We think therapy is for people who can’t get their lives together. After all, why else would you be seeking help from a complete stranger about managing your personal life? We think that therapy is for people who aren’t capable or talented or productive or smart or _______ enough. We think therapy is for someone who’s broken or deeply flawed or deeply disturbed.
We think therapy isn’t an option because we must protect our problems. Many people grow up in families that believe outsiders shouldn’t know about their issues, and revealing them would be a betrayal, bringing shame upon the family, said Daniela Paolone, LMFT, a holistic psychotherapist in Westlake Village, Calif. “As a result, the family may address the issue among themselves, or pretend as if nothing is wrong and ignore the issue completely.”
We fear that seeking therapy means we’re not self-sufficient, said Sara L. Weber, LPCS, an eating disorder specialist and founder of Discovery Counseling in Austin, Texas. And not being independent or self-reliant is one of the worst things we can be in our society.
At her office, Weber commonly hears that clients fear coming to therapy because they worry what others will think if they find out about their sessions. They worry that their friends and neighbors will start seeing them differently if they knew, she said.
We fear that “our character will be questioned. People may literally ask questions like: ‘Why can’t you just figure it out on your own?’” said Weber. We might ask ourselves versions of the same question. What’s wrong with me that I can’t fix my own life? Why am I always struggling? What does that mean about my character, about my very identity?
Weber’s clients also view their mental health issues as a personal weakness—because of the unspoken message that they should be able to “decide” not to be worried, fearful, depressed. “Instead of thinking of therapy as a supportive collaboration to address a problem, they think of it as a failure in personal responsibility.”
We think we just need to toughen up, and stop being so fragile. We just need to stop being so sensitive, and snap out of it, and get over it. We think that focusing on our feelings makes us too soft, too vulnerable. We think it makes us pathetic.
Parents or grandparents might make statements like, “Back in my day there was no such thing [as therapy],” said Carolyn Ferreira, Psy.D, a psychologist in Bend, Ore., who helps people rebuild relationships, overcome depression and anxiety, and recover from trauma and addictions. And people were perfectly fine without it, they might add…. except they weren’t. Except people simply struggled and suffered in silence.
These beliefs and fears are understandable given the stigma in our culture. But here’s a fact: Going to therapy is one of the bravest, smartest, strongest actions you can take.
For instance, a lot of the university students Ferreira has worked with didn’t grow up in healthy families. They began realizing that how they were taught to communicate and think about the world wasn’t serving them in their relationships or their college life. “Therapy served as a place to help these students explore and learn new ways of thinking and being, which led to them being more self-aware and more aligned with who they truly wanted to be. That’s not weakness, that’s awesome!”
Ferreira also has worked with many clients who’ve wanted to provide a better life for their kids than their parents did for them; their parents were absent, abusive, narcissistic, neglectful, or addicted to drugs and alcohol. “Kudos to anyone who is going to therapy because they want to break generational patterns of trauma and dysfunction.”
“Knowing when we’ve hit our capacity to figure out our own struggles or problems and decide we need additional resources is a sign of resiliency, hence, a sign of strength,” said Colleen Mullen, PsyD, LMFT, a psychotherapist and founder of the Coaching Through Chaos private practice and podcast in San Diego.
“We don’t fault people for going to college or a trade school to gain extra knowledge to enhance their life and career. Why would we do the same for people who are seeking out extra emotional skills knowledge or coping mechanisms or guidance in relationship matters?”
Psychologist Illyse Dobrow DiMarco, Ph.D, has written poignantly about the powerful strength her clients possess: “Here’s what strength looks like to me: Deliberately using the pens at your kids’ pediatrician’s office when you are secretly terrified of germs. Taking a few mindful breaths and then letting your kid get on the bus to that field trip in another state. Purposely posting an unflattering photo on social media when you are consumed with worry about how others see you. Strength means getting up every day and committing yourself to practicing strategies that will help you navigate your parental anxiety and worry. Strength means modeling effective coping mechanisms for your kids, who will see how you manage stress and follow suit.”
In addition to being an act of strength, seeking therapy is an act of self-care, said Paolone, who utilizes mind-body techniques, education, pain management approaches and more, to help those with chronic illness, pain and anxiety get back to living life with greater ease and comfort. “It offers the time and space to sort issues out, and all this personal work can lead to a more fulfilling and rewarding life.”
Plus, therapy is one of the only places “where a person can get one-on-one attention, guidance and support without bias or judgment,” Mullen said.
When we perpetuate the idea that therapy is for weak, pathetic people who are inherently wrong, we do an incredible disservice to others, a disservice that can devastate lives.
For instance, children in the foster care system struggle with various kinds of trauma, whether they were abused or not. “Those children already have enough working against them statistically regarding access to love and acceptance, motivation to achieve in life and understanding their own self-worth,” Mullen said.
“When they also grow up in a society that says, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!’ and ‘Suck it up kid, everyone has problems!’ and ‘Therapy is for the weak,’ they then feel shame about wanting the help that could in fact, help them heal and have a seemingly normal life in which they understand that their past does not have to dictate who they are as adults.” Many avoid mental health services, which leads them to act on their very fears of becoming their parents, or go without the resources and support to make healthy decisions, she said.
Working with a therapist doesn’t make you weak or weird or wrong. Tackling problems head on, learning effective coping skills and practicing those skills, even when it’s hard, building a healthier life are all signs of strength. Sadly, mental health stigma surrounds us, but we don’t have to internalize it or spread its poisonous lies.