Mental Health Beyond 101: About Therapists
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
(image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASigmund_Freud_Bobble_Head_Wackelkopf.JPG)
I hear a lot of things about why people don’t want to go to therapy even when they think they might benefit from it. Since I’ve worked in the field for many years, I have some wisdom to share. Call it an “insider’s view” of the therapist’s office. I figure if I can knock down some common fears and concerns, maybe I can make it easier for someone to take those first steps.
Reason 1: I can’t afford it
This is a big, valid reason to avoid therapy. There are some options here.
–ask if the therapist has a sliding scale. Many therapists can work with you, but most don’t advertise they do. Worst they can say is no.
–check with your HR department about an EAP (employee assistance program). Many companies offer this, and you can get a few sessions for free or cheap through these programs.
–go through your insurance company. Not an ideal choice, but it does reduce cost of therapy.
–check out non-profit agencies local to you. Often there are groups or classes offered to the public free or cheap as well. Again, not ideal but sometimes better than you expect. Many therapists now in private practice got their start doing work like this. Studies show that therapists fresh out of school are often as good at their jobs as experienced ones, so don’t be afraid of a newbie.
–go short term. You don’t have to lay on a couch three times a week to get therapeutic benefit. Sometimes a short course can be very helpful, and many therapists are happy to see you once a month if that’s all you can afford. Work with the therapist. Which brings me to point number two.
Reason Two: I had a problem with my last therapist, so I quit
Therapists are human. They have the same human foibles that any other person does. They are held to a higher ethical standard, true, but that doesn’t mean that they are infallible.
–if your therapist said something that hurt or offended you, try talking to them about it. Most therapists I know would be happy to discuss any concern you have, even if it might be difficult. In fact, they are better trained to handle difficult conversations than most people.
–therapists are trained to be culturally aware to the best of their ability, but not every therapist serves every population. Ask in advance if your therapist is GLBT friendly, for example. Ingrained biases exist in all of us. Feel free to talk about these things openly. A therapist might not know everything about your experience, but many are willing to learn. If they have a particular bias, they are taught to refer clients to another therapist who does not. Definitely ask up front if it is a concern for you.
–get referrals from friends. Word of mouth is a great way to know if a therapist is a good one (although what works for one won’t for another so it isn’t 100% reliable). Also ask what kind of therapy the person does and google the answer. You might find your rational mind likes Cognitive-Behavioral, or your tender soul yearns for Person-Centered approaches. Check it out.
–if you simply didn’t connect with them, please feel free to ask them for referrals. Tell them what you didn’t like, and what you might be looking for. A lot of people forget that for the therapist, this is a business. Therapists are your employees, you pay them for a service. If you’re not receiving that service, you have every right to look elsewhere for it. Therapists are good at giving referrals because this kind of thing happens, so please ask for one. They may know the perfect person for you. Do not be afraid to hurt the therapist’s feelings. That isn’t your concern, any more than it would be if your mechanic stopped fixing your car and still charged you for labor.
–therapists are obligated to let you know how to make a complaint about them if they violate your rights (at least, they are in my state, and that’s pretty standard). If you feel your rights have been violated, check your intake paperwork, there should be information on what your rights as a client are and how to proceed in making a complaint. Do that–the system exists to protect clients. I’m not here pretending all therapists are above reproach. Do not tolerate inappropriate behavior.
Reason Three: I don’t want to talk about my problems with a stranger
A variant of this is: I always feel judged by therapists.
–therapists are as a whole the least judgmental people on Earth. I can’t speak for all therapists everywhere but in my experience, shaming is not a part of the therapeutic process. I get therapy too, and everything I’ve been afraid to talk about has been met with gentle, warm regard. No therapist has ever told me “omg, I can’t believe you feel that way.” If you’ve had a bad experience like this, go back a step and find a therapist who isn’t like this. Most of them aren’t. In fact, it’s very likely that your struggles are not uncommon, and your story is not as weird or unusual as you think.
–therapists have heard it all and then some already. The hard stuff? They’ve heard it. The weird stuff? They’ve heard it. I know that the media is fascinated with the severely mentally ill and sociopaths but the reality is that most clients are just people struggling with stuff. Things you’re afraid to tell your friends and family are welcome in the therapist’s office and have likely been spoken there before.
–I think we have a tendency in this culture to believe we should “tough it out” when things get hard. I think we’ve all forgotten that connection is an essential part of human nature, and when we stray from our connections we feel trapped by the need to feel tough. We judge each other for being weak when we have emotional outbursts or cry in public. A therapist provides a safe space to explore the heavy side of emotions without having to feel like you’re dumping your shit all over the place. The therapist’s office is the perfect place to let go, allow yourself to emote without worrying about the fall out. The therapist is your employee, not your friend. You don’t have to ever worry about damaging the relationship because you’ve been a mess there.
–I’m not going to lie, it’s weird to talk about your problems with a stranger. The first session is always awkward and bizarre. That’s okay. Start anywhere, let them guide you through it. They have tons of practice, and they are aware of how weird it is. It’s weird for them too, when they go (good therapists get therapy). It is NOT weird for them when you come to them. It’s just their job, a job that they probably really like.
Reason Four: I don’t see how getting therapy will help anyway
See also: I’m secretly afraid they’ll tell me I can’t drink anymore (or smoke weed, or have sex, or whatever).
–therapy doesn’t fix things. Your life does remain your life outside the office. Therapy provides a place of refuge to practice skills that can enhance your experience. It helps you see things in a different way. It can teach you new skills and techniques for coping when things get hard.
–most therapists will not tell you to quit doing what you’re doing. If you’re afraid of being told that, they might ask you why that scares you so much. That’s a tough question, I know. Therapists will definitely ask you tough questions. They will not shy away from the hard places. They are not going to live your life for you, though. They cannot make you give anything up or take on anything. Everything you do in therapy and out is your choice. Hearing tough words can be difficult. Know that therapy happens over time, and with your consent at every step. You are never a prisoner in the office. You choose how far to go, and you decide when you’re done. They’re your employee, not your boss.
–they’re right a lot. It’s very annoying. They’re also wrong a lot and when they are, they like to be told. Hearing where they’ve made a mistake or misstep can help them do their job better. Tell them so.
–if they’re not helping you the way you need, ask them for different things. Tell them what you’re still missing. It’s their job to help you, allow them to help you the ways you want. You set the agenda for therapy, not them. They are behind you, supporting you. Tell them what you need and want. If you don’t know what you need and want, tell them that. All most therapists want is to be on your side, cheering for you. Talking to your therapist about therapy is very helpful, and can lead you toward what you want.
My final word on therapy is to give it a try if you can. Nothing bad will happen if you try it and decide it’s not for you. Don’t pass up a chance to feel better because of a bad experience or erroneous belief. Set your bar high for contentment in life. You are worth it.