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.

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.

For instance, if you get uncontrollably angry when your significant other doesn’t call back, there’s something buried within your unconscious 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 relationship 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 to these outbursts when they happen. 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 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 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.
  • Be Pro-Active. Take Responsibility for Your Progress – 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 you 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 you, encourage you and direct you. If you aren’t willing to do the work, then they can’t do anything to help you.
  • Switch It Up – 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, therapists 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.
  • Treat Hiring a Therapist Like Hiring an Employee – Another problem people have is that they are not selective with the therapist they hire. You should treat 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 whom you naturally click with and others who 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.

Do You Need Therapy?

I’ve actually referred a lot 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 on your own and have tried for a while.

Depressed man by a window

Here are some signs you may want to consider therapy:

  • You have emotional or sexual impulses you don’t have control over: angry outbursts, fear of intimacy, sexual anxiety, bouts of depression, etc.
  • You come from a difficult childhood, had absent parents or a poor relationship with your parents.
  • You’ve suffered some major traumas in your life (death of loved ones, abuse, major health problems, etc.).
  • You have compulsive behaviors which interfere with other areas of your life: i.e., drug/alcohol abuse, etc.
  • Most of the relationships in your life are dysfunctional and/or unhealthy (always fighting, lots of blame/guilt, etc.). This includes friendships, significant others, family members.
  • You are overly pre-occupied with one aspect of your life. Common examples include: obsession with being “cool” or popular, obsession with impressing others, constant need for approval from others, even obsessing about improving yourself (feeling like you’re never good enough), etc.

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)