June 6, 2019
“I’m sorry for what you have been through.”
This is the very first thing my therapist said to me. Before we talked about working together. Before she explained how therapy could help. Before she offered any advice.
I will never forget that moment because it was the first time I truly felt “seen.” Up until that point, everyone with whom I shared my story responded with either a) shock or b) solutions. Neither of which felt great. Finding someone who understood how to hold space for my pain, guide me through my healing, and empower me to reclaim my joy would prove more life-changing than I ever imagined.
Unfortunately, due to the stigma that still exists around mental health, not as many people who would benefit from therapy are seeking help.
Here are six misconceptions about starting therapy to help stop the stigma.
There’s often an assumption that people who go to therapy have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. That’s simply not true. Many people seek out therapy because they’ve suffered a traumatic experience, are unhappy at work, want help setting and achieving goals, or desire a more positive relationship with themselves and others.
According to Rachel O’Neill, Ph.D. LPCC-S, and Ohio-based Talkspace therapist, “the biggest stigma that is still associated with therapy is the idea that something has to be wrong with a person in order to seek help.” It simply doesn’t — sometimes it’s important to gain and master skills when your relatively stable so that you can use them when things are more tumultuous. “Many people begin therapy in order to feel more confident and comfortable in their lives,” she shared.
In a society that glorifies individualization, you are conditioned to think that seeking help is a sign of weakness. Believing you have to do everything yourself (and do it well) may explain why research shows that perfectionism is at an all-time high. Perfectionism can significantly impact your mental health and has been shown to be associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation.
I’ve had to rewrite this script myself. Since starting therapy, I’ve learned that asking for help and investing in my mental health and wellbeing is just as responsible as going to the gym. You would never look down on someone who goes to the gym to stay physically fit, so why do it for someone who goes to therapy to stay mentally fit?
People often wait for the “right” time to seek out therapy. However, oftentimes our excuses for not finding a therapist such as time, money, or not knowing where to start are just sneaky ways to avoid taking a hard look at our unhappiness.
O’Neill finds that people begin therapy when they reach a point in their lives where they decide they need to make some sort of change. “For some, that includes deciding that it is the right time for them to begin therapy,” O’Neill said. “For others, maybe it is the fact that their pain and suffering has become too much — and they decide they might want some help dealing with things like sadness and anxiety.”
Many people see therapy as “fixing” problems. While I too assumed my therapist would jump straight into “fixing” me so I could feel better, I quickly learned that therapy is much more empowering than simply making your pain go away. In addition to feeling better, I started expanding my emotional capacity and developing the skills I needed to facilitate my own healing.
As Dr. O’Neill shared, “Your therapist will give you tools to help you feel better equipped to deal with stress within your life.” This is why therapy is more powerful and useful than many think.
We all want our family and friends to understand us and support our decisions. However, many still have antiquated ideas of what therapy is and why someone would seek it out. Remember that you don’t have to justify seeking therapy to anyone.
As O’Neill shared, “If you do feel like it’s something you want to talk about, then I think being open and straightforward can be helpful.” There’s no need to be ashamed of your mental health, just as you wouldn’t be ashamed of a broken arm. “You don’t necessarily need to share why you’re seeking therapy,” she added. “Instead, you can simply share that you’re seeking therapy to feel better equipped to deal with life stressors.”
While your therapist may have more professional training, you are still the expert on your own life. You get to decide if therapy is right for you, if a particular therapist is right for you, and if the advice you receive is right for you.
If you are considering therapy, Dr. O’Neill suggests asking yourself the following questions:
At the end of the day, therapy is about feeling like the best version of you. Only you know what that feels like and what that person must do to get there. So go forth, dig deep, and let yourself imagine what it would feel like to be living life to the fullest.
This article was originally published by Talkspace on June 6, 2019.