Even though today there’s a lot of information about how therapy works, a slew of misconceptions and misunderstandings still persist, along with a palpable stigma in seeking therapy. Many people also hold erroneous beliefs about themselves and life in general. Below, seasoned clinicians clear up the most common myths about the therapy process and leading a fulfilling life.
1. Everyone has challenges.
Clinical psychologist Christina G. Hibbert, PsyD, wants readers to know that they’re not alone in their struggles. “We all have challenges. Even as I sit in my chair helping [a client], I have challenges too. It hurts me to see clients feeling like they’re the only ones on earth who ‘need therapy.’”
Therapist Joyce Marter, LCPC, agreed. She believes that our struggles are simply “part of the human condition…[E]verybody struggles with issues related to self-esteem, identity, navigating relationships, coping with various life traumas, managing stress or challenges in creating the life we want, personally and professionally.”
2. Everyone can benefit from therapy.
Therapy is a healthy and proactive approach to dealing with challenges, Marter said. “A therapist is like a personal trainer for your mind. I believe we can all benefit from therapy at various points in our lives and see it as a preventive and routine form of health care.”
3. Seeking therapy is courageous.
It’s a common myth that therapy is for weak people who can’t fix problems on their own. “I think of therapy as making use of all the tools at one’s disposal to manage negative emotional symptoms and maximize strengths and fulfillment,” said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens. “People willing to delve into their own psyches are … actually quite courageous.”
4. Therapy helps you navigate life.
You can apply the skills you learn in therapy to any area of your life, according to Deborah Serani, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Living with Depression. “It really doesn’t matter if you go to therapy for anxiety, depression, to lessen obsessions, to quit smoking or to learn how to parent – whatever the reason – the techniques of self-reflection and thought-changing are involved in all.” In fact, she said, many people consider therapy to be the most meaningful and valuable experience of their lives.
5. Therapy is a process of self-discovery.
“To my thinking, therapy does not need to be an excruciating experience. Sometimes I think we do therapy itself a disservice when we call it ‘work.’ For my clients, I like to think of their therapy as a process of self-discovery, more joyous in the end than painful,” Duffy said.
6. Therapy isn’t about blaming others.
“Some people think therapy is about blaming their parents or their life histories for all of their woes,” said Marter, also owner of the counseling practice Urban Balance. Therapy is actually “about honoring those experiences and then taking full responsibility for your life from here forward.” She shared Wayne Dyer’s quote: “Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make.”
7. Therapy is a place to say and ask anything.
“Therapy isn’t the place to put your best foot forward and try to convince the therapist that you have it all together,” according to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the blog “In Therapy.” Instead therapy is a space to be fully and authentically yourself. Bring everything from your daydreams and fantasies to your harsh opinions and random thoughts, he said. “A skilled therapist will work to understand these impulses and beliefs without judgment and help you make sense of them. Save the pleasantries for the outside world, and let your raw, real thoughts and feelings out here.”
The same is true for asking your therapist questions: If there’s a question you’d really like to ask about your treatment or therapy in general, ask away, Howes said. “If the therapist doesn’t want to answer, let them explain why and how not answering benefits you in the long run. If you’re not satisfied with the answer, let them know.” He noted that therapy is a relationship. “Therapists should be experts at setting boundaries and working through relational issues in a constructive way.”
8. Therapy doesn’t end as soon as you feel better.
Jeffrey Sumber, M.A., a psychotherapist, author and teacher, wishes that people knew that improvement doesn’t signal the end of therapy. “So often, folks begin to feel the shift within themselves, their patterns change, their mood improves, and they terminate treatment only to find themselves in a similar situation down the road.” That’s because those shifts are a mark of progress, not proof of a cure.
“The counseling process is multi-layered and the feelings of renewed purpose and lifeforce that accompany the internal shifts we make are actually there to help propel us forward so that we feel this way every day on our own. I wish people took the signs of improvement as a confirmation that treatment is helping, not over.”
9. Don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides.
“I often hear clients pathologize themselves and suggest that most other people are functioning at a higher level in various aspects of their lives,” Marter said. In reality, however, “we are all dealt a different hand of hardships and blessings. Therapy is a place to help you think through how you want to play your hand.” In fact, she’s seen “people overcome great adversity and others squander great blessings.”
10. Your thoughts dictate your feelings and behavior.
Marter cited Gandhi: “A man is but the product of his thoughts.” This is why it’s so helpful to pay attention to the things you say to yourself and shift your perspective to more realistic, empowering thoughts. “Through therapy, we can let go of negative or irrational thinking and promote positive thinking and a practice of gratitude that will attract more positivity into our lives,” Marter said.
11. Acceptance isn’t limiting; it’s liberating.
“Don’t get me wrong, there are times when we need to keep striving, pushing, and holding out hope for better health, better careers, or healthier relationships,” Howes said. However, many individuals end up wasting their time and energy wrestling limitations they can’t change, instead of focusing on the things they can alter. According to Howes:
We need to accept our age. We need to accept many physical and mental illnesses and addictions. We need to accept the past. We need to accept others as they are. This isn’t to say we need to like it, or that we can’t work to make the best of each of these entities, but we need to relinquish the idea that we have any power or responsibility to change them. Once people realize they can accept instead of fighting things beyond their control, they realize they have much more time and energy for things they can impact.
12. You are worthy. Whether her clients come in with depression, anxiety, relationship problems or parenting concerns, Hibbert believes that, at the core, they’re all struggling with the same thing: “an inability to comprehend and feel their worth.” She’s also seen this with friends and family and experienced it herself. “I’ve had to work very hard to discover my own self-worth.”
She wishes people truly understood that “they’re more than how they feel, what they do or say, and what they think. Deep down, we are each of infinite worth.” Connecting to our self-worth is “the key to living a life of meaning, abundance and joy,” said Hibbert, also a women’s mental health, postpartum and parenting expert. (She talks more about self-worth in this piece.)
13. Life requires balance.
Howes noted that while the idea of balance is cliché, he’s also seen the damage of living in extremes. “People who work too much, party too much, spend too much time online, exercise too much or let themselves become consumed by their relationships will face the consequences of a life out of balance.” The skills for achieving moderation are challenging yet critical to learn, he said.
14. Growth and progress are not linear.
“We all go through setbacks, relapses or regressions in life as a normal part of being human,” Marter said. Experiencing a setback doesn’t mean you’re back to square one. Instead, this is an “opportunity to learn, get back on the saddle, grow and move forward. Life is a process of ebbs and flows.”
15. Work on the inside.
According to Marter, “Some people are waiting for external factors such as a relationship, a job, a perfect body or a fat bank account to make them happy.” Instead, the key is to work from the inside out. She cited Eckhart Tolle: “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” Marter added: “Therapy is a place to explore your greatest gifts and align your life with those so that you will achieve all you desire personally and professionally.”