Ever since I started studying psychology I began to encounter people’s mistrust associated to my profession of choice. Friends started to joke, “You must have diagnosed all of us already,” (and based on their behavior I knew they were not just joking); family members suggested, “So maybe you could help me figure out what’s wrong with me,” and even strangers met on a train or at a party, after discovering my area of interest, commented, “You’ve probably been analyzing me the whole time!” These cases illustrate the uncertainty and fear associated to psychology, and specifically psychotherapy. Even though therapy has become more and more common and less stigmatized, people are still afraid that the therapist will be able to discover things about them they do not wish to reveal, or, that they will be judged by others should they find out they are seeing a therapist. Psychologists and psychotherapists are often perceived as wizards, who, by utilizing mysterious tricks not only are able to discover some dark facts about their clients, but will also manipulate them to behave in a certain way.
Myth #1: Therapy is meant to reveal my dark secrets
The notion that the psychotherapist, like a psychic, can sneak into one’s darkest nooks of the mind is, I believe, one of the reasons why people fear therapy. In reality, only a small percentage of therapists today practice psychoanalysis, that to a large degree focuses on the analysis and interpretations of one’s unconscious mind. Most therapies today are based on working with the client who is an active participant in the process of change and not a passive recipient of a therapist’s interpretation. Therapy is a process that requires motivation, work, and willingness to change on the client’s part and it is a fully conscious process that is controlled by the client.
Myth #2: Only “certain” people need therapy
Another common fear that prevents people from seeking psychological support is based on the assumption that only the mentally ill, severely disturbed, and/or helpless need therapy. This is a very misleading notion. As a therapist, I work with clients who do not differ much from my friends, family members, or even other therapists that I know, including myself. They are people who are struggling with issues like occupational stress, unemployment, life transitions, difficulties in relationships, lack of support, low self-esteem, and lack of assertiveness and motivation - no different than most of us. It is important to remember that mental states are not limited to black-or-white categories: mental health vs. mental illness. On the contrary, it is a whole spectrum of states somewhere between the two aforementioned ends. Therapy’s goal is to help the client move towards the “mental health” end of that spectrum. It is meant to increase the well being of clients and to help them find their own path to a good life (as defined on their own terms).
Myth #3: A conversation with a good friend can replace therapy
Some people argue that since all therapy does is to help others make right decisions and improve the quality of their lives through conversations with another person, the same effect may be reached simply by talking to a good friend or partner. There is no doubt that each supportive relationship can have therapeutic impact, and in the cases for some individuals with very strong and healthy social networks, therapy indeed may not be needed. However, it is important to remember that the therapeutic relationship significantly differs from other relationships. A good therapist attempts to remain objective, which is very hard to achieve in other close relationships. Many therapists also avoid giving direct advice, with the assumption that it is the client who is the expert on his/her own life. The goal of therapy is not to give clients the answers to their questions, but rather to help them find those answers for themselves. Advice giving is very common and often times expected in other relationships. The problem with advice giving is that often times the advice that is well intentioned and would work well for the giver of the advice, may not be a good solution for the receiver - who has a different personality, different values, and their own life circumstances.
To summarize, therapy is not some ambiguous dark procedure conducted on the client. On the contrary, psychotherapy requires conscious and active participation on the client’s part and the willingness to take control over one’s life. It is the client’s endeavor in which the therapist is an active and valuable participant. Therapy is not reserved to a narrow group of people who suffer from serious mental illness, but rather everyone who is searching for meaning, satisfaction, healthy relationships, or stable self-esteem. All can benefit from therapy. In the atmosphere of acceptance and empathy that should be present in each therapeutic relationship, many people become motivated to change for the better and to pursue the good life that they want for themselves.
This article was published in Polish in Zycie Kolorado, October 2013.