In January of 2010, I was 21. I had recently finished college. Since I graduated mid-year, most of my friends were still in school. I had no job yet and was living in my childhood bedroom in Providence. I did have a rocky relationship with a soon-to-be-ex boyfriend, which ended on a cold Tuesday night outside my parents’ house, when he kicked me out of his car and said some things I can’t repeat here.
I wanted to die. I thought this was it: I would be alone, jobless, unloved, and unwanted for the rest of my life.
In the next month, I left my house only to see my therapist, a warm, middle-aged woman who gave me meditation tapes, books, and heaps and heaps of advice. I spent my first session sobbing, and she planted the tissue box next to my seat and told me to take my time. She encouraged me as I wrote literally hundreds of cold cover letters to employers and reminded me that graduating during the worst recession of both of our lifetimes wasn’t my fault. When I got an internship at a small education publisher in Westchester, New York, I called my therapist to tell her I would be moving. She was genuinely happy for me—and genuinely proud of me.
My mother is a psychologist, so I grew up in a therapy-positive household. Still, I’m aware of the stereotypes many people have about therapy. And while I may (lovingly) call my mom a shrink and (occasionally) complain about her psychologist mode, having a psychologist mother has helped me cope for 29 years (minus a few years in middle and high school when I was embarrassed to have parents). Imagine literally having a personal therapist on call for you 24/7.
If you don’t have a mother who’s a therapist, don’t worry. I’ve been in therapy with people who aren’t my mom, too, and I can tell you that if you find the right fit, it can work out well. I saw my last therapist for several years and stopped around a year ago, when it came to somewhat of a natural end. After, I spent far less time crying in the bathroom at work and am able to engage in more self-soothing practices.
Here are four myths about therapy—and why you should ignore them:
1. Therapy is just for crazy people.
Some people who go to therapy do have a serious mental illness that manifests in A Beautiful Mind-style hallucinations. Most do not. (Actually, even if you have schizophrenia, you’re not going to have hallucinations with a structured storyline and recurring characters.) Many want help coping with anxiety or depression. That’s not to say these disorders aren’t serious—they are. But when people think “crazy,” they’re usually thinking about people who have schizophrenia or other illnesses associated with delusions and hallucinations. Approximately 18.2 percent of adults in the United States have some form of a mental illness, while only 1.2% of the population suffers from schizophrenia. Mental illness encompasses disorders like major depression and along with other illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
No matter what you have or why you’re suffering, the most important thing is that you get help. Some people are required to see therapists, particularly when they commit crimes; that’s part of where the “people in therapy are crazy” stigma comes from. But many people choose to seek treatment on their own—often because they want help coping with the problems in their life. People who have mental illnesses that cause dangerous behavior or delusions of course need treatment, too, often in conjunction with carefully controlled and regimented psychotropic medications. But these types of illnesses often have more visible symptoms, which means others are more likely to notice and suggest or require that they seek treatment. People who have more common illnesses like depression and anxiety, on the other hand, may be more likely to believe they don’t need treatment or that their problems are mild compared with other types of mental disorders.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), approximately one fourth of primary care patients suffers from depression, while primary care doctors (GP) are identifying less than a third of them. That means you need to take control of your mental health and seek out help on your own. Whether you are anxious or depressed or suspect another mental health problem—or even if you’re just curious about therapy and want some support—there’s no wrong reason to see a mental health professional.
By the way, shout-out to the APA. I attended the APA’s annual meeting twice with my mother when I was growing up. When I was 10, she persuaded me to walk through the exhibit hall with her with the promise that I could take the free candy. And there sure was a lot of candy! At my previous job, I manned many a booth in the exhibit hall and continued the practice of stealing candy from neighboring booths. (They encouraged me to, so it wasn’t really stealing.) I also attended the opening ceremony when I was visiting colleges as an entering high school senior. That year, Arlo Guthrie opened for some reason. On the one hand, it was cool to hear “Alice’s Restaurant” live. On the other, it was kind of random.
