherapist Bridget Levy, LCPC, often hears her clients say, “This week has been pretty good so far, I don’t have any complaints, so I’m not sure what to talk about.”
However, these kinds of sessions are an opportunity to discuss topics that may seem unrelated to the person’s presenting concerns but actually are related, she said.
For instance, one client mentioned that everything in her life in the past week was going fine. When Levy asked how she felt about this, she revealed that it felt strange because she grew up in a chaotic household.
For the rest of the session, they talked about the client’s discomfort with silence and serenity. From there, they “decided to start each session with 5 minutes [of] silence while practicing mindfulness breathing,” said Levy, director of business development at Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the Chicago area.
4. Myth: Seeking therapy is a sign of weakness.
Fact: “Some people believe asking for help is a character flaw and therapy is only for the weak-willed or ‘crazy,’” said Howes. However, it takes more strength and courage to ask for help and face your problems head-on, he said.
5. Myth: Therapists tell clients what to do.
Fact: Levy sees this myth — that “therapists will solve your problems or are advice givers” — most often in her practice. It’s particularly problematic because waiting for concrete advice or answers from your therapist can stall your progress. That’s because you’re trying to transfer the tough work onto your therapist, she said.
“While it is understandable that clients seek therapy to get psychological relief, it is important that they remember the therapist’s job is to help clients help themselves.”
Specifically, as Lager explained, “In good therapy therapists ask vital questions, offer perspective, make interpretations [and] offer observations…”
Howes likened therapists to personal trainers: They find out your goals and guide and support you in reaching them. “Therapy requires you to do a lot of work, but the results are yours to keep.”
Levy used the analogy of a car ride. Clients are the drivers, while therapists ride in the passenger’s seat.
“As the driver, clients will be in control, form their own opinions and arrive at their own decisions throughout the therapeutic process. As the passenger, the therapist’s job is to help the client feel safe and act as a guide as he or she explores his or her unique past and present experiences.”
Psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, views therapists as conduits. They “ask the right questions, listen for the telling answers, and serve as a safe vessel for the client to work through his or her issues.”
6. Myth: Therapy creates dependency.
Fact: “Some people avoid therapy because they’re afraid they’ll be talked into years of treatment they don’t want or need,” Howes said. However, he reminded readers that you’re the boss, and you can end your sessions at any time.
“Ethical therapists don’t try to keep clients longer than necessary and want to help you live a healthy, independent life.”
7. Myth: Therapy is a quick fix.
Fact: “Chances are, if it took awhile to create some problems, it will also take awhile to resolve them,” Lager said. She suggested readers shift their expectations away from “fast and easy” to “slow and steady.”
Also, “rapid change is not necessarily lasting change,” said Duffy. While it depends on the issue, he typically tells his clients that they’ll begin to notice change in the first six sessions and lasting change within 10 to 12 sessions.
Levy stressed the importance of clinicians and clients checking in with each other on how therapy is going.
“If it doesn’t seem to be [effective], there should be a conversation about what’s not working and where they are getting ‘stuck.’”
If the therapist can’t resolve the issues, it’s helpful to consider transferring the client to another therapist who might be a better fit, she said.
8. Myth: Medication is better than therapy.
Fact: This is another myth born out of our quick-fix culture. While medication can be very effective (and typically is essential for illnesses such as bipolar disorder), it doesn’t teach you healthy ways to cope or prevent specific problems from recurring, Howes said.
“Many people find relief through therapy alone, or through a combination of therapy and medication.”
9. Myth: Therapy is an agonizing process.
Fact: “Therapy involves dealing with pain, but also can be inspirational, funny, enlightening, and very comforting,” Lager said.
“I’d highly recommend it to anyone who either hasn’t done it before, or had a bad experience with the wrong therapist in the past.”