There are many myths about therapy. This is problematic. That’s because misconceptions discourage people from seeking professional help and getting better. Individuals might wait to go until their concerns have deepened, when it’s harder to intervene. Or they might not go at all, instead suffering in silence.
Since 2011, I’ve been interviewing therapists from all over the country about their work and life. In this series, “Clinicians on the Couch,” I always ask the same 10 questions. One of those questions examines the biggest myth about therapy.
Below is a selection of these responses. Some of the myths overlap. But I think the words are powerful, because, again, myths stop people from seeking much-needed support.
Myths also imply that people are alone in their struggles. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Myth: Therapy is just a pricey way to get a person to listen to you.
Fact: “Well, it is true that you’re paying for someone to listen, but a psychotherapist’s skills go beyond that of ordinary listening. When you’re in therapy, you’re working with an Olympic medal listener. People don’t realize that so much goes into becoming a psychologist — years of theoretical, practical and scientific training and hundreds of hours of clinical experiences.
“As a client, you’re not just sitting and schmoozing in a therapy session. There’s a lot of specific, active work going on. That, combined with your therapist’s clinical objectivity, enables a client to get a balanced, unbiased frame of reference in treatment that cannot be compared to the listening of a friend or family member.” – Deborah Serani, PsyD.
Myth: Therapy is only for people who are in crisis.
Fact: “I find that therapy is often least effective during times of crisis, as therapists can only serve as crisis managers. I far prefer someone come into therapy seeking change outside the specter of crisis.” – John Duffy, Ph.D.
“While therapy definitely needs to address potential psychological disturbances and life problems, the goal of therapy need not be merely the absence of distress. Therapy can help you recognize and develop your strengths and creativity. After all, even professional athletes who are already exceptional in their field have coaches and physical trainers to point out slight or major adjustments the athlete can make and help him or her achieve their potential. It can be the same with therapy — often people want to go from ‘good’ to ‘great.’” – Rachel Fintzy, M.A., MFT.
Myth: Therapy is about talking.
Fact: “…Therapy is so much more than this. It is an evidence-based science and a craft that requires a great deal of skill and creativity. Therapy is a process that involves learning to change one’s subjective experiences (thoughts, feelings, behaviors) through skills acquisition, insight, and the generation of new mastery experiences, which lead to a positive shift in one’s perception and is reflected in their more adaptive functioning.” – Marla W. Deibler, PsyD.
Myth: Going to therapy means there’s something wrong with you.
Fact: “I have heard this over and over again, and it’s just not true. Attending therapy means that, like every other human on the planet, you have come up against challenges in life, and you could use some support from a safe, supportive, impartial person. That’s all it means.” – Carla Naumburg, Ph.D.
“Going to therapy means you are interested in understanding yourself and your automatic habits so that you have more opportunities to live a purposeful and satisfying life.” – Ashley Eder, LPC.
Myth: Therapy is for crazy people.
Fact: “I hear this myth both with new clients as well as outside the office with acquaintances, and I suspect it is the main reason why a lot of people use therapy as a last resort, long after the problem they’ve been dealing with has amplified.
“The origins of this myth whether social (transmitted from generation to generation) or from media portray the therapy goer as someone out of touch with reality or psychotic. In reality, therapy is effective and helpful not only for people who struggle with severe clinical issues, but anyone who feels stuck or needs a change in perspective.” – Diana Pitaru, MS, LPC.
“Going to therapy offers a better understanding about yourself and learning better opportunities to live a healthier life. If a person goes to their primary care physician for medications to help them fight off the flu or virus, are they considered crazy? Going to therapy shows that you are looking for better opportunities to resolve certain issues that are troubling you.” – Helen Nieves, LMHC.
“The truth is, all of us are human and each of us goes through a very personal journey in life that is full of both joy and pain.” – Clair Mellenthin, LCSW.
Myth: The therapist is going to fix you.
Fact: “That’s not it at all. Therapy is a partnership, and when both parties do their part, change is the result. The therapist offers insights, suggestions, and tools, and the client implements them in his or her life. That’s what therapy is all about.” – Christina G. Hibbert, Psy.D.
“The biggest myth about therapy is that the therapist has the answers. The curative factor in therapy is not the therapist, it is the mutuality between the patient and therapist and the journey they share. I have been teaching doctoral students in clinical psychology for over 25 years and I always remind these wonderful and passionate young professionals that they will never know more about the patient, than the patient.
“What they offer is their clinical training to see and hear what the patient knows but cannot yet access because of history, pain, fear, addiction, trauma, etc. No matter what type of therapy, it is the collaboration between therapist and patient that makes change and healing possible.” – Suzanne B. Phillips, PsyD.
