Everyone has heard of therapy in some form or another, but a lot of people don’t have a clear idea of what it is or what they’re getting into. One stereotype is that you lay on a couch and cry like a child. Another is that it’s just some guy who prescribes you pills. Another is that it’s some guy who shows you ink blots and asks you what you see (boobs, I always see boobs). As with many things, these are caricatures created by pop culture for entertainment purposes. Most therapy is far duller and far more personal than this.

What Is Therapy?

The idea behind therapy is that most of our decision making comes from unconscious aspects of our mind. As long as these parts of our mind are unconscious, we’re unable to exercise control over them.

The primary purpose of therapy is to help us become aware of these sections of our unconscious, accept them, and then begin exerting control over them. This is how you generally learn to take care of your daily mental health.

This form of therapy where the therapist helps you uncover the unconscious is common and looks something like this in real life:

You get uncontrollably angry when your significant other doesn’t call back. The culprit is something buried within your unconscious which is causing you to react in such an irrational manner.

By attending therapy, you can start digging into the past, your emotional development, traumas, life problems, childhood, and find the trigger. Maybe your mother made a habit of leaving you behind when you were most vulnerable. Perhaps your past relationships involved someone cheating on you repeatedly or they were rarely available. Whatever.

Once uncovered, then you can process the anger and the hurt in a safe environment. This will then allow you to become more aware of the anger and therefore not feel so powerless when these outbursts occur. Eventually, you should be able to exert enough control over the emotion to modify your behavior.

Another popular form of therapy is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is useful for changing specific habits or thought patterns, particularly those related to anxiety and depression. CBT focuses more on observing your thoughts and how they lead to behaviors rather than unconscious emotions.

Both forms of therapy have their own strengths and weaknesses. Both are quite effective depending on the issue.

Sad man

Problems With Therapy

There are a lot of criticisms of therapy, and although most of them are made by people who have never actually attended therapy, some of them are legitimate. If you are considering therapy or are already in therapy, here are some things to watch out for:

Professional Pill Prescribers

People often mistake psychologists/therapists for psychiatrists. Psychiatrists prescribe medications and specialize in mental illnesses. Psychologists (generally) do not. Unfortunately, the reputation has developed that ALL therapy consists of, whether by a psychologist or psychiatrist, is a queue to get easy drugs.

Unfortunately, this is true for some practitioners. Unless you believe you suffer from a mental illness, I would recommend you see a therapist/psychologist and only pursue medication if therapy seems ineffective over an extended period of time. Many people go straight to a psychiatrist who then hands them anti-depressants or some other pill like it’s candy.

Becoming a Couch Potato

Many people attend therapy with the expectation that they go sit in a comfy chair and the therapist will magically fix them. Sometimes they even get frustrated when “nothing happens” in their therapy sessions, when in actuality they’re hardly participating in them.

Therapy is a participatory activity. In fact, I would argue that if therapy is going well, it’s because you are doing 80% of the work.

You should approach it with the attitude that you are there to work on yourself and the therapist is there to facilitate and give you a push in the right direction. See them as a personal trainer for your mind and emotions. You’re still doing all of the heavy lifting, but they’re there to spot, encourage, and direct you. If you aren’t willing to do the work, then they can’t do anything to help.

The Never-Ending Therapy

Therapy is still subject to the Law of Self-Help: You can judge the usefulness of any self-help tool by how many people are leaving it. If people are leaving it, it works. If people are staying, then it’s not working.

Many people leave therapy with success stories (myself included), but many people stay for years and years with little to show for it.

Many people fall into comfortable patterns with their therapists. In the beginning, they may uncover some major issues and make some big changes, but eventually, the therapist won’t be able to offer a new perspective, the patient will come in every week or month for years on end, they will discuss the same topics, and they will enter into a loop of patient shares problems, therapist validates problems, patient feels better about problems and leaves, comes back later with similar (or the same) problems.

Don’t fall into the trap of paying someone to validate your issues. It’s tempting and it’s easy to do, both for you and for your therapist. But don’t do it.

Therapy should feel a little uncomfortable. It should challenge you. It should make you think about your life from new perspectives. It shouldn’t feel good all the time. If it ever becomes repetitive, then it may be time to get out and find a new therapist or try something else.

The Easy Hire

Another problem people have is that they are not selective with the therapist they hire. You should treat this step of the process seriously, as if you’re interviewing people for a job opening in your life.

