Written By Tricia Miller, M. Ed, LPC, CLPC
What is going to therapy really like? What do you picture in your mind? Talking awkwardly to a complete stranger? Sitting in a waiting room of “crazy” people? Lying down on an unfamiliar couch while someone feverishly writes down notes about your issues? Or perhaps you envision someone like Dr. Phil telling you what you should do-or shouldn't do--in your life? What other images come to mind?
People who may greatly benefit from a seeking therapy/counseling often contemplate reaching out to someone but may shy away from seeking therapy due to cultural stigmas, social perceptions in the media, and bad experiences with a previous mental health professional. Even someone who had a bad experience sharing a personal experience with someone—not necessarily a therapist--may have a hard time seeking therapy. The idea of being vulnerable with someone is too scary and risky.
As a result, many people can miss out on a powerful opportunity that can positively change their life. My hope is to dispel some of the common myths about therapy, provide insight on the role of a therapist, and I hope this article helps you to dispel common myths about therapy, provide insight who can benefit from therapy, and share with you what prospective clients can expect in the process.
1. Good Things Listen Intently To Their Client's Stories.
Therapists are not in the business of fixing problems, but instead we listen. We hone in closely on your story. Not only are we paying attending to your words, but we notice your body language even more. We accept where you are in your life, and we empathize, encourage and walk beside you. Good therapists listen intently to their client’s stories, empower them with skills and knowledge, encourage clients to take on alternative perspectives, and help clients tap into their own courage and strength.
Therapists are not supposed to tell you what to do. Hollywood often provides false representations on the therapy and client-therapist relationship. Often, my therapist colleagues and I often shake our heads in disapproval when we see ethical boundaries on film and television.For example, in the 2016 comedy, Bad Moms, Mila Kunis’s character and her spouse finally go to couples’ counseling, and the therapist played by comedienne, Wanda Sykes, witnesses the building tension between the couple that results in a gridlocked and unproductive argument. In response, Wanda Sykes’ throws her hands up in frustration, and tells the couple, “You need to get a divorce as soon as possible!”
It is not our job to pass judgment on your world nor take sides in a couples’ session. You already have that from your family, friends, co-workers, social media, etc. Often, people will ask me in therapy, “What should I do about this situation? Or “What would you do if you were me?” Clients maybe disappointed when they find out that we don’t have the answer. Instead, WAIT FOR IT. We believe you hold the answer.
2. You Don’t Have to Be "Crazy" To Seek Therapy.
The notion that there is something inherently wrong with you that needs to be fixed is a common misconception. While therapy is highly recommended as a form of treatment for people experience anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, loss, divorce, relationship issues, etc. the power of talk therapy can be useful for people needing help with chronic stress, conflict, and decision-making. There is something therapeutic about venting, sharing, connecting, and talking to objective person outside your current social or family circle. There is a beautiful dance that occurs when a client and therapist share a trusted and caring relationship.
You want to feel that your therapist gets you, knows you, and cares for you. If you don’t feel the sincerity and real connection in your time together, find another therapist. Therapists can help you identify which area in your life you want to focus on and why. Often, people come in seeking balance in their life, and are at their wit’s end. Therapy can be a safe and positive place to share your hopes and aspirations as well as your disappointments, stresses, and fears in life.
3. You are Not Weak if you Seek Counseling.
Because of cultural stigmas related to counseling, seeking help for personal and/or mental health issues is often looked down upon. Specifically, within the Asian American culture, Asian Americans are three times less likely to reach out for help for mental health related issues for fear of bringing shame to families and feeling ostracized in the community.
Growing up in a first generation Filipino American family in the 1980s, we really didn’t open share our feelings with one another. I felt that “talking about feelings” were only reserved by families similar to those portrayed in popular family sitcom shows like The Brady Bunch, Family Ties, and Growing Pains. Our large, close-knit Filipino-American extended family expressed appreciation, love, and gratitude through action—not necessarily words. We ate together, traveled together, helped each other in times of good and bad but we never really expressed our feelings toward one another. On the flip side, if Filipinos were upset or angry at one another, I would often see the cold shoulder or silent treatment. The Filipino snub was real—and often substituted hard conversations.
