Even though we have made tremendous progress in reducing the stigma and negative conceptions around mental illness and going to therapy — there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and many misconceptions about it.
Here are 5 of the most popular misconceptions about therapy to help you learn a little bit more and help reduce some of the stigma and misunderstandings.
Therapy is All About Blaming The Past
A long-standing assumption about therapy is that it consists of spending an hour each week digging deeply and painfully into your childhood experiences and blaming your mother, your father, a teacher perhaps, and maybe a bully from grade 2 for all of your current life problems. But really, going to therapy isn’t just about your past and looking for others to place the blame on or looking for what the past “has done to you”.
Psychologists do have to help a client look into their past to some degree to help them get a clear picture of the experiences and patterns that have helped shape who they are — but this is only a small part of therapy in practice. If you’re new to the therapy process you may want to get on with it and solve your problems! Right now! Many new clients have a sense of urgency about the process and want to get on with it and change things!
But really, the first stage of therapy is about the psychologist and the client gathering information together as a way for both to get a global sense of understanding about what’s going on. Often, a deeper of understanding of ourselves and our full range of life experiences can really help us find insights into what’s going on in our lives; the patterns we need to change and the actions we need to take to make things better. A psychologist must ask questions about their client’s life history in order to truly help the client understand themselves.
Past experiences shape our personalities and worldviews — effectively “who we are”. Your psychologist is not interested in you placing the blame on anyone, but you will need to explore the past to some degree for the therapy to be productive.
It’s Just Like Having a Weekly Talk with a Close Friend
The place and maybe even responsibility of our close friends and family, of course, is to listen to and support you, but they are not really prepared with the tools you need to help you tackle and find real solutions to your biggest problems or problem behaviours. Therapists, however, are uniquely qualified to help you by offering more than just a kind ear or supposedly good advice. In fact, sometimes our friends may even have the best intentions for us but their advice may just suck!
Psychologists have trained many years (some even as long as 10-12 years!) to learn and develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of human nature. They can help you recognize your own inefficient or even dysfunctional thinking and behaviour patterns — and then provide the strategies and tools necessary to make the changes. They can also help you to gain a fresh perspective on the events of your life and the choices you’ve made.
And finally, we don’t always want our friends or family to know what’s going on in our lives. Because therapy is confidential and because your therapist’s only vested interest in you is helping you improve yourself and overcome your challenges, it is generally easier talking openly with them. Only by being totally honest and transparent about your life and yourself can you hope to create lasting change.
Here is a link to some great information on what therapy with a Psychologist looks like: Understanding Psychotherapy
The Psychologist Is a Guru Who Has All the Answers
There is a popular misconception in our culture, probably partly from popular self-help shows like Dr. Laura or Dr. Phil that the psychologist has all the answers to life’s problems and puzzles. (Don’t even get me started on how far away from real therapy these shows are)
There is a false belief that psychologists are somehow omniscient and should be on a mountaintop somewhere espousing their infinite advice and wisdom. They will just sit you down and tell you exactly what to do to fix your life.
Although the psychologist is trained in understanding the complicated underlying dynamics of human thinking and behaviours. Therapists are not supposed to be gurus of wise and sage advice. The psychologist isn’t there to provide the answers, instead, their job is to help the client explore their own deepest thoughts, behaviours and emotions and in doing so, become an expert in their own unique life circumstances — to help them find insights and perhaps even find better ways of interacting with the world that will help them lead better and more fulfilled lives.
This is not to say that therapists will not sometimes give some suggestions and advice that may be helpful, this isn’t the central role of their job. Their purpose is to really support and encourage you in understanding yourself and your situation better, so you can do what’s best for you in your life — not what they think is best for your life.
The Fast Food Effect: The Expectation That You’ll Feel Better Instantly
Many people new to the therapy experience make the mistake of having super high and unreasonable expectations about how long it takes for therapy to do its magic. They get frustrated and quit when they don’t feel any better after only one or two meetings with their therapist! The reality is, however, that it really takes one or two sessions just to properly and adequately tell your life story, not to mention that a crucial part of successful therapy is about developing a sense of security and trust with your psychologist — and sometimes that takes time.
In our current “fast food”, “instant fix” world we have an expectation of instant results! Sadly, I have seen this happen many, many times in my practice. Clients expect results for the hard earned money they are spending, and I totally agree they should get bang for their buck! However, the therapy process shouldn’t be thought of as a quick fix but instead, a process that is unique and special for each individual client. Some people may see results right away but many require a more long-term consistent effort and commitment to the process.
According to psychotherapy effectiveness expert Michael Lambert, therapy is really highly effective for many clients and:
- 30% feel somewhat better after the first three sessions
- 50% of patients respond positively by about the 8th session
- 75% need at least 14 sessions to experience a significant degree of relief
So, if you’ve been in therapy for a while now and there is no real improvements you can feel? Maybe have a frank and direct talk with your therapist about how to move forward and change strategy or even change therapists.
Also, it is super important to understand that the process of therapy won’t always feel good — remembering or talking about unpleasant things, feelings, or thoughts may result in experiencing considerable discomfort or even strong feelings of anger, sadness, worry, fear, etc, or anxiety, depression, insomnia, etc.. A psychologist may challenge a client’s assumptions or perceptions or may propose thinking about things differently which can cause you to feel upset, angry, sad, challenged or maybe even disappointed. A psychologist may help us uncover some realities and truths in our lives and sometimes that can be an unpleasant thing. Usually true growth and improvement requires honesty with ourselves and an acceptance of our situation and that isn’t always a happy, feel-good thing.
Only People Who Are “Mentally Ill” Go to Therapy
Again with the ongoing social stigma and negative attitudes around mental health, there is a preconception that only people with serious mental illness need therapy. But really, therapy can help many people with many types of problems; not just anxiety, depression or personality disorders. Many people go to therapy to help them deal with the “normal” problems of life that everyone experiences. Things like:
- Loss and grieving after a loved one’s death
- The loss and pain after a divorce or breakup
- Improving our relationships with our partners, friends and children
- Making big decisions in our life
- Getting along with others in better ways at work or school
- Stress reduction
- Increasing and developing our self-motivational or time management skills
- Being bullied
- Beginning our life again after a big traumatic event
- Dealing with pain and chronic illness or other health issues
- Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction
- Dealing with difficult people
- Managing anger or jealousy or perfectionism or other negative emotions that are holding you back
- Loneliness & isolation
- Developing greater empathy and kindness towards others
- Loneliness & isolation
- Being newly married or a new parent
- Moving away to go to school or work
Sometimes life can really go “sideways” on us and it can really help to have someone on our side, someone that can help us think more clearly, see other perspectives and start the process of recovering and feeling better. Therapy can be that timely resource, that will help support, encourage and guide you. Therapy can be there for you to help you become more resilient and stronger when life takes that sideways turn!
So I hope this blog has exposed and explained some of the most popular misconceptions about going to therapy. If you or a loved one is interested in exploring therapy or if you have any questions, please contact me today. I would be happy to speak with you about how I may be able to help.
Lambert, Michael (2013) Editor Bergin and Garfield’s Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change, 6th Edition, Wiley