By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. In past pieces in the “Therapists Spill” series, clinicians have shared everything from why they love their work to how to lead a meaningful life. This month clinicians reveal the myths and misunderstandings that still persist about going to therapy.
Myth 1: Everyone can benefit from therapy.
Everyone who wants to engage in therapy can benefit. Not surprisingly, people who don’t have a modicum of motivation to change probably won’t. Psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, MA, stressed the importance of being ready, willing and open to therapy. Some folks believe that therapy is right for everyone; that “who couldn’t benefit from a little therapy?” While I personally believe that there are a huge number of people that benefit from our services, it is my experience that unless a person is truly open and ready to do their own work, then therapy can actually create a negative experience for the person so that when they might be truly ready to make a change, their experience with therapy was less than enjoyable. …Hostile clients do not serve the client or the therapist. Our job is not to fix people; it is to support people who want to heal by reflecting their own strength back to them. There are clearly some clients who are 99 percent against changing their behaviors or thoughts, but it takes 1 percent, some thread of interest or hope, for the process to be successful.
Myth 2: Therapy is like talking to a friend.
According to Ari Tuckman, PsyD, clinical psychologist and author of Understand Your Brain, Get More Done: The ADHD Executive Functions Workbook, while friends are a vital support, a therapist is uniquely qualified to help you. It’s important to have friends to talk to, but a therapist is trained to understand these matters more deeply and therefore is able to offer more than just good advice. Life gets complicated and it sometimes takes a deeper understanding of human nature in order to move beyond the current situation. Also, because therapy is confidential and the therapist has no vested interest in what you do, it can be easier to talk openly with a therapist and really get down to what is going on.
Myth 3: Therapy isn’t working unless you’re in pain.
Therapy often gets painted as a painful and miserable process. But this picture glosses over the fact that therapy equips clients with effective coping skills to live a more fulfilling life – and can be very rewarding. As Tuckman said: Although therapy can address some pretty painful subjects, it doesn’t need to be all about pain and suffering. Therapy is often more about understanding yourself and others differently and learning how to cope with the sorts of things that most people deal with at one point or another: relationship dissatisfaction, loss, anger, uncertainty over the future, transitioning from one situation to another, etc. Even though most people go through these experiences, therapy can help you navigate them more smoothly and set yourself up for success on the other side of it.
Myth 4: Therapy entails blaming your parents.
“Therapy has come light years from the old days of talking about potty training,” Tuckman said. But while therapists don’t fixate on a client’s parents or their past, tracing their history helps provide a clearer picture of their experiences and current concerns.
According to Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, LLC, a multi-site counseling practice in the greater Chicago area:
Many people come into therapy and say they want to address a current life issue or stressor but do not want to talk about their histories because they don’t want to wallow in the past. I explain that the first phase of therapy is information gathering, where the therapist asks questions about the client’s past in a process of getting to know and understand him or her.
My belief is that our past experiences often shape and mold us into who we are. We all unconsciously repeat familiar patterns until we make them conscious and work through them. You certainly don’t need to spend years in psychoanalysis to make progress in therapy, but providing even a brief psychosocial history is an important part of even short-term, solution-focused therapy. I explain to clients that it is not about blaming their parents or staying stuck in the past, rather it is about honoring their emotional experiences and increasing awareness of how these previous life circumstances are impacting them currently with regard to their presenting issue for seeking therapy. Addressing and resolving issues from the past can be the key to moving forward in the future.
Myth 5: Therapy entails brainwashing.
Amy Pershing, LMSW, a psychotherapist and director of the Pershing Turner Centers, actually heard this myth at a party. Some people believe that therapists push their ideas and agendas on their clients. However, a good clinician helps you re-discover or regain your voice, not lose it. She explained:… There is a time in therapy, especially at the beginning, when the therapist, from only their own philosophical lens, helps a client understand the workings of their mind (and, at least in eating disorders treatment, their body), educates on the allegedly normative path of human development, and identifies the patterns clients may have developed to survive traumas of all kinds.
Every therapist does this from their own unique brand of wisdom, developing tools and strategies they believe in both professionally and personally. So is therapy about making people be “in line” with how the therapist sees things? …Good therapy, to my way of thinking, always starts with creating a container. It is about building trust and safety, born from acceptance and “unconditional positive regard.”
These are commodities many clients [do] not have in abundance. The purpose of this container is not to convert, but to create space for clients to risk finding their authentic Self. To do that, sometimes clients need to use parts of someone safe to help build a bridge back to that Self. They can try on things I suggest with the goal [of] listening for their true response (“Did this work for me?”), not practicing a lesson and ultimately passing some test.
