Myths about therapy and therapists abound in American culture. The therapeutic process is often shrouded in mystery, stigma and misconceptions, and there are things therapists really wish their clients knew. Stigmas about mental illness and what actually happens in a therapist’s office can undermine a person’s healing process — while also sometimes deterring people from getting the help they need.
In addition, fears about therapy and therapists can confound even the most devoted therapy-goer: Relaxing into the process while building a trust-based connection with your counselor is key to getting the most out of your therapy sessions. If you’ve got some nagging insecurities about whether or not your therapist is judging you or just concerns about therapy in general, don’t fret. Good therapists are an altruistic and caring breed, and bottom line, they really just want the best for you. Here are seven things your therapist really wants you to know, so you can feel better about getting some support already.
Needing therapy doesn’t mean you’re “crazy”
Therapy is about learning “to handle your feelings and thoughts in a more effective way,” Dr. Tina B. Tessina, psychotherapist and author of It Ends With You: Growing Up And Out of Dysfunction, tells SheKnows. And there’s no shame in having a mental health diagnosis like depression, PTSD or bipolar disorder either. Mental health stigma often bars people who need treatment the most from getting help. If you avoid therapy because you’re worried about what your family and friends might think of you, know that it takes a lot of strength to seek out support when you need it. You are not weak or flawed for going to therapy, and having a mental health diagnosis doesn’t mean that you’re “crazy.”
You’re stronger than you think
“Clients are so much stronger than they think. I often talk with [them] about this,” clinical psychologist Dr. Darin Bergen tells SheKnows. “They see all the things they’re not doing and see weakness; I see how much they’re struggling to do ‘normal’ daily activities, and I see strength. The metaphor I use is that of a person with a 200-pound backpack struggling to walk forward — I wouldn’t think they’re weak. I’d think that they’re strong for moving forward despite the immense weight on their back. Sometimes that helps them understand that it takes a lot of strength to get through the day right now, and when we get rid of the burden of their pain, they’ll have a lot more strength to apply to every area of their life.”
Things can get better
“Sometimes I just wish my clients knew that things can get better,” says Bergen. “An important concept for dealing with emotional pain is something called ‘learned hopelessness.’ After struggling against a pain for some time and finding no relief, we learn that there’s nothing we can do to make things better, and we become hopeless. This doesn’t mean that things actually are hopeless. I’ve seen clients get better after years of struggle. Sometimes, we don’t know what will be the thing that helps us get out of the pain we’re in. Often, we therapists have to be the ‘hope in the room,’ and I totally understand why my clients often don’t feel it, but I wish they could.”
But your therapist can’t “fix” you
Bergen notes, “The biggest assumption that interferes with therapy is that we therapists are going to ‘fix’ [our clients] — that they will be passive participants in the process. Instead, Bergen says, therapy is more of a partnership between therapist and client, “and it only works if both parties are engaging in the process actively. [Therapists] are like wilderness guides. Guides know how to navigate the terrain and overcome obstacles, but they don’t carry people on their backs. This can be frustrating at first, but the benefit at the end is that the client has done the work and should feel empowered by participating in the journey themselves.”
No topic is off limits
A good therapist is someone you can place your trust in. “Whatever you haven’t been able to talk about, the therapist will create a safe place for you to be heard,” Tessina says.
Therapists are trying too
Your therapist is an imperfect person with strengths and weaknesses, just like you. “As a therapist, I might say I ‘feel your feelings,’ while still struggling to do that [for myself] in my own life,” Nancy Jane Smith, a licensed professional counselor, mental health advocate and author of The Happier Approach, tells SheKnows. “Or I might say that I practice meditation because I know it’s important — while being aware that my own process is imperfect.”
No, your therapist is really not judging you
If you tend to be very critical of yourself, it can be hard to accept that your therapist isn’t judging you — even as you open up about your most hidden flaws and problems in their office. “It’s hard to convince a client that I’m not judging them the way they judge themselves, so I tend to give honest feedback in the moment about my feelings of compassion towards them when they’re feeling ashamed of themselves. This slowly chips away at the idea that I’m judging them,” Bergen says.
No matter what your fears about therapy might be, a good therapist can help reassure you the process is ultimately meant to empower you. By honing better communication skills, healing old wounds or learning new ways to manage a mental health diagnosis, your counselor is an ally as you form new strengths. Putting your fears aside as you allow yourself to fully engage in the therapeutic process can help yield the best outcome for your treatment.
A version of this story was published November 2018.
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