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So, What IS Therapy?

If you’ve watched Lucifer, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Hannibal, What About Bob?, Frasier, or Good Will Hunting, you might have an interesting idea of what therapy looks like. Anyone who hasn’t been may be basing their knowledge on what they’ve seen in movies or on TV - which is especially concerning if you’ve only watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Girl, Interrupted. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t really paint an accurate portrait of the therapy process. Often the actions of fictional therapists are...questionable (yes, even your actions, Dr. Sean Maguire from Good Will Hunting).


You might be wondering, “So, what IS therapy then?” That’s exactly what this post is for! This post will discuss some of the common misconceptions about therapy and give a more accurate picture of what the therapy process looks like. So sit back, grab some popcorn, and get ready to learn about therapy.


Myth #1: My therapist is going to know everything and fix all of my problems.


For better or for worse, therapists are just people too. However, they are people with a lot of training and experience in helping people with emotional or mental difficulties. Therapists have a variety of tools and ways of understanding problems that are shown to benefit people, but they also recognize that you know a lot about your own problems and what works for you. Working with a therapist is a collaborative experience. Together, you explore how to understand your problems and take action to make the changes that you want to see in your life. Therapy is more like teaching a man to fish than giving him a fish. That is, therapy helps you develop tools to reach your goals, whether or not you remain in therapy for an extended amount of time.


Myth #2: Therapy is just a place to talk about your problems.


It’s an issue if you aren’t talking about your problems in therapy. But this doesn't mean that the whole point in therapy is just talking. Often, a lot of therapy time is spent processing your experiences and considering them in new ways that will help you to have more of the mental and emotional experiences that you want. Many forms of therapy also help you to develop skills to change your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions and reach your goals. Therapy is a much more collaborative and active process than just going somewhere to talk about your problems.


Myth #3: Therapy is for crazy people.


Usually when people say that someone is crazy, it means that person has strong emotional, mental, or behavior problems that make it hard for them to get along with others. Therapists can definitely work with people experiencing severe mental health struggles, but therapists don't only do this for extreme cases of psychological distress. Anyone experiencing distressing emotions, difficult thoughts, or problematic behaviors would likely benefit from psychotherapy, even if these problems aren’t affecting their life so much that they can’t get along with others. No matter the severity of your symptoms, therapists can help you improve your mental health and reach your goals. Therapy can be beneficial for a wide range of people and situations, for example, grieving a loss, transitioning to a new period in your life, experiencing anxiety in social situations, or having difficulties in your relationships. Most people in therapy are able to get along with others and eventually reach their goals but are hoping to improve their mental health to have more positive life experiences.


Myth #4: Therapists are just going to blame all my problems on my parents.


All good therapists try to understand their clients. One aspect of understanding someone is considering their past experiences. Often, your past experiences impact your current emotions, your actions, and your beliefs about yourself and the world. Since much of behavior is learned, considering these influences can help explain why you are the way you are. This definitely does not mean that your parents are to blame for all of your problems. Instead it means that all of your experiences, including your experiences with your parents, can help to explain your current situation. The stereotype of therapists is that they're going to blame your parents for all of your problems. However, the focus on exploring your history isn't on blaming., but rather understanding. Once you understand why you experience an emotion or a pattern of behavior, you can start to change your reactions to better reach your goals.


Myth #5: Going to therapy should immediately make me feel better.


Psychotherapy is more like the process of physical therapy than getting a tooth pulled. Unfortunately, therapy doesn't often lead to immediate relief, and sometimes a client’s feelings and thoughts can become more distressing at the beginning of therapy. However, there is evidence showing that psychotherapy is able to help people reach their goals, reduce their negative emotions or unhelpful thoughts, and stop problematic behaviors in the long run. Therapy is a process and not a one or two time event that solves problems. It’s often learning how to understand and react to what you experience. This kind of learning, like any kind of learning, takes time.


Myth #6: Therapy is just paying to vent to someone. I can get that from my friends.


Having a good support system and people that one can vent to is important. In no way is therapy trying to replace one's friends, family, or support network. Friends are great for sharing one’s emotional experiences and receiving empathy, and they can support you in ways that a therapist would not, such as bringing you food when you have an off-day or taking you out to somewhere you enjoy to help you feel better. However, therapy is more focused on helping you understand your problems and take actions to reduce your distress. Trained therapists provide research-supported treatments tailored to your concern, and your time with a therapist is focused entirely on you and making progress toward your goals. Ideally, one’s support network and therapy should work together so that one can feel supported, cared for, and important.


Myth #7: Going to therapy would take away my privacy.


It's true that talking to a therapist will involve sharing private information with someone else. However, therapists must follow a strict code of ethics (the same ethics code that would prevent all the bad therapy shown in movies) that involves keeping your information confidential. There are some limits to confidentiality in extreme cases - such as child abuse or significant risk of harm to yourself or another person - but most of the time, only your therapist will know what you share with your therapist.


So, hopefully you feel like you understand the therapy process better now! If you’re interested in knowing more about how the media has misrepresented the mental health field and mental illness, check out some of these videos of therapists reacting to tv shows and movies:

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