Most therapists offer free consultation sessions where you can meet them, get to know them, and describe your problems to them. There will be some therapists you naturally click with and others you don’t. Some therapists will be able to relate to your problems personally, others won’t.

When I sought out a therapist, I purposefully found a younger male who used to party a lot and was a musician. I felt like he could relate to me and where I was in my life. Things went really well.

Maybe you need someone who will make you feel uncomfortable, someone who will challenge you and won’t put up with your bullshit. Whatever your case may be, take a moment to consider what type of therapist could best relate to your issues and help you, and seek them out.

Hiring a therapist is a large commitment, so take it seriously.

Six Signs That You Need Therapy

I’ve actually referred a lot of people to therapy over the years. Many have ignored it (especially men…). Some have gone. A few have come back and thanked me for recommending it to them. It’s hard to say for sure who needs it and who doesn’t.

Therapy is one of those tricky things, like most self-development tools, because it’s rarely ever a bad thing to do. One could argue that everyone needs therapy in some form or another or for some period of time.

But I would only recommend it if you feel you aren’t able to handle your emotional issues and have tried on your own for a while.

Depressed man by a window

Here are six signs that you may need therapy:

Sign 1: Impulses

All of us struggle with impulses from time to time (that chocolate cake is just begging to be devoured). Some of us are more successful than others at resisting them. If you find  yourself regularly succumbing to impulses, you may want to consider therapy.

The most common impulses people succumb to are emotional—angry outbursts, bouts of depression, etc.—and sexual—fear of intimacy, sexual anxiety, etc. Having little to no control over these impulses can be a major obstacle to living a functional life, not to mention a happy and healthy one.

Sign 2: Difficult Childhood

The influence of childhood experiences on our thoughts, emotions, and actions as an adult cannot be overstated. What makes it worse is that we’re usually not aware of them—they reside in the unconscious parts of our mind.

Many people, including myself in the past, go about their lives completely unaware of attachment issues that result from not receiving enough love and affection from their parents as a child. You may know someone who just can’t seem to get their finances in control, unaware that they’ve been influenced by their parents’ reckless ways with money all those years ago.

Unfortunately, when it comes to mental inclinations, the apple rarely falls far from the tree unless you’ve developed the ability to self-reflect and act against your tendencies. And few people do.

So if you come from a difficult childhood, if you had absent parents or a poor relationship with them, you may be suffering the after-effects without knowing.

Sign 3: Major Traumas

I probably don’t have to convince you that traumas are a big deal, and it never hurts to get help to deal with them. Major traumas in life could be the death of loved ones, abuse, major health problems, etc.

Even if you think you’re perfectly fine, chances are you’re psychologically suffering in one way or another without knowing it. Getting therapy could help you uncover these blind spots and truly turn the page.

Sign 4: Compulsive Behaviors

We all succumb to vices from time to time. These vices in moderate amounts on occasion don’t necessarily hurt—that ice cold beer at the end of a long working day, that chocolate cake we finally devour.

However, in some cases the vices become compulsive behaviors and begin to interfere with other areas of your life, the most common ones being alcohol and drug abuse.

Similarly to the emotional and sexual impulses I mentioned above, these compulsive behaviors do you no favors and will thoroughly derail your life. Seek help.

Sign 5: Dysfunctional Relationships

Humans are social animals, so it should come as no surprise that having dysfunctional relationships has an outsized impact on your quality of life.

The sad truth is that many, if not the majority, of us have at least one dysfunctional relationship and are simply putting up with it, thinking it’s part and parcel of life. This is the wrong approach.

Always fighting with your partner over pointless things? Always guilt-tripped into visiting your aging parents? Always getting blamed for mistakes at work? Always saying “yes” to your best friend’s never-ending requests? These are tell-tale signs of unhealthy and, in some cases, dysfunctional relationships.

Tolerate them, you should not.

Sign 6: Obsession

Some of us are overly pre-occupied with one aspect of our lives. Joe next door is obsessed with being “cool” or popular. Your aunt is obsessed with impressing everyone at family gatherings. Your partner has a constant need for approval from others and is always looking for that pat on the back from you for every little thing they do.

Hell, maybe even you yourself are obsessing about improving yourself (you are reading this article after all). Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for self-improvement. But sometimes this devolves into feeling like you’re never good enough and mindlessly executing self-help hacks, which you can probably tell is not a bueno idea.

In the end, therapy is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it could be the difference between a healthy and happy life and a life full of agonizing crapfests. I prefer the former myself.

(Cover image: “(Rorschach) II” by dailyinvention) is licensed under CC BY 2.0)