…If clients say something because they think I want to hear it, we are not done with the work. If they say something because it is true for them, we have accomplished our mission. …For those who have not participated in psychotherapy for fear they might lose their voice, I would invite them to challenge a prospective therapist with this very question. Their answer should in fact convince you that you will come away from the work not closer to being like them, but closer to being like you.
Myth 6: Therapists typically agree with their clients, since their job is to make them feel better.
A therapist’s job isn’t to placate clients. Rather, it’s to challenge them and help them grow. According to Marter: Of course, having a strong therapeutic rapport or positive working relationship is the key to success in therapy. However, this doesn’t mean that your therapist is just going to accept your point of view as verbatim and affirm everything you say and do.
As therapists, we are trained to recognize that there are always other sides of the story. We notice patterns and trends, clients’ behaviors, experiences and relationships. We can usually tell when there is missing information or things don’t seem to add up and will challenge clients to explore these blind spots and support them in that process of increasing insight and consciousness. While a therapist will most often empathize with a client’s emotional response to a situation, we also encourage clients to challenge their thinking, their belief systems, or look at things from other perspectives to help them learn, grow and move forward in their lives.
Myth 7: A therapist never takes sides.
Sometimes taking sides is necessary because it leads to progress. According to Terri Orbuch, Ph.D, a psychotherapist and author of Finding Love Again: Six Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship:
At times, a therapist might have to take a side, either to keep a couple moving along, to challenge a client, or because of a particular issue at hand. For example, let’s say a couple comes in for marital counseling. One of the partners refuses to change, and refuses to discuss any issue or even listen to the other partner. The partner that is refusing to discuss is very angry about being at the therapist’s office. At that time, a therapist might say to the angry partner: “Why are you here if you don’t want to discuss anything?” or “Do you think this lack of involvement is helping your marriage?” To me, this is siding with one partner [in order] to engage one partner or move the couple along. The therapist is taking a side to challenge the other partner.
Myth 8: If you don’t start feeling better right away, therapy isn’t working.
Many people think that therapy takes one or two sessions, said John Duffy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.
“That’s about how long it takes to get the story down and establish a little sense of trust,” he said. “Then, therapy can begin.” Think of getting better as less like getting a shot at the doctor’s office and more like organizing a messy closet. According to Marter: I tell my clients that starting therapy is a little bit like cleaning out a messy closet. If you finally decide it is time to organize a closet that you’ve crammed with stuff over the years, you first need to start by pulling everything out. After all your stuff is spread around the room, it is normal to feel pretty overwhelmed and worry that you have made things worse or think it may have been better to just leave it alone.
The beginning of therapy can be overwhelming in a similar way, as you share old memories and experiences with your therapist, some of which may have been very difficult. It is common to feel a bit worse before you feel better, but if you stick with the process you can let go of some old stuff, rework some things and have your “closet” functioning better than ever. I always encourage clients to discuss their feelings about therapy directly with me so we can address any uncomfortable feelings and work through them together. The therapeutic journey of healing and growth doesn’t always feel good during the process but the feeling of having resolved difficult issues will make it all worthwhile in the end.
Myth 9: Change takes place during therapy.
Change actually takes place before and after the therapy session, Duffy said. “There are a-ha’s and revelations [in the session], to be sure, but for change to really happen and last, the majority of the work happens between sessions.” The goal of therapy is to apply these changes to your life, which, of course, is the hard part.
Myth 10: Seeing a therapist means you’re weak, damaged or really crazy.
There’s nothing weak or crazy about working on specific problems or trying to overcome intrusive symptoms. Therapy gives you the opportunity “to utilize all the tools at your disposal to maximize your satisfaction and effectiveness in life,” Duffy said. Sounds like a smart strategy, doesn’t it?
Myth 11: Once you start seeing a therapist, it’s best not to change therapists.
According to Orbuch, “If you are dissatisfied with the progress you’re making or you’re not comfortable with a therapist, you owe it to yourself to change who you’re seeing and find someone who is better suited to you.” How do you find a clinician you’re comfortable with?
Consider why you’re going to see a therapist in the first place, and research the best types of treatment approaches for those concerns, Duffy said. For instance, if anxiety is impairing your life, after doing some research, you’ll learn that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment. So you’d look for therapists who specialize in CBT. Also, consider if you’d prefer to work with a male or female therapist, Orbuch said. She suggested contacting two therapists and asking them questions before making an appointment. Ask about the therapist’s credentials, training and treatment approach (psychoanalytic? CBT?), she said. Then figure out if you’re comfortable with their responses, tone of voice, and anything else that’s important to you, she said.