As a psychoanalyst, I wanted to seize the opportunity created by HBO’s “In Treatment” premiere to dispel some anti-therapy myths.
Myth 1. Therapy is for people who are either crazy, or the human equivalent of Jello.
For lots of people there’s still a stigma attached to seeking treatment because it’s taken as a confirmation of mental illness, or a sign you’re so spineless you can’t do anything on your own. But really, going to therapy for any reason, is at its most basic, an exercise in trying to improve the quality of your life.
We all come into the world wired a certain way, and who we become is determined by that, and a combination of life events and the extent to which we’re nurtured. Some of us have happy stories and others aren’t so lucky. But no matter what you’re struggling with, it’s normal and healthy to want to do anything within your means to feel better. It doesn’t matter whether you’re recovering from a psychotic break, wondering if you should leave a relationship, or feeling homesick your first semester at college. Wanting to be an active participant in trying to live your life as best you can is wise. Everyone deserves a shot at having the quality of life they wish for, and therapy is helpful to that end.
Myth 2. It’s all about blaming your parents.
This, understandably, holds a great appeal for many of us! But therapy isn’t actually about blame. It’s about understanding what happened so that you can make use of that knowledge to free yourself up enough to thrive.
Myth 3. Emotional life is frivolous.
Our emotional life informs absolutely everything we do. It’s what makes us fall in and out of love; it influences what we do for a living; how we raise our children; where we make our homes; who we choose as friends; and it impacts our physical health. Every single day, we’re continuously doing nothing more in our lives than trying to move closer to the things we hope will make us happy, and further away from anything that creates discomfort. From whether or not we choose to return a phone call, to how we hope to feel in those jeans, to how much we deposit in the bank this week, to why we get a mammogram…all are examples of how we’re driven by a desire to feel alive, connected, and safe.
Myth 4. The past is the past. Get over it already.
The history of a person is no different than the history of anything else. History actively informs the present; sometimes we repeat it, and sometimes we improve upon it. We need look no further than war to understand this. Therapy helps a person make sense of their history in a way that hopefully enables them to positively impact the course of their future. Another analogy is the life of a tree. If we were to anthropomorphize a tree whose root system was damaged, none of us would be inclined to think, “Oh suck it up and get over your root system already.” We’d probably think, “That tree might be in trouble.”
Myth 5. It’s the screwed up one in the family that seeks therapy. Everyone else is fine.
This is almost never the case…
Myth 6. You should be able to handle everything on your own.
We learn and grow both on our own and in the context of others. It isn’t shameful to collaborate in other arenas. We learn from teachers. We need doctors to set broken bones so they can heal. We require lovers to experience love. Why should therapy be any different?
Myth 7. Being stoic is strong. Being emotional is weak.
It takes strength to be in therapy. Any way a person survives adversity requires strength, but our culture tends to see an absence of emotionality as representative of mental health. If being stoic is what works best for you, then that’s how you need to go through strife. But I can assure you, allowing your feelings to surface even when you’re afraid to do so might take you so far from your comfort zone you don’t know if you’ll ever return, is brave.
Myth 8. You need your therapist to tell you how to live your life.
Unless you’re in cognitive behavioral therapy which involves exercises and assignments to a particular end, most therapists will only make suggestions. A skilled therapist should listen with a professional ear, and help you figure out what you want to do. The client is the one who does all of the work in between sessions.
Myth 9. Just take a pill.
Psychopharmacology is only one approach to relieving suffering. I’ve seen medication save lives, but I’ve also seen people over-medicated, or incorrectly medicated without proper care and monitoring. Pills address brain chemistry; therapy addresses understanding and self-awareness. They aren’t mutually exclusive.
Myth 10. If movies are any indication, one of two things will probably happen in your therapy: either you will somehow become involved in a deadly situation (most likely a murder plot), or your therapist will sleep with you.
Since neither of these situations has ever been disclosed to me by a colleague or a client, I have to assume these occurrences are rare. I say take the risk. (And here’s hoping Paul doesn’t sleep with Laura.)