People who haven’t tried therapy often imagine it as a loose (and kind of pointless) conversation about all the things that have gone wrong in someone’s life. Occasionally this isn’t far off; but there’s usually a structure too, and a sizable body of research points to the efficacy of therapy in addressing all kinds of concerns. Besides, loose conversation can be pretty helpful sometimes.
The stereotypical understanding of therapy involves endless hours sunk into a comfortable couch. This goes back to the days of Freud and his pals, when psychoanalysis– which usually involved multiple sessions per week for years– was the predominant form of therapy. Today, many people still spend years or even decades in therapy. But others see their clinician for as few as six to eight weeks and still see lasting results.
Think about the day so far, or try to remember what happened yesterday. How many things have you done that you’ve already done thousands of times throughout your life? We’re all creatures of habit, whether those habits are getting us where we want to be or holding us back.
Because our habits are (by definition) entrenched in our daily lives, it can take an outside observer to point them out. It’s true that friends, families, and romantic partners do this too but that’s not always effective because tons of other emotions are wrapped up in those relationships.
Get effective ERP therapyBook a free call
There’s a set of very common misunderstandings about therapy: that it’s for the weak, that it’s for people who can’t deal with their problems, and even that it’s for people who are deeply messed up.
While the concept of mental illness is useful in certain ways, it also convinces people that psychological concerns exist as an either-or. In fact, you don’t have to feel terribly troubled (or wait for more drastic issues to emerge) to try therapy. Think of it this way: therapy is as simple as sitting across from someone who’s trained to provide psychological insights and speaking with them about the things happening in your life. Seems like it could be useful to just about anyone.
We tend to measure our suffering against the hardships of other people, whether we know them well or we’ve only heard about them on the news. It’s true that there will probably always be someone else out there who’s dealing with a bigger catastrophe; but this isn’t the point, and your difficulties are always worth careful consideration, no matter what others are going through. Like eating well and exercising, therapy can be a structured way to care for yourself, even if you feel fine for the most part.
Many people refuse to take any kind of medication. When it comes to medicating the mind, there’s even more wariness. The concerns are quite understandable: is it really appropriate to designate certain minds unhealthy and medicate them? Could these medications be dangerous? What if it’s really hard to get off a certain medication once you start? And aren’t they expensive?
There aren’t really any easy answers to these questions, and everyone should ultimately decide for themselves. The nice part is that therapy doesn’t need to involve medication, and can actually help people who are wary of medication address their concerns without taking pills.
Following from number five, therapy doesn’t have the unfortunate physical side effects that some psychotropic medications can cause. This isn’t to say that people should avoid medication– again, that’s a personal choice, and not everyone gets unpleasant side effects. Many people experience medication as helpful and even lifesaving. But some side effects can be really bothersome, and if you feel like you have any choice, therapy can be a good way to avoid that risk.
This doesn’t mean therapy can’t have side effects, however, because looking deeply into your mental life can dig up all kinds of unexpected things. These difficulties do emerge, and your therapist will be quite capable of addressing them with you. But therapy is rarely a breeze, especially if you’re working through a more structured treatment for something like OCD or PTSD. It’s important to realize that therapy will complicate your life in interesting and hopefully helpful ways.
Many people fear that therapists are on a mission to convert them to a specific style of thinking, and there are certainly heavy-handed clinicians who earn this fear. But a good therapeutic relationship is characterized by exploration, not attempts to convince. It should be a back-and-forth, as the real benefits come when you’re guided toward discoveries of your own. And if you feel like you’re not allowed to create your own path, be sure to let your clinician know. Their job isn’t to create a different life for you, and they should already know this.
Although it would definitely be nice if we could talk with friends, coworkers, and loved ones without other considerations weighing on these discussions, it’s very unlikely. These people care for us, of course, and they can be great listeners. They’re our major sources of support, and a therapist can never replace that. But there’s something very unique about the therapist-patient relationship that you can’t find anywhere else.
There’s also no guarantee of confidentiality with other people, whereas therapists are required to protect the things you tell them unless they believe you’re a danger to yourself or someone else. Therapists very rarely react strongly or judgmentally to what you tell them, freeing you to say the things you need to say. And because it’s a professional relationship, you don’t need to feel any pressure to impress them. It’s not your loved one’s job to be your therapist; but it’s definitely your therapist’s job.
Like a doctor or a dentist, therapists vary widely in personality, approach, and effectiveness. While research shows that therapy is effective, it also maintains that efficacy varies widely from one practitioner to the next. So consider the kinds of things that matter to you, and don’t be afraid to ask about setting expectations for the time you work together. If you have specific goals, be sure to mention them.
We all have some issues going on in our lives– the sorts of things we’re still thinking about while trying to fall asleep at night. And there’s no reason to stop looking for solutions because we’re able to ignore them or because we’re thriving in other parts of our lives. Therapy can have far-reaching impacts that end up changing our lives. And it’s definitely exciting to look back and realize that we’re doing better than ever.