"If it's not one thing, it's the mother"
When someone has a tooth ache and decides to visit a dentist, they generally know what to expect. Part of that expectation is that they will leave will resolution. In essence, the pain that prompted the visit will have dissipated or been significantly reduced. A similar notion holds true for when an individual takes their vehicle to a mechanic. They expect the have their vehicle repaired, or at the very least be given a description of the problem, a general timeline for the repairs and an estimate of the cost.
Therapy is different.
Therapy can be somewhat mystical and intimidating for those who have not participated or engaged in the process. In fact, when considering therapy, it is not uncommon for questions surrounding what to expect, may arise.
Do I have to talk about everything that has ever happened in my life?
Will I have to talk about my mother or my childhood?
Who will find out what I have said?
Will they give me advice?
How is 'talking' going to really help?
Do I have to cry?
While these are all reasonable questions, the short answer is, it depends. The longer answer is that people have a variety of motivations for seeking therapy. It could be that the person has found themselves in an unexpected season of life and is seeking support in regaining their footing. Others may have noticed recurring thoughts, feelings or patterns of behavior that have caused them to re-evaluate. Yet, some have found that having a neutral, nonjudgmental space to think out-loud, while receiving meaningful feedback has been helpful in navigating life. Whatever the reason, therapy is a process. It is not something that is done to you, but something you do.
If entering therapy seems like jumping into a rabbit hole of unknowns, consider these myths or societal misconceptions that may be influencing your ambiguity or confusion.
MYTH #1 Only wealthy people can afford therapy
Reality - In 2016, behavioral health service became more accessible than ever before. Ranging from local community mental health agencies that offer low cost or no cost services, to private psychotherapy practices where fees can range by location and therapist's specialty. Additionally, technology has been removing barriers to individual's access to mental health treatment with the advent of tele-therapy, e-counseling and telemedicine. Therapeutic support can even be accessed via text messaging. Regardless of your specific need or financial situation, there is likely a forum or modality available to aid in connecting you with clinical support.
MYTH #2 You have to be 'crazy' in order to seek counseling
Reality - According to the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, "crazy" is defined as "full of crack or flaws", "being out of the ordinary" and "marked by thoughts and actions that lack reason". However, it also describes "crazy" as being "distracted with desire or excitement". Additional synonyms included unsound, mad, insane, impractical, unusual, obsessed, and erratic. Based on these synonyms, we would ALL indeed be "crazy" at some point in our life, and therefore would be prime candidates for counseling. Semantics aside, when the term "crazy" is used in the context of therapy, it is often referencing severe mental illness.
This myth is actually true in many regards. There are indeed professionals, agencies and organizations that primarily treat severe mental illness, such a schizophrenia. However, there are equally as many agencies and practices that treat the "everyday crazy" that can be associated with loss, trauma, grief, relationships, parenting, career and LIFE.
MYTH #3 You have to talk about your childhood
Reality - Therapy is one of the few places where you can truly say anything. If you feel inclined to discuss the relationship you have (or don't have) with your mother, go for it. If you are all "talked out" on the mother topic, or feel securely attached to her, mother talk is not necessary. Instead, the specific issues and life factors prompting an individual to seek therapy will likely guide the exploration and therapeutic process. This can include reflecting on past experiences, internal messages and prior relationships that may have shaped one's behavior and paved the road for their current place in life. On the other hand, if you are considering a career change, childhood experiences may be irrelevant.
It is helpful to note that childhood is also referred to as our formative years. Therefore it can be expected that there may be some discussion surrounding the manner and environment in which an individual was raised. But it does not have to be the focus, or end all, be all.
MYTH #4 In therapy you just lay on a couch, while the therapist nods and take notes
Reality - There are a myriad of therapeutic orientations and interventions that can be utilized in therapy. There are therapies that are active in which clients are assigned and expected to complete homework or out-of-session assignments. Some are experiential, in that different exercises and activities are practice during the session. While others may incorporate body based practices such as mediation and yoga. Regardless of the modality, all therapy include some form of talking, and typically the majority of the speaking will be done by the client. Therapy at it's core requires dialogue. In theory, the therapist will make inquires, prompt reflection and provide verbal support and feedback.
As for seating arrangements, not every therapist has a couch, nor is it required for a client to lay down. However, laying down is unlikely to be frowned upon in this setting.
MYTH #5 Therapists are nothing more than paid friends
Reality - While it is truly an honor to be considered a friend, a therapist's role can be better described as an ally. An individual who is on your side, has your best interest at heart and desires to support you as you move towards your life goals.
Friendships are reciprocal, in which both share about their life, interest and hobbies. This type of reciprocity supports bonding, fosters comradery and builds trust. However, within friendships there can still be topics or discussions that are off limits, either due to our shame or fear of the friend's ability hear and handling what is shared. Additionally, with friends, if a person seeks advice (say regarding a relationship), then chooses not to adhere to the advice given, the friendship dynamics can be altered. In a therapeutic relationship, bonding and trust are still crucial, however there are no off-limit topics. Therapists are also trained and experienced in listening, hearing and holding the stories, struggles and pain of others. While we are not robots, devoid of our own emotional experience, the therapy room is a place and space where it is all about you, your needs and your growth.
Friends are great, and so are therapist. In this situation, you are encouraged to have your cake and eat it too.
Circling back to the aching question at hand, "what is therapy and how do I do it?" You just DO it. You show up, be honest and see what happens. There is no wrong way to do therapy. It is a commitment, and there will be bumps along the way. Just remember, you are worth it.
If you are interested in starting therapy, please visit Psychology Today to learn about therapists in your area.