10 Myths People Believe About Mental Health Professionals
When I started studying for my career in psychology, friends and family alike would make a similar statement: “Careful now, Mariana might be psychoanalyzing you.” At first, I would get really serious about it and explain how psychoanalysis requires an extensive training — not covered in a four year bachelor’s degree program. Today though, I usually answer back with some humor. Sometimes with the legendary phrase of Dr. Freud himself: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
The amount of people who still believe that we, mental health professionals, are a special kind of human breed got me thinking about how many myths are out there about this profession, in general. Today, I’m going to try to clarify some of these common myths:
Myth #1: We are mind-readers.
When we are in training to become mental health practitioners, we tend to sharpen our eyes and our ears. What does this mean? We observe behaviors and we listen to dialogue in a different way. My professors called it the “clinical eye” and the “clinical ear.” This is no way means we know what you’re thinking, it just means that we’re capable of tuning in on the hidden motives to what other people say or do. Now, this is an incredibly exhausting practice, one we tend to reserve for our working hours, and one that many of us actively turn off when we are in social scenarios. So, in a nutshell: when we are out for dinner or for a glass of wine, we are not mind readers and we have no intention to read beyond your words and actions.
Myth #2: We work 24/7.
This is linked to what was mentioned before. Our job requires us to connect and empathize with other people. Whether we are working at a private practice, a hospital, a school or a company, we came into this profession because we find it fulfilling to help other people. This requires us to be in a clear state of mind for most of those six to eight hours we are working. When we get off, we like to unwind. This means some days we might need a little TLC “me time,” where it’s just us watching some Netflix show that doesn’t require a lot of thinking and enjoying a bowl of popcorn.
Myth #3: We are Olivia Pope.
As a big “Scandal” fan, I had to include this reference. Olivia, the one carrying the “white hat” describes herself as a “fixer.” Her job is different than our line of work — she fixes scandals and fixes the image of people involved in these scandals. People who walk into our office usually expect the same treatment: parents bringing in their children to “fix” their behavior, couples coming in so we can “fix” their relationship, families coming in so we can “fix” their conflicts. But there’s a small caveat to this plan — we are not fixers. Our job is to join our patients in this path, to guide them into self-discovery, to help them find the necessary tools (they usually already have, but were unaware they existed) to solve their issues. The success of treatment is not thanks to the therapist. The success of therapy is all on the patient — because it was she/he who has challenged herself and displayed the necessary bravery to come to terms with their own experiences.
Myth #4: We never make mistakes.
I can’t even start to count the amount of times people have reacted to me being upset or sad or overreacting to certain events and situations. For some people, once you become a psychologist, you become that first and foremost anything else. Little do they know, we are human first, especially in our personal relationships. We might lose our cool if someone else jumps in line in front of us and we might not know how to best react with our own children having a tantrum at the supermarket. Like mentioned above, most of us have been blessed with an ability of self-awareness and with access to information about assertive communication. But, we can all respond instinctively — regardless of our profession. So, friends and family: cut us some slack, we are only human.
Myth #5: We have everything figured out.
As part of my training to become a psychologist, we were strongly encouraged by our professors to attend personal psychotherapy, as a way to get to know ourselves and be prepared to deal with other people’s personal situations. All human development is in constant dynamic movement. As we change from stage to stage, we grow, we change and we have to deal with different situations. It is virtually impossible to have absolutely everything figured out 100 percent of the time. As a requisite in our training, we have become more aware of our inner world and our limitations. But as we evolve, our limitations increase and our inner world gets richer, giving us plenty of material to become acquainted with.
Myth #6: We analyze everything.
This is a common theme in people’s responses when I first meet them. The truth is, we have the ability to analyze and see beyond behavior — but this is an entirely selective practice. What does this mean? One chooses when to analyze and most of the time, when we choose to grab dinner with friends or go to a niece’s birthday party, we are not analyzing your parenting or communication skills. Constant analysis and turning that thinking brain “on” requires a lot of effort and it’s mentally demanding, something many of us decide to reserve only for our jobs.
Myth #7: We don’t feel negative emotions.
Back to being human. We feel every range of emotion: happiness, sadness, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment — all of them. The only difference is some of us might have the tools to label these emotions, recognize them within and know how to respond appropriately to them — sometimes. But, we are as vulnerable to feeling them as anybody else.
Myth #8: We all do the same type of work.
There’s an abundance of specializations in the field of psychology: clinical, pediatric psychology, school psychology, counseling, industrial psychology, sports psychology, forensic and the list goes on and on. And, to make everything even more complex, each field has sub-categories of framework. Not all of us see patients or diagnose or practice therapy. The one thing that we all love to do is help others, though. And that is the main reason most of us were attracted to this field in the first place.
Myth #9: We can treat anyone.
I see this more than anything else. Family and friends alike, new acquaintances and co-workers often reach out to talk about a situation, in hopes that we might offer the solution and answer to the problem. The problem with this is that we can only offer a limited and subjective point of view. This is the reason we can’t treat family members or friends: we know you too well, and too much. As a sister, a friend, a co-worker or anyone else who might know you in a personal level — I’m only able to see your side of the story. I believe the beauty of embarking on the journey of therapy or counseling is the opportunity to have someone completely unbiased and objective listening to your narrative. Someone who not only will be able to see the whole picture, but will also be able to give you input that hasn’t been influenced by a personal relationship.
Myth #10: We have all the answers.
I think this one is pretty self-explanatory. We don’t hold all the answers, nor is it our job to tell you what to do. We, in the best of our ability, offer you the space and partnership to help you see things more clearly. To give you the permission to understand your thoughts, actions and feelings. But it’s only you who is able to know what to do with this information. This allows us to give you independence in your process and allows you to take responsibility and take ownership of your accomplishments in this journey.
We, as mental health professionals, are here to support, listen and empathize. To open the space to talk about difficult emotions and situations. To offer a wider perspective. To encourage you to think about your own inner life. To help you see things in different perspectives. We are here to help you prevent issues and arising problems. As a source to bounce off ideas and thoughts about your own inner workings. We are here.
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Thinkstock photo via macrovector.