In the hit Netflix show, Master of None, the difference in communication among generations is highlighted between immigrant parents and first-generation Millennials. While the space for expressing emotions may be limited for immigrants, I find their first generation offspring is open to talk, communicate, and share more their lives than their parents. Young Asian Americans are more likely to lean on personal social networks such as friends and family rather than seek professional help of a counselor/therapist.
Men, too, maybe resistant to seeking professional help for mental health concerns. Social norms in Western society have often defined a man to a certain masculinity, bravado, and super-hero like strength. To be a man means you have to handle your shit. As a result, a man seeking therapy may be considered weak because is expressing vulnerability, sharing emotions, and seeking help—all counterintuitive to the behaviors of a “real man.” As a result, this dissonance has caused men to shy away from counseling.
Unrealistic socio-cultural expectations set up men to internally carry the emotional burdens in times of stress. For example, men often feel the pressure to be the main breadwinners of their family, and so, for example with job loss, or job uncertainty, males often experience a wide range of emotions in times of transition and crisis. With therapy, men can expect a different type of language in therapy. Therapy can be about helping achieve a certain goal, increasing communication skills with a relationship and/or family members, coping with a loss of a relationship, and/or dealing with difficult situations in the workplace, reducing different types of anxiety, etc.
Ultimately, therapy is not for just one group—it’s not just for women, addicts, couples on the brink of divorce, or someone who has been traumatized. You are not weak if you go to Counseling. In fact, you are brave because you recognize the truth, and you can’t do this alone. You shouldn’t be able to. Therapy can be for anyone—you don’t have to be going through a life crisis to seek the benefits of counseling.
4. We hope that therapy is something not something you dread.
You don’t have to be in therapy for the rest of your life! Therapy is not meant to be a prison sentence. Depending on what brought you to therapy, you could just be in temporary in need of talk therapy, or until you’ve resolved your issue, or gotten to a place where you are self-sufficient. One of the approaches of therapy, solution-focused therapy, is only meant for a limited time.
Therapy is not a bad place. And we hope you weren’t forced into, although many times, someone may have suggested you go see a therapist for your issues. In fact, we want you to look forward to your session. Perhaps your best friend, spouse, co-worker or family member suggested you go to therapy because they recognized you may need help with something you can’t handle alone.
Think of it as maintance for the mind. In our society, we seek maintenance for a variety of things: cars, air conditioning units, electronics, and even our phones to make sure things are running well, and don’t break down over time. Well, thinking of therapy as a way of making sure your emotional reserves, thought patterns, internal regulation and are running healthy. If you go to the doctor’s for a physical check-up, why not check in for a mental check-up as well!
5. No, We Can’t Be Friends on Facebook!
This last piece is for your benefit. Often, the therapeutic relationship feels so good, comfortable, and real, that clients wonder if they can be friends with their therapists. Just like when you saw your teacher in high school at the grocery story, and felt weird about it, the same goes from therapists.
We enjoy you to pieces, look forward to our conversations, and care about your well-being in your life, but drawing the boundary on social media means that you don’t ever have to worry about me “liking” one of your posts and/or pictures on Facebook. Ultimately, we are your therapist, and not your friend.
Trust me you would have a different view of me of me if you saw my vacation posts and random selfies. You may even unfriend me if found out my political and/or religious viewpoints. Ethically, therapists cannot engage in dual relationships with their clients. In many states, there are rules that you can even after the therapeutic relationship has ended over a period of time, but for me, once a client always a client. It’s better for you—and I wouldn't want anything that would damage or discrupt your progress in therapy. In the end, therapy is all about YOU!
Tricia Miller, M Ed, LPC, CLPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Life Coach, Educator and Speaker working in private practice in Houston, TX with Memorial Counseling Center. Tricia enjoys working with young Adults and Professionals experiencing Anxiety, Depression, Life Transitions, Health Issues, Career and Relationship conflict.