I had a chance the other night to watch one of my all time favorite flicks ‑ “Ordinary People.” I especially appreciate the character portrayed by actor Judd Hirsch. As a psychotherapist, Hirsch is caring, empathic, encouraging, and supportive. His character epitomizes to me what psychotherapy is supposed to be all about. And I’ve always hoped that his performance dispelled some of the misconceptions and myths about psychotherapy that many people operate with.
“Psychotherapy” is often used as a generic term which includes under its umbrella counseling, psychoanalysis, couple therapy, family therapy, pastoral counseling, and so on. Different approaches and schools‑of-thoughts have chosen different labels, sometimes to describe the exact same thing. Psychotherapy can be provided by a number of professions: psychologists, social workers, counselors, ministers, or psychiatrists. Simply having a degree in one of these fields, however, does not mean a person is necessarily also able to do psychotherapy. That requires special training and experience which may or may not be included in these areas of study.
With all that in mind, I’d like to briefly talk about some of the more common misconceptions about psychotherapy.
- “Only ‘crazy’ people need therapy.” I’ve used therapy twice in my life, both times to deal with particular places where I felt stuck.
- Actually, almost all certified therapists are required to go through their own therapy. In general, therapy is for anyone who feels stuck, or who is getting overwhelmed by the problems coming their way.
- “All therapy involves lying on a couch and ‑ ‘free associating.’” Also not true. Though we have couches in our offices (and may take an occasional nap on them) they are for sitting. And though some therapy does make use of free association, other therapy can be very directed and problem centered.
- Often therapy, especially relationship therapy, is like getting some coaching (though “coaching” is not therapy). A coach has the training and skill to stand back and see things a bit more clearly. She or he is on the sidelines and not caught up in the game.
- “Therapy takes forever.” Actually the average is about twenty sessions spread out over four or five months. It all depends on what our goals are and how hard we are willing to work toward them.
- “Therapy is expensive.” Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. We need to shop around and find someone who is competent, who we feel comfortable with, and who we can afford. The best therapists are often not the most expensive; on the other hand, cheap therapy may not be a bargain.
- “Therapists tend to be cold and impersonal.” Not the good ones. Therapy at its heart is a healing relationship. That means the therapist will care about us and our concerns. He or she will help us develop strategies to deal with our issues and problems.
- A good therapist, however, will not get over-involved with us (or be more than our therapist). And a good therapist will not try to solve our problems for us, but rather assist us in coming up with our own solutions.
- “Psychotherapeutic medication is a quick and easy way to solve our problems.” Sorry, as with most things in life, solving our problems is seldom quick and easy.The various psychotherapeutic medications used deal primarily with defects in our body chemistry. With major mental disorders or acute crises medication can be of significant help. However, even in these situations psychotherapy is often necessary as well. The medication simply brings us to the point where we can work on our problems. It doesn’t solve them. Most of the time the emotional and relational problems we face have to be dealt with the hard way: one step at a time.
Hopefully, the above has “demythologized” psychotherapy a bit. If you have other questions, or if you are wondering if psychotherapy can be of help to you, talk to a physician, minister, or other professional you trust. Ask them about psychotherapists in your area who they recommend.
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