I get interesting reactions when I tell people what I do. Some people shut down and refuse to talk with me, others won’t stop talking at me, and some look at me with a rather skeptical look that screams ‘why don’t you get a real job?’ Throughout the course of these conversations I have noticed common themes in people’s misconceptions about psychotherapy and thought I’d share them with explanations from a clinician’s perspective.
1) “Talking about your feelings is pointless.” Therapy doesn’t just involve talking about your feelings. While it certainly is one part of it, therapy is really about helping you change something about your life … and there is no one way to get you to do that. Mainly, therapy exists to help you focus more concretely on the issues you face. This can entail a number of things from talking about your feelings, to identifying your triggers to various stimuli, to helping you analyze and reassess the patterns and cycles you’re perpetuating, and so on.
2) “Therapy is for women.” Some men think that talking about your feelings and making yourself vulnerable is a feminine idea, and therefore emasculating. However, as a man, I couldn’t disagree more with the misconception. Men frequently feel forced to protect themselves by creating a dominant, strong persona. But the reality is that men are just as psychologically vulnerable (if not more) as women. Their vulnerability, fears, or shame just manifest differently because of the way that men are socialized. Being a man in therapy shouldn’t be considered a weakness, but rather an empowering act of courage.
3) “I can’t afford it.” First of all, most health insurance plans now offer at least some form of mental health coverage. For those that don’t (or for those dissatisfied with their coverage), most clinicians offer their services on a sliding scale basis. Secondly, as a therapist who is an out of network provider, I frequently have a reduced rate conversation with clients. I have found that most of the clients I attract (and bear in mind that I practice in a fairly middle class community) actually can afford therapy, but they are either from, or are living in a culture that just doesn’t value it. We as Americans tend to drastically undervalue preventative health care measures. For example, cost was the single biggest thing that kept me from attending therapy when I was younger. In hindsight I realize that my hesitations were rooted in the idea that it just wasn’t worth the money. Why was I placing such a low value on my mental health? I regret waiting for as long as I did; I spent years letting my stubbornness get in the way of getting the help I needed and wanted.
4) “Therapists are all about the money.” While I empathize with this impression as someone that used to think that, this couldn’t be further from the truth. By far the most annoying part about being a therapist is the business aspect of running a practice. I would love to work with clients completely free of charge, but part of being a therapist involves running a business with overheads such as rent and insurance, which I must deal with to allow me to continue to do the work that I love.
5) “I don’t need a therapist because I can just talk to my friends.” Friends are great and you should be able to talk to them about difficult things in your personal life. However, as positive and supportive as friends are, they aren’t always conducive to helping us change. In fact, friends can often times reinforce some of the qualities in us that need the most careful examination. Also, the boundaries you have with your friends are different from those you have with your therapist. For instance, I can’t relate to my friends in the same way as how I relate to my clients because there is a completely different context for both relationships. A therapist provides a professional, experienced, and unbiased perspective.
6) “All therapists are full of it. All they do is nod their head, and mirror your feelings back to you.” While some therapists have a less interactive approach, they are not following an unthinking formula. Every therapist practices their craft differently and different people gravitate towards different approaches. For example, I practice a relational approach to psychotherapy, which means that I try to engage you in a way that is going to connect with you on a very deep level so that our relationship can then become the vehicle in helping you change. A bad experience with one therapist shouldn’t dissuade you from trying to find the right clinician for you.
7) “Talking about the past is pointless.” Wrong! Talking about the past is not pointless when it is affecting how you are showing up in the present moment. We as people are integrated wholes, meaning that every moment of our living experience stays with us and plays a part in how we show up in the world. Talking about the past for the sake of dwelling, however, may not be the most productive use of your time, but there is still meaning in why one may be dwelling in the first place.
8) “All you do is talk about your parents.” Talking about one’s parents will inevitably come up at some point in therapy, however, your parents do not have to be the focal point. You’re in therapy to talk about a number of things that are contributing to your symptoms now. If you are hung up on things from your childhood, you will likely talk a lot about your parents, but often talking about one’s parents only adds some context to the way you were introduced to life and relationships.
9) “Therapy is for “crazy” people.” The stigma against therapy is certainly not new. However, everyone in therapy is there for the same reason: to work on yourself and help facilitate some sort of change in your life. This is true for those with a mental illness or simply going through some distressing life challenges.
10) “Therapists think they have all the answers.” Rest assured, I don’t think I have all the answers. I don’t even think I have half the answers. But therapy isn’t about someone else giving you answers to make all of your “problems” go away. Therapy is about helping you find your own answers so that you can move forward in life.