Thinking about entering therapy can be a scary thought, particularly as many people have misconceptions about what to expect. These ideas about what therapy entails are based on outdated concepts from psychoanalysis around the time of Fraud, where a blank faced doctor in a white jacket would ask about sexual desires and interpret dreams. Of course, the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud has influenced advanced movement in what we know about the workings of the mind and behaviour; however, therapy has progressed and expanded a great deal since then. These assumptions have been largely emphasised by dramatisations of lying on couches, talking about childhood, and having ‘light bulb’ moments where everything suddenly magics away to a happy ever after.
Contrary to these beliefs, therapy can incorporate many different approaches and adapt to suit the needs of the client. Based on the relationship, therapy is about building trust and a healthy attachment which fosters itself to an interactive partnership. Therapy is not easy, and it is normal to encounter challenges along the way, but there is a focus on working together towards shared goals which are set at the beginning of the therapeutic process.
Here we look at some common misconceptions that stereotype therapy and therapists, often creating barriers to engage, and preventing people from seeking the treatment they need.
Needing a diagnosis or being mentally unwell
You do not need a diagnosis to be in therapy, nor do you need to be ill. There is a common thought that only people with mental health conditions need therapy, but anyone can benefit from it regardless of age or gender too. Some even find the process enjoyable and enlightening which can incorporate refocus in one’s life and future aspirations. Having a dedicated safe and confidential space to reflect openly with a trusted and engaged other can benefit anyone if they are invested in the process.
Laying on a couch
A therapy room might seem like a dauting place at first as it sets the scene for the process you might be anticipating with some anxiety. Most therapists have moved on from asking their clients to lay on couches and delve into their deepest darkest secrets. Many rooms may have sofas or chairs but there is more focus on creating a conducive environment. Some people may choose online therapy which can be done in the comfort of their own surroundings.
Talking about childhood
Depending on why you came to therapy will dictate the direction of its course. Talking about childhood experiences may not need feature and there may be more focus on addressing the here and now, whilst considering your future goals. As therapy should be led by the client, there is choice about how you navigate each session. Depending on the type of therapy you choose, your therapist may ask questions if they feel your present thoughts, feelings and behaviours are being driven by associated childhood experiences, as these can be difficult to link ourselves at times. The key is to be open when exploring, although you should never be forced to delve into something you are not ready too; however, if talking about childhood is something you are adversely avoiding, the chances are it might be important to find out why.
“What am I thinking now?” is a line many therapists might be familiar with. If therapists could read minds, the whole process would be very different. Therapists are trained to pay close attention to all types of communication and emotion to help guide you to make sense of things and support links to be made which might be keeping you stuck. They cannot read minds and are not scrutinising every action you take. A therapist will care about their client and not view them as an investigation or project, will not pass judgement, or make wild assumptions about you. They only know what you communicate with them.
Not just listen
As we’ve established, therapy is an interactive approach. Active listening is a crucial element of the therapist’s role, but one of many. Your therapist will explore with you, offering reflections and encouraging you to practice strategies that may support you to build your own ‘toolkit’ between sessions.
Tell you what to do
It might seem that giving you all the answers will solve everything, but this is not the case. A good therapist will gently guide you to find your own conclusions and decisions by equipping and supporting you through joint reflecting and exploration. Therapy is about empowerment where you feel you are in control to make the choices with confidence about your own life.
Light bulb moments
Many films and television dramatisations often capture therapy with sudden moments of awakening which lead to quick fixes. Unlike a medical problem where there might be a direct procedure to fix, therapy will not ‘fix’ you, as you are not broken. It is a gradual process of exploration, uncovering strengths, and learning new ways to move forward. Therapy takes time and commitment.
The same as talking to a friend
Having a good supportive network around you is healthy and beneficial. It is important to find people to talk too and share positive connections with. However, talking to someone who is objective means you can speak openly and honestly without worrying about hurting someone’s feelings or having their anxieties or opinions imposed upon you.
A friendship is different to the relationship between a therapist and client. It can feel nice to gain support from friends whilst returning that support in times of need. Although it might be normal to care about your therapist, it is not your job to support them. It is important to know therapists are trained to hold complex material, practice self-care, and required to engage in their own supervision to ensure safe practice for both therapist and client.
Therapy lasts forever
Therapy is an individual experience so the length of it depends on different factors. There are several therapy approaches that may or may not dictate time scales. The length and frequency of sessions will depend on what your aims and goals are and what pace you are able to tolerate. Some people will see benefit from very few sessions where others may need significantly more. The role of the therapist is to empower you and avoid reliance, so they will never continue seeing you for longer than is needed.
Some people may have sceptical opinions about medication, often feeling anxious about potential mind changing effects. Therapists are not licenced to prescribe medication and their focus will be centred around the therapeutic process to help you make changes in your life. Medication can have a purposeful place, and at times may be beneficial to stabilise someone so therapy can take place with optimal outcomes. If medication is something that might be considered helpful, this will be discussed with you, and you can be referred to a doctor or psychiatrist to oversee this.
Online vs face-to-face
How you choose to engage in therapy will be down to preference; however, online therapy is equally as effective as face-to-face. As therapy is about the relationship, it will not matter which option you go with, providing you have found the right therapist for you and your needs. Some people prefer being in the physical presence of their therapist whereas some consider being in their own environment more conducive. Depending on what you are seeking, both will offer different elements, although some practical considerations may be travel time, costs, and flexibility.
Not all therapy needs to break the bank. Researching a variety of options can help you find suitable therapy within your budget. Some schools and charities offer free counselling, or perhaps consider online or group therapy that may be more cost effective.
Everyone is different, so everyone’s experience of therapy will be different, depending on the type of therapy, your relationship with your therapist, and your aims and goals you set to achieve.
Having a conversation with your therapist about some of your fears or assumptions before you start can help to reassure you about the process. Therapy can be challenging but it should feel like a partnership that you are invested in to foster change for a healthier, happier future.