Myth: Therapy is supposed to help you feel happy all the time.
Fact: “To me, that’s impossible. My goal is to help people deal with the painful feelings that accompany many of life’s circumstances and help them see that they don’t need to be afraid of certain difficult feelings.” – Jennifer Kromberg, PsyD.
“… I find the idea of everlasting happiness to be a very unfortunate myth in our general American culture. That’s one of the reasons why I love both ACT and Oliver Burkeman’s book [The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking]: They are both well-grounded in the reality that we are always going to face struggles, negative thoughts, painful feelings and a whole host of other uncomfortable things in life due to the simple fact that we’re human.
“It’s how we respond to these things that matters, not trying to get rid of them so we can be constantly happy. In the interest of full disclosure: I am a bit of a happiness grump. I once wrote an article for my blog, ‘Bounce,’ entitled ‘Happiness Irritates Me.’ ;-)” – Bobbi Emel, MFT.
Myth: Real change and progress will be sudden and striking.
Fact: “People naturally seek ‘aha’ moments and can fail to see the gradual progress they are making. In my experience, the most important, lasting and meaningful changes happen bit-by-bit, step-by-step, not all at once.” – Jonice Webb, Ph.D.
Myth: Therapy is needless. You can just vent to a friend.
Fact: “I’ve heard people say that if they need to talk or vent, why should they go to a therapist? Can’t they just go to a friend? Two issues with this: 1) not everyone has a close friend to go to; and 2) while venting is fully welcome and can be part of therapy, therapy is for more than just venting. Venting can be useful to temporarily relieve stress (and venting can actually increase stress, if not careful), but at some point, a person in therapy will have to look into themselves and their own cognitive and emotional processes.
“The process that makes therapy effective isn’t as likely to happen effectively with a friend (even if the friend is a therapist). Therapy isn’t only talk and conversation, nor is it advice-giving (another myth).
“Therapy involves a dynamic relationship in its own right, which a personal history conflicts with. That’s why it is unethical for therapists to work with their friends. Therapy is most effective when entered pure — without personal history. Therefore, while it’s nice to be able to vent to friends, if you’re looking for an effective therapy experience, this is much more likely to happen with a therapist than when talking to a friend.” – Nathan Feiles, LCSW.
Myth: Therapy has an end goal.
Fact: “I don’t mean that people need to be in therapy for an indefinite time, but there’s a faulty notion of achieving some end state. This focus makes therapy more difficult as the mind is cluttered with an expectation instead of focusing on learning.
“Even if insurance only covers 10 sessions and wants to hear the end goal, we have to always keep in mind that therapy is a vehicle for learning, and while we can begin to master certain ways of being, growing and learning about ourselves in life never ends.” – Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
Myth: Therapy is about blaming your parents.
Fact: “I find that a frequent concern that people have coming in is that therapy will somehow find fault with their parents and create a rift. The idea is that if you look too closely at your past, it could bring up things better left unexamined and hurt your family. But I find on the contrary that therapy is often about the present moment, and that it often increases our tenderness for our parents.” – Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT.
Myth: Going to therapy means you’re weak.
Fact: “… Life is hard. It just is, and that means that sometimes we need support. Talking with a therapist or taking medication does not make you weak. Would you consider someone who has a broken leg wearing a cast to be weak? If that person engages in physical therapy does he or she deserve our harsh judgment and stigmatization? Should we shame people for having asthma and needing to use an inhaler? Of course not. Wounds can be physical, mental, and emotional. Those of us who need to heal deserve to seek the help we need without feeling ashamed for doing so.” – Casey Radle, M.Ed., LPC.
“Asking for help and committing to one’s own therapy process takes courage for many clients. Each time a new potential client reaches out and connects with me, I am struck by their ability to bravely step into vulnerability by asking for help and support. This feels especially big to me because clients usually feel anything but courage when it comes to asking for help. As a therapist, I am continually honored to be able to accompany clients on their brave journey to understand and work through their strengths, struggles, and story.” – Amy Tatsumi, MA, LPC.
Myth: Therapy isn’t fun.
Fact: “I find therapy fun because we are often able to laugh at ourselves, increase our perspective and gratitude, and see the absurdity in this life.” – Elizabeth Sullivan, MFT.
Therapy can help individuals with a variety of conditions and concerns. The earlier you go, the sooner you can start healing or getting better. And remember that seeking support is a strong, courageous act. This piece has insight into finding the right clinician for you.
Are you surprised by any of these myths? What do you think is the biggest misconception about therapy? Where do you think these myths come from?