Much is written and done to battle stigma in mental health these days. Groups such as WISE put out wonderful content to educate the public and eradicate stigma. One primary goal of stigma reduction is to get people past their shame to a point of being willing to seek help for their mental health. Yet there remains a persistent and pervasive stigma surrounding psychotherapy. With the history of modern-day therapy rooted in the Freudian psychoanalysis couch, it can seem like a scary and unwelcoming paradigm to those who are not familiar with it.
For many, it’s taking medication. This is often the first line of defense in mental health. Given a variety of factors, from the structure of our healthcare system to social sanction to our being conditioned to expect immediate results, people have become relatively comfortable with taking pills. These pills can be lifesaving but they are often not enough. Medication is not the only, or the exclusive, path. Psychotherapy, often used in conjunction with medication, offers an additional route to live one’s best life with a mental health condition.
“Therapy is for people with no friends. I don’t want to tell a stranger all my secrets. I don’t need help. Therapy is for people with more money than problems”. These are some of the stigmatized, false, and damaging statements that get thrown around about the beautiful and restorative process of psychotherapy.
As a therapist in training, I’d like to destigmatize going to therapy, shedding some light on what therapy is, what it isn’t, and how it can help with your mental wellbeing.
Remember that each individual therapy experience will be different based on your needs and the way your therapist works. And, by the way, it’s okay to try out different therapists until you find someone who you click with.
TRUE: Therapy is a safe space.
You can feel any feelings you have in therapy without judgment. You can share without fear of repercussions. You can experience your pain, joy, anger, and any other emotions while your therapist “holds space” for you. This means they will listen with genuine compassion, help you sort through your feelings, and guide you in whatever comes next. You can do all of this at your own pace.
TRUE: Therapy is for learning skills.
Therapy involves learning new skills. These skills might include emotional regulation, relaxation, distress tolerance, acceptance, thought challenging, communication techniques, mindfulness, self-compassion, and lifestyle changes.
TRUE: Therapy gives you new perspectives.
We all live life from our own vantage points. But perception isn’t reality: it’s just one data point. We don’t always consider all aspects of a situation. Therapy can help you identify alternative ways of seeing or thinking about things.
TRUE: Therapy helps you make changes.
Therapy gives you new skills and perspectives so that you can make the positive changes you want to see in your life.
TRUE: Your relationship with your therapist lets you examine how you relate to others.
Do you laugh when you’re uncomfortable? Do you get defensive when someone points out an area for improvement? Chances are you’ll do the same with your therapist; they will gently reflect this pattern back to you so you can examine it together.
FALSE: Therapy is only for those with serious problems or mental health conditions.
Therapy can help anyone going through anything. It could be a life transition, grief, an acute stressor, a relationship change, social discomfort, fears, discontent, substance use, depression, loneliness, concentration problems, anxiety, angst…the list is endless.
FALSE: Going to therapy means you are weak.
Being human is a beautifully complex and difficult endeavor. We ALL need help sometimes and people have been relying on each other for assistance since the dawn of time. Therapists make providing this assistance their life’s work and full-time jobs: to be compassionate, wise, regulated, and insightful.
FALSE: Therapists hypnotize or control you.
You, and you alone, have control over your actions in this world. (This is actually a perspective you might gain in therapy!) Therapy helps you become the person YOU want to be, not the person the therapist thinks you should be.
FALSE: Therapy goes on forever.
In some cases, people will need ongoing therapy to deal with chronic issues or severely traumatic pasts and that’s absolutely fine. In many cases, however, you undertake a course of therapy to address a specific issue(s). You will set goals, work towards them, and address anything that arises in the process. When you feel you’ve made sufficient progress towards your goals, it’s perfectly normal to stop going to therapy. It’s also perfectly normal to go back again when there is something else to address, like you would with your dentist or primary care physician.
FALSE: Going to therapy is just paying someone to be your friend.
Therapists and friends may both have your best interests at heart, but they are very different. Friends have their own needs, agendas, and baggage they bring to the relationship. Therapists create an environment that is exclusively about your needs and growth. Friends listen, give advice, and sometimes might tell you what you want to hear in order to be supportive. But therapists spend years training in order to guide you to be your best self.
As with anything, knowledge dispels stigma. Now that you know a bit more about therapy, what are your impressions? What might you attend therapy to address? What would you hope to get out of the process? What would you be doing differently in the future that would tell you it’s time to end therapy for now?