I was raised by two therapists. My Dad was a Psychiatrist (that is a medical doctor who focuses on the brain and mental illness–the ones who can prescribe medication) and my mother was an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker). When I tell people this, they often get big eyed and make some comment about being analyzed my whole childhood. I am not so sure about that, but I have been realizing that being raised by therapists gave me a very different point of view than most of my peers. Things I assume are no-brainers, I have learned are actually not. I was learning to use “I-messages” and non-violent communication when I was in elementary school. I was encouraged to share my feelings at family meetings. I now know this is often not the norm. Another thing I take for granted is that the general public knows what therapy is and how it works. I’ve been recently reminded that this is often not the case.
Last week on my Instagram Story I asked people to share what came to mind when they thought about therapy. All the responses were positive or, at least, neutral. They included: “An unbiased person to talk to about your life”, “Processing”, “Support”, “Food for the soul”, “Diving deep”, “Sweet relief”, and “Self-care. Empowering myself. Being honest with myself and another person.” I resonate with all of these responses.
Then I had a conversation with a friend who had completely different feelings about therapy. They explained they believed intellectually that therapy is a good thing but on a visceral, emotional level they felt anxiety and avoidance about it. They explained that they have always been a private person and through discussion, it became clear that being private served an important purpose at some point in their lives. They likened going to therapy to having the wall they built to protect themselves being torn down. They referenced the scene from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (which to be honest I have never seen but I got the idea). They also made connections between therapy and interrogation.
This conversation was so rich for me. First, I felt honored to be trusted enough for this person to share their honest thoughts and feelings (ironically, they were letting me behind their wall!). And second, it allowed me to see therapy from such a different point of view than mine. It reminded me that so many people have valid fears or misperceptions about therapy.
I can understand this. I get nervous about going to therapy sometimes. Even the simple act of initially calling a therapist is vulnerable, so, of course, it’s scary. But then there are fears like my friend’s that keep people from seeking much needed support therapy could offer them. They acknowledged that their beliefs were not based on any experience and were most likely irrational but, still, they remained. The only way they would form a different view is if they experienced therapy for themselves.
I have been thinking about this conversation all week. I want to share with you and my friend my responses to those fears to hopefully correct some wrong assumptions. While every therapist has a different style and not all therapists abide by these principles, I feel safe saying they are generally true in my training, practice and personal experiences in therapy.
Here are my responses to 4 common misperceptions of therapy:
1) The therapist has an agenda for you
My friend asked “Well isn’t your goal to get them to stop doing those things that are bad for them?”I replied, “No.” They looked confused and skeptical. I continued, “No, my goal is to help them reach whatever goal they want to reach. I cannot have an agenda for them.”
I come from the perspective that people are the experts of themselves and their lives. While they may have some blind spots, they know more about themselves than I do. In addition, it is their therapy. It’s for them, not for me. Clients need to feel a sense of ownership over their process and they can’t have that if I am telling them what is best for them. Lastly, I may think I know what the best issue is for my client to focus on, but if they don’t agree, we will get nowhere. The client may not even see it as a problem! The client has to be willing, even if its reluctantly, to do the work. Therapy is not (or at least should not be) a game of tug of war between client and therapist. I will suggest certain techniques or treatment options, but the client has to sign off on it. I will help the client decide on their goals and collaboratively develop a plan to reach those rather than prescribe one form of treatment. How therapy goes is not a unilateral decision and the client has the power to veto any of my ideas or suggestions.
2) The therapist will play mind games with you to get you to share your deepest darkest secrets.
So often in media, therapists are portrayed as having sneaky ways of calling BS on their clients or getting them to disclose something. Countless people have joked with me about using my therapist mind tricks on them or analyzing them. My job is to help you find answers within yourself and to present some tools, information and resources that might help you gain more understanding. I ask exploratory questions to help clients discover new insights–no mind tricks. My questioning is not about me getting information, though the more information I have about someone, the easier it is to understand them. If I think the client is withholding something from me, I don’t force them to spit it out. I might comment on body language or ask if there is anything else they want to share. Other than that, I assume they have their reasons for not telling me and I respect that.
People need to be able to share in their own time. People need to feel safe before they can share hard things. I have worked with clients for months before real issues of eating disorders or abuse came out. Those clients needed that time to feel safe enough to share with me. Then we did great work because it was their choice and they already felt safe with me. We do not change by force. We change through grace, compassion and having a safe place to say and be whatever we need.
3) Therapists are there to give you advice and tell you what to do
Therapists are not here to give advice or fix you. One of my professors used to say “People are not pipes and we are not plumbers. We don’t fix people.” Fixing something also assumes that I know how it should be. People are not that black and white. Again, I can share information, a process called psycho-education, to help people gain a better understanding of their situation and make better, more informed decisions. Apart from serious safety issues, I pretty much never tell someone what to do. Part of my job is to empower people to take responsibility for their lives and they can’t do that if I am making their choices for them. I also do not want to foster dependency on me. My goal is to work myself out of a job, not to have a life-long client. I want to teach them some skills, give them a place to work out their issues and practice new ways of being and thinking so that they can be self-sufficient and move on with their lives without me.
4) Going to therapy means you are “crazy” or weak or…
If you are a human, then you could probably benefit from therapy. A couple who goes to couples’ therapy is not necessarily one step away from divorce but might be going to continue open communication with each other. It’s more of a preventative measure than an emergency response.
All of us have problems, challenges and difficulties in our lives. Therapy is not just for the most severe cases but for everyone. I have had clients who came for complex PTSD treatment and clients who came for help deciding which college to go to. While the stigma around therapy is fading, I know there are still people who avoid it because of the fear of being judged as unstable or weak by others. In my opinion, going somewhere to address your issues head on is not weak, it is incredibly brave.
My hope is that if you have thoughts about going to therapy but have any of the above concerns or ideas about it, that you choose to see what it’s like for yourself. I hope you can gain the courage to take the risk to explore the deeper places within yourself and gain more peace, health and joy.