Psychotherapy Myths vs. Reality
Myth: Only mentally ill people need psychotherapy.
Reality: While people coping with mental illness do need psychotherapy, most people who use psychotherapy are may be going through transitional emotional problems that they need help coping with; they are unsatisfied with their lives, or are troubled. They go into psychotherapy to sort out their problems.
Myth: Going into therapy is a sign of weakness; people should be able to deal with things on their own.
Reality: People of all ages need others to lean on at times. We all need to be seen and known deeply by another. We often need a different perspective on our situation and ourselves. Thinking that you can handle everything in life by yourself is, itself, can backfire.
Myth: The psychotherapist will fix me or give me good advice on how to lead my life because the therapist is an expert.
Reality: When there is a problem with your car you take to a mechanic, an expert, who fixes it. Both you and your car are passive recipients of the repair. But you are not like a car. For psychotherapy to work, you need to be an active participant, bringing your expertise about what life is like for you. The best solutions and insights will come from you, with the therapist acting more like a consultant than a psychic surgeon. In this way, you gain what you need to lead a better life, and are not dependent on the therapist to tell you how to live.
Myth: If the therapy is working, the client will feel better after each session, or feel progressively better.
Reality: If only this were true! However, since therapy is about facing those things which are difficult—and sometimes painful or shaming—there are times when the therapy doesn’t feel good. Facing difficult things can feel empowering and like a relief, but it might first leave one feeling hurt or sad, angry, ashamed, or disempowered. Also, there may be times when the client may have negative feelings toward the therapist. Talking about these feelings may be difficult, but is necessary. Having feelings stirred up is part of the therapeutic process.
Myth: One sign of a therapy not working is if it is taking “too long.”
Reality: Every person, and every therapist/client relationship, is unique. There is no rule about how long any therapy should take. Each person who comes into therapy has her or his own combination of resources and problems, issues with trust, and means of processing new experience. Some clients are in an emotional space where they are more ready to fully address issues and make changes. All of this affects the length of the therapy—whether it lasts 3 months, 3 years, or 3 decades. However, it is important that both therapist and client keep asking themselves (and sometimes, each other) whether the therapy is effective. If it doesn’t seem to be, they should talk about what’s not working. If they can’t resolve whatever is causing the therapy to be stuck, they might consider the client’s transferring to a new therapist.
Myth: If I feel my feelings, I may “lose it” or go crazy.
Reality: Most of us have developed defenses that prevent us from going crazy and these defenses do not go away easily. The fear of letting feelings come to the surface may be a sort of phobia or it may be an accurate assessment of one’s internal world. Either way, part of the therapeutic work is to help you develop the ability to tolerate your feelings without getting overwhelmed. When we are able to experience the range of our emotions, life becomes much more vibrant and meaningful.
Myth: Therapists try to make clients dependent on them.
Reality: Some people do become dependent on their therapists for a while. When this happens, it is usually because the client has an issue, consciously or unconsciously, that requires a period of dependency to work resolve. However, therapy is not about fostering dependency, but helping people learn to take full responsibility for their lives. Even when a client is experiencing feelings of dependency on the therapist, the goal is the client’s autonomy.
Myth: The past is the past and I should just get over it or if I don’t think about it the feelings will go away.
Reality: The way to get over a difficult past is to face it fully, in its emotional, physical, cognitive, and spiritual reality. But, by definition, bad events are overwhelming, and we do whatever we can to survive. Our brains don’t fully process overwhelming events when they are happening. As a result, the bad stuff continues to feel overwhelming and we continue to employ our defenses in order to avoid getting overwhelmed. Our defenses may get stronger and stronger, but it comes at the expense of genuine and authentic connection to our selves and to others.
Myth: I can’t afford therapy. Therapy often is expensive. Therapists are in this for the money.
Reality: Some people have insurance policies that make it more affordable; some have flex pay or health savings accounts that help cover the cost. For some people, it is a question of budgeting and prioritizing. Some private practice therapists have sliding scale fees for people who truly need financial help to stay in therapy. Most communities have public and private agencies that provide mental health services for a reduced fee. Sometimes, people who are ambivalent about entering therapy or about prioritizing their own well-being let the cost of therapy be an excuse for not getting help. The long-term cost of not getting the help for one needs can be high. While therapists do need to support themselves, their families and costs for being in private practice, if therapists were really in it for the money, they would’ve picked other careers. Most therapists who thrive in this work have a deep respect for humanity and aren’t driven by the almighty dollar.
Myth: Therapy is common sense.
Reality: You often hear that therapy is pointless because all therapists do is rehash common knowledge. Common sense is wisdom that applies to everyone, but therapy gives insight, which is wisdom unique to you. Therapy will give you a place to focus only on you with the support of a trained expert who works to understand and guide you to reach your goals.
Myth: Therapy is unnecessary when you can just talk to good friends.
Reality: There’s a pervasive belief in our culture that simply the support of a good friend can substitute for therapy. Social support is important for everyone, especially when you’re super stressed. Friends give love, support and wisdom that can be invaluable. But therapy is very different from relationships with friends and family. Therapists are highly trained professionals who’ve spent years learning and practicing “how to diagnose and treat cognitive, emotional, behavioral and relational issues. Secondly, relationships are reciprocal. Typically friends go back and forth discussing each other’s issues. When you’re in therapy, however, each session is devoted to you. Also, in therapy, you can let it all hang out. With friends you’re more likely to censor yourself, either because you don’t want to hurt their feelings or portray yourself or others in a bad light. In friend conversations sometimes you may avoid or sidestep or sugarcoat some topics because you know your friend so well and anticipate how your comments might affect her. And, lastly, therapy is confidential. Therapists are legally mandated secret keepers (with a few exceptions). For some, this alone makes therapy worthwhile.
Kim Burkland-Ward, LICSW, PLLC
Counseling and Psychotherapy
TEL: (603) 521-7806 FAX: (888) 919-9502