I recently had a conversation with a friend where she expressed concern about her boyfriend. I gently asked if she knew if he had attended or considered therapy. She said no, but also said that she didn’t know if that was necessary because she’s “a really good listener.” It occurred to me how mysterious the world of therapy is to those who aren’t as intimately acquainted with it as I am. The media has given us a very shallow image of therapy that does little to represent what therapy can actually be or the work it entails.
The type of therapy that we often see depicted in TV and movies is psychoanalysis, which typically entails countless hours of the patient sharing their history and the therapist nodding wisely. Psychoanalysis is based on analyzing a person’s childhood and drawing connections to the present. The way the media often depicts it, it looks like glorified (and expensive) listening, but just like any of the many types of therapy out there, it’s much more complicated than that. That’s why there are so many people who study and train and become certified to do it.
The core function of any type of therapist is to identify patterns in a patient’s thoughts or behavior that the patient is unable to see, and help to guide them towards a more healthy or reasonable perspective. It’s possible to get this kind of support from others outside of a therapeutic setting, but therapy is useful because the therapist can take a more objective view of you and your experience than people close to you. Therapists are specifically trained to help you fix problems in a healthy way! Your friends might offer great advice, but they probably won’t push you for growth in the way a therapist will.
I experienced change and healing through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), where my therapist had me verbalize my anxiety and stress, helped me pick out ways that I was exaggerating or distorting my reality (called cognitive distortions) and worked with me to reframe my thoughts. I’m a psychology major and have learned all about cognitive distortions in class, but that didn’t mean I could identify and change them in myself alone. Every one of the many formal therapeutic approaches offers different tools for all different people and situations — whatever you’re going through, there’s a type of therapy that could work for you.
That brings me to my next point: therapy is difficult. It’s not easy to talk about our stressors, our pain and our mistakes. It’s definitely not easy to have a therapist question you about them, bring up new points of view and ask you to consider the worst-case scenario (usually to suggest that it’s not as bad as you think, but still). Not only that, but therapy doesn’t stop when you leave the office. The only way to actually grow and change is to challenge yourself and put into practice the work you’ve done with your therapist. For me, this has meant intentionally putting myself into stressful situations to practice new strategies and prove that I can cope; having difficult conversations with friends or family that I prepared for with my therapist; and identifying and eliminating unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. I’ve cried a lot. Therapy is some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, but I only saw the benefits when I did the work.
Therapy is designed to meet the needs of an individual, which look different for every person and at different times in their lives. I felt hesitant about therapy for many years, both because I was picturing psychoanalysis and because I couldn’t see how it could help me. However, there’s no minimum requirement for therapy — anyone could benefit from a consult on handling stress, managing relationships, changing their perspective to help meet their goals or any of the other myriad possible outcomes. Do not underestimate the power of treatment because of media portrayals or stereotypes — therapy is a unique and challenging process, but it’s an extremely powerful tool, and it’s worth considering.
Authors for this piece are Allison Powers and the Active Minds E-board, a chapter of the organization at Occidental College. Active Minds is a national organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding illness and promote good mental health.