In some ways, attending those conferences as a child and young adult sparked my interest in psychology. I saw Mary Pipher, the author of Reviving Ophelia, speak—and some 15 years later, when I worked at her publisher, I smiled when I saw the book in the office. I briefly considered a psychology major in college, until I discovered that I would have to take Calculus. I still have nightmares about my AP Calculus class in high school, so I decided against it.
2. Therapists are just there to give you pills.
Therapists are not there to give you pills at all. Psychologists, social workers, and other counselors may not prescribe medication, and psychiatrists, who have medical licenses, may prescribe medication but aren’t really there to give you therapy. So, while people often confuse psychiatrists with psychologists—see Hollywood 101—they’re actually very different professions.
Some people, of course, have illnesses and disorders that cannot be treated with psychotherapy alone and do need meds. In cases in which someone has bipolar disorder, for instance, she should see both a therapist and a psychiatrist; the psychiatrist will prescribe her meds and make sure the dosages are consistently right for the individual, and the therapist will help her develop other coping strategies
3. Therapists won’t help you solve your problems; they’ll just nod and ask you how you feel.
Some people go to therapy because they want someone to listen. If you’re one of those people, you should find a therapist who practices psychodynamic therapy or a similar type. This involves a lot of talking on your part and a lot of listening on her part. I have a friend who began his first session with his last therapist by telling him that he didn’t want him to do any talking; he just wanted a listener. This was the approach that worked best for him. I tried therapy with a psychologist who practiced psychodynamic therapy once and decided it wasn’t for me; I didn’t really want someone to listen to me (or rather, just listen to me)—I wanted to develop skills for coping with my problems.
If you fall into that camp, too, you should look for a therapist who practices cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on developing coping strategies and eliminating negative thought patterns. My last therapist practiced CBT and gave me assignments such as practicing meditation techniques, identifying negative thought patterns, so I could recognize when my thoughts were unhealthy and unhelpful, and reading articles and books on mindfulness practices.
There are many other types of therapy, too. For instance, family therapy and couples therapy involve working on relationships. If you’re not sure which type of therapy is right for you, it’s fine to explore different kinds to find the right fit.
4. Therapists are playing mind games with you.
Your therapist is not reading your mind. She’s also not diagnosing you on the spot without getting to know you first. (Insurance companies often require a diagnosis for billing purposes down the line, so your therapist may give you a diagnosis; since people often don’t fall into neat DSM boxes, it may not be comprehensive, and you may not check all the boxes. Don’t stress too much about it; it’s really just for your insurance company.)
Does that mean my family wouldn’t play “name that issue” at restaurants, in which my mom would pick a nearby table and describe their life stories and histories in great detail? No, we absolutely would. (Oh, like your family’s not weird.) In fact, every year, we would take a family trip to New Hampshire around winter break and see the same father-daughter pair at the inn where we stayed. My mom gave them extensive backstories (the father was a divorced alcoholic), and we even gave them names: Sydney and Sydney’s dad.
But seriously, your therapist is not reading your mind. Is she intuitive? Probably, if she’s good at her job. In fact, that’s part of what makes her good at her job. Understanding your issues based on what you’re saying and what you’re not saying will help her help you.
On a similar note, don’t lie to your therapist. Not only will you be wasting your money, but she’ll probably know. It’s counterintuitive to lie to the person who’s there to help you with your problems—whom you’re paying to help you with your problems. (Have I lied to my mother in my life? Um, yes. I was a teenager, after all.)
The bottom line
Does everybody need to be in therapy? No. But if you’re feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed, or depressed—or even just want someone to listen to you—therapy can be enormously helpful. It can improve your mindset, personal life, and professional life.
It’s also important to understand that not every therapist-patient relationship is a good fit, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t click with the first therapist you see. If you don’t feel comfortable with her after a couple sessions, look for someone else. If you’d prefer a different approach, you could even ask your therapist for a referral—just say that you’re looking for a different style. You can also ask your GP for a referral or network with friends.
The stigma surrounding therapy has lessened in recent years, but there’s still some negativity associated with the idea of seeking mental healthcare. Don’t let that discourage you. You shouldn’t be embarrassed to seek help; most people need help, and it takes courage to admit it. Therapy can help you cope with personal and professional challenges. It’s certainly helped me cope with my own.