Clients don’t commonly discuss their sessions with others. Sadly, the stigma of seeking therapy prevents many people from sharing their experiences.
“The ‘you must be crazy if you’re in therapy’ myth persists, despite millions of relatively healthy people seeking therapy to overcome a common obstacle or make a good life great,” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif.
Even if clients talk about their therapy, or a therapist shares a case study with colleagues, it’s still subjective, he said. “A lot happens practically, emotionally and relationally in a given session, most of which is lost in a three-minute recap.”
Therapists also don’t communicate the specifics of therapy well enough or promote psychotherapy in general, Howes said. “Most of the communication from professional psychotherapists is filled with academic jargon or self-help psychobabble that makes it confusing so people don’t have a clear understanding of what therapy is about.”
The media is usually a shaky source of what therapy really looks like. Naturally, movies and TV focus more on entertainment and ratings than on scientific accuracy, Howes said. That means media is “filled with goofy, sadistic, romantic, or miraculous therapists rather than a realistic portrayal of hardworking, compassionate professionals with normal human shortcomings.”
Misunderstanding also occurs because of fear, according to psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D. “People are afraid of being exposed, afraid of opening up, afraid of vulnerability, and afraid that, once they release their anxieties, will they be able to pull themselves back to ‘normal’ again.”
Our expectations for other specialty services obscure our view of therapy. “It is a socio-cultural expectation that if we pay money that there will be a concrete, measurable deliverable,” said Jeffrey Sumber, MA, LCPC, a psychotherapist, author and teacher. We see specialists for everything from cavities to haircuts to housework.
However, therapy isn’t a transaction. It’s a process, Sumber said. “It is understandable that clients have expectations that the itch in their heads or the throbbing emotion that won’t seem to dissipate will be dispatched of with some time, money and expertise.”
But the key in making positive changes is a willingness to be honest and vulnerable and do the work outside of session, he said.
Here’s what else you might not know about therapy.
Therapists don’t give advice.
They also don’t fix their clients. “The real deal is that psychotherapy will not fix you. You will fix you.” Therapists help you help yourself, she said. They “help you discover your desires, motives, blind spots and thoughts, [which] creates self-awareness.”
“[W]e give feedback, resources, information and tools to help our clients discover their authentic self and path and make the choices that are best for them,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, a therapist who owns the counseling practice Urban Balance.
Therapy also helps clients gain a variety of vital, positive life skills, said Marla W. Deibler, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. This includes “coping and emotion regulation skills, problem-solving skills, and decision-making skills.”