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For all the good therapy does for people, it certainly has a bad rap. There are so many misconceptions about what therapy is and isn’t. Unfortunately, these misconceptions contribute to the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and discourage people from learning more about or utilizing the services of trained mental health professionals. But with 1 in 5 American adults experiencing a mental health issue in a given year, it’s time we debunk these myths and misconceptions.
Therapy is an incredibly useful tool and scientifically proven process that teaches you how your mind works. It helps you navigate your feelings, build better behaviors, and relate to your thoughts differently so you can live the life you want. Therapists who use clinically-proven techniques, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), work with you to set goals, track progress, and measure results. They teach you skills to build emotional resilience so you can eventually leave therapy and manage on your own. Therapy is a high-value–but temporary–investment in yourself.
REALITY: To combat this myth, we must first emphasize that mental health is not just the absence of mental illness or a substance use disorder. It’s our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act—from how we handle stress and make choices to how we relate to others. While therapy has been proved effective in addressing specific disorders, it can also help teach new skills; reduce suffering; help people forgive or find forgiveness; grow self-esteem, release long-harbored feelings and heavy burdens; help people to “find themselves”; improve relationships; deepen their sense of connection, and purpose in life; and so much more.
REALITY: One of the most common reasons people avoid seeking help is the belief that it will mean they are weak, incapable of solving problems on their own, or that they are simply “crazy.” For some, therapy is thought of as something rich, weak people do—a luxury people only do if they can’t cope with a problem by themselves. The reality is that most people in therapy are ordinary, everyday people dealing with ordinary, everyday problems. Adjusting to major life changes, experiencing grief, processing anger, improving relationships, or working towards goals are all examples of common issues that bring people to therapy. But foremost, going to therapy is a very courageous and strong thing to do.
REALITY: Therapy can be difficult, especially if you are talking about very sensitive, personal and complex issues. Every now and then, a session may cause you a bit of distress. But it’s a journey. Over time—be it your 3rd, 4th, or 7th session—with the help of your therapist, you will start to put the pieces of the jigsaw together and have the skills you need to deal with some of the ups and downs. For example, they may be trying to teach you to learn to experience sadness without becoming depressed or worry without becoming anxious. Good therapists guide their clients through painful experiences, but in ways that are safe and eventually make you feel better, not worse.
REALITY: Therapy is about so much more than sitting on a couch. Therapy gives you a safe space to talk freely and process your emotions, but a good therapist doesn’t listen just to make you feel heard. They’re looking for patterns in how your mind works and how they can help you make it work better. Therapy should involve learning skills and building tools to manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Talking about your feelings is simply part of the process.
FACT: While some forms of therapy are open-ended, others can be more focused on helping you manage the issues at hand over a relatively brief period. Therapy should always have a goal. When your therapy goal is met, you will naturally phase out of therapy. You might not know what that goal is when you first enter therapy and in those cases you and your therapist will figure out goals together.
REALITY: Having support from your social circle is very important, especially when you are going through tough times. But the support of a good friend cannot substitute for therapy. For one (and probably the most important reason), therapists are highly trained professionals who have spent years learning and practicing “how to diagnose and treat cognitive, emotional, behavioral and relational issues.” Secondly, with friends, you typically are reciprocal, go back and forth discussing each other’s issues. When you’re in therapy, however, it’s devoted to just you. You also don’t have to do any mental gymnastics or censor yourself because you don’t want to hurt your friend’s feelings or portray yourself (or others) in a bad light. Lastly, you don’t have to worry about your therapist letting your “secrets” out. Therapy is confidential and therapist are legally bounded to your privacy (with a few exceptions).
REALITY: In addition to being seen as a sign of weakness, some feel that seeing a therapist is also a sign of a lack of faith. Often therapy and mental health concerns in minority communities are tied to religion and faith. In the African-American community, for example, family, community and spiritual beliefs tend to be great sources of strength and support. Some believe that if you pray about it, you’ll feel better. But think of it this way: you wouldn’t tell someone to just pray about a broken leg; you would tell them to go to the doctor for treatment and care. It should be the same way with your mental health. You can even share your spirituality with your therapist. Research suggests including a person’s spirituality can lead to better treatment outcomes, and thus many counselors now incorporate a person’s spiritual or religious beliefs into sessions.