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5 Misconceptions (and Truths) About Therapy

Psychotherapy. How do you feel when you read that word or hear it spoken?

I’m not a therapist, so please leave the eye rolling for the professionals asking the classic, “How does it make you feel?”

There are a lot of misconceptions about going to see a psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor, so I’m going to attempt to get rid of some of these. And if you’re already in therapy or just starting out, I’ll be sharing some tips for you as well.

Misconception: Only “weak” people need therapy. You must have a mental illness or something major must have happened in your life.

Truth: Therapy isn’t a walk in the park. It’s hard. You need to be willing to open up and be real. It takes strength to admit you need help. It takes courage. You don’t need to have a mood disorder, personality disorder or any other diagnoses to “qualify.” If you’re struggling with a difficult relationship, going through a divorce, or just feel stuck, therapy can help. If something is bothering you and you can’t seem to break through, that’s the perfect time to go see a mental health clinician.

Misconception: You’ll go in for a quick consultation and that’s all it takes. You’ll magically be “healed” right then and there.

Truth: I made this assumption myself. Going into therapy, I thought it would be a quick process. I’d go in for a few sessions and all my problems would be gone. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’ve been with my psychologist for almost a year now, and I can tell you there’s still so much work to be done. Things I thought I’d gotten over. Things I have never allowed myself to think about. They’re all coming to the forefront now, and while it’s hard, painful and terrifying at times, it’s also healing and cathartic. Until I started therapy, I didn’t know just how much I was repeating old patterns. There was a lot of unconscious processes going on. However, just because I’ve been in therapy for so long, doesn’t mean you’ll have to. Due to the complexity of treating a personality disorder (I have borderline personality disorder), it’s long term work for me. You might only go in for a few sessions and be ready to move on.

Misconception: You go in and get medication thrown at you with the promise that everything will be OK as long as you take your pills.

Truth: Only psychiatrists and doctors can prescribe you medication. But you already knew that, didn’t you? If you’re seeing a psychiatrist, and they suggest medication, you can probably trust him or her. But make sure you ask about any potential side effects, and be open about your worries. Sometimes medication even aids the therapy process, as it can stabilize you if you’re going through a crisis or in the depths of despair. It may even help you progress. For some, the therapy process can eliminate the need for medication over the long term.

Misconception: Every mental health professional knows what they’re doing and will be able to help you.

Truth: Just because someone has the necessary qualifications, doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing in a practical sense. Empathy is needed in the mental health field. A genuine desire to help others. Unfortunately, just like in any other profession, you get those who are just in it for personal satisfaction and gain. Just like in a romantic relationship, you won’t just assume after the first date that this person is going to be your husband or wife. It’s the same with a mental health clinician. They’re not all equal. You get good therapists and you get the really bad ones. You don’t have to stick with one just because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. And you don’t need to give up on your search either. Do your homework. If you don’t feel comfortable with that person, take it as a sign and find someone else. However, keep in mind that sometimes going into therapy for the first time is daunting. So instead of deciding in the initial consultation session that you don’t like this person or that you can’t do this, give it a chance. A couple more sessions will reveal whether you really can work with this person or not. Think of it as a job interview of sorts.

Misconception: I’m paying someone to listen to me and care about me when I can just talk to family and friends without having to pay anything.

Truth: If you’re serious about changing your life and working through your difficulties, you’ll need a professional. They’ve devoted their lives to helping others, which included many years of studying and training. Believe it or not, psychotherapy is an art. (Most) therapists wouldn’t be in this profession if they didn’t care about people. Just because you’re paying someone doesn’t mean they don’t care. But remember, they also need to earn a living. They have student loans and bills that need to be paid. The therapeutic relationship is a different kind of relationship. It’s unique. It’s beautiful, but it can also be terrifying at times. You’re telling this person your deepest, darkest thoughts, feelings and life story. In most cases, a bond is formed between you and your therapist, and you’ll know he or she truly cares about you. It’s not about the money.

Therapy has saved my life. And I’m not exaggerating. I was on the verge of letting go. My life was clouded in darkness, and it felt like I was suffocating. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to. I’d been to two psychologists in my late teens and then again in my 20s, but they were horrible. But then, last year, I got lucky. In my first consultation with my current psychologist, I immediately felt a connection. I was a nervous wreck while sitting and waiting for her to see me though. I wanted to get up and leave a few times, but I didn’t. I stayed, and I’m so glad I did.

Therapy has made such a difference in my life. For the first time, I feel validated. I learned my emotions are neither good nor bad, but just that: emotions. I’m definitely not the same person I was before starting psychotherapy. I’ve grown in so many ways.

Going to see someone has been the best decision I’ve ever made. What I didn’t realize until recently is making the choice to get professional help was a form of self-care. You might have read a few articles about how vital self-care is. Well, this qualifies as one of them.

Decided to go see a therapist? Just started and not sure what to do? I have your back. Let’s get into some suggestions and tips for maximizing the therapeutic process.

Be patient. It may seem that therapy is doing nothing for you. I used to think the same thing. I love the relationship I have with my therapist but thought I wasn’t getting much else out of the sessions. But a few months ago, I realized just how much has changed within me. I’ve been able to notice patterns in my life I hadn’t even been aware of. It’s easy to get frustrated by your seeming lack of progress, but believe me, when I tell you, it’s most likely there. And one day you may see that progress, maybe first only in subtle ways. So be patient and hold on.

Be committed to the process. Make sure you attend your therapy sessions, and don’t cancel them unless you have a valid reason. Don’t let the fear or uncertainty prevent you from going. Tired? Depressed? Get yourself there anyway. That’s when you really need it most. You might just feel better afterward.

Be completely open and honest. The therapy room should be your safe space. You should be able to be who you are, say exactly what you’re thinking or feeling, all without fear of being judged. Be open, and don’t leave anything unsaid. Also remember it’s those things we’re afraid to speak about in therapy that reveal it’s something you really should talk about. It’s in your best interest to be open and honest.

Do the homework. You’ll occasionally be given “homework.” Do it. There’s a reason your therapist has given it to you, and you might just learn something valuable. Well, that’s the point after all.

Reflect between sessions. Make time to reflect back on the session, and practice what you might have learned. I’ve gotten a lot of revelations by doing this. It’s good to continue to work on yourself between sessions too. Feel free to take notes during sessions if it will help you. Get yourself a nice notebook specifically for this purpose.

Talk about the relationship. The therapeutic relationship is one of the most important parts of the therapeutic process. If your therapist has said or done something that hurt or offended you, let them know. If you’re harboring resentment towards him or her, the process will stall. Uncomfortable subjects are also good to get out in the open. Yes, even if you’re having fantasies about your psychologist, it’s important to talk about it. It can often reveal a lot about your unconscious processes. And remember, even though it’s uncomfortable to reveal these things to your therapist, you’re not the first person who has felt this way. A lot of people go through the stage of having feelings for their therapists. Therapists know how to handle it in a professional way, and there’s no shame in talking about it. Remember, they’re not there to judge you. They’re there to help you.

So, if you’re struggling right now, and think that there’s no way out, I encourage you to go see someone. There’s no shame in reaching out. As my therapist tells me: “Be brave.”

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Thinkstock photo by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

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