No one ever hears a friend say "I have a doctor's appointment" and immediately thinks that they must be rich or weak or crazy. It's generally the right and less stubborn thing to see a professional when our body is injured or feels "atypical."
But if someone wants to see a therapist for their mental health, people aren't as uncritical.
I talk very openly about the fact that I see a therapist. While my friends and family are mostly supportive, they, along with the general population, still ask questions or make comments that remind me that going to therapy is not as normalized or as acceptable as I had hoped.
I know my loved ones mean well, and I consider myself lucky; but there's still that millisecond between saying the variation of words "I see a therapist" and the polite (albeit usually misinformed) reply where the stigma lives. All the immediate thoughts and questions translate to a slight change in demeanor and discomfort reflected in their eyes.
This stigma lives in the darkness of this millisecond, along with the overshadowing fear, lack of awareness and basic ignorance. Its complexities need to be broken down and broken apart so we can start from the beginning and rewire our thoughts on mental health and therapy.
So in an attempt to shed light on the truth about seeing a therapist and raise awareness, here is a list of 14 things you shouldn't assume about people who go to therapy:
1. We're weak.
Going to therapy is actually a very courageous and strong thing to do. I've had people tell me that it must be nice to spend only an hour per week "dealing with my problems." It is nice. It's also the most emotionally exhausting hour of my week. One has to be open to facing every corner of their mind and heart and be completely, unabashedly open about fears, truths and experiences in order to really get the most of what a therapist can offer. That requires strength -- strength to explore your own emotional and mental limits and boundaries, strength to be guided in directions you wouldn't go and strength to learn and actively seek a better place.
2. We're crazy.
Whether a therapy-goer is suffering from a mental illness or seeking help for overwhelming feelings/thoughts, "crazy" is never an appropriate term and only increases the stigma that causes some people to never seek the help and peace they so very much deserve and/or need.
3. We're wasting our money.
We all spend our money on and prioritize things that are important to us. The way one might spend money on a personal trainer to help them reach or maintain a level of physical fitness, I see the money I spend on a therapist as an investment in my health and my personal development.
4. We're rich.
Yes, therapy can be expensive, but there are a number of ways to pay for therapy. Most therapists, in my research, are willing to work with clients on a sliding scale if insurance isn't an option, and a lot of companies and schools provide (sometimes a certain amount of) free sessions to employees/students.
5. We don't have a healthy network of loved ones.
Going to therapy can't be conflated with the idea that a therapy-goer doesn't have solid relationships. Therapy is not a replacement for friendship, and a therapist is not a friend. Friendships are two-way streets, which can cause a very biased view of experiences and circumstances; therapy is a one-sided relationship with a professional who has the skills and expertise to guide and help you through your struggles and needs.
Furthermore, seeing a therapist does not mean that someone has a bad relationship with his or her parents. Yes, at a young age we learn basic skills and views on relationships, our needs and the world, but not everything that happens for the rest of our life can be pinpointed to our relationship with our parents. Which leads me to my next point...
6. We talk about you.
Don't ask us what our therapist knows about you. Most likely, you never even come up, but even if you do, it's none of your business. Also, don't ever degrade our feelings in a conversation or argument by saying something along the lines of, "You're probably going to tell your therapist about this, aren't you?" Therapy is a sacred space for people to talk about their relationships and feelings about whomever and whatever. If we do bring it up to our therapist, there's good reason; it's not a gossip session.
7. There was a very clear, definitive breakdown or experience leading us to therapy.
There's usually always a catalyst for change. Whether it's a traumatic experience or strained relationships or being overwhelmed in daily life, there are a number of reasons why people seek out therapy. There's not a readily available list of answers to choose from that makes it "OK" to see a therapist. This confines therapy-goers to certain labels and boxes. It's always OK to see a therapist, and it's important to note that the reason for being in therapy can evolve -- maybe starting because of a certain experience and evolving into the exploration of another situation.
8. We're in a bad "place."
One does not need to be in a "bad" or "dangerous" place to see a therapist. As mentioned in the previous point, there's usually a catalyst for deciding to go, but it could be a culmination of experiences or feelings, too. I'm a happy, healthy 20-something professional whose work, relationships and hobbies are not suffering, and I happily attend my therapy sessions every week. Why? As I've said, the reason for being in therapy evolves and at this moment, I still feel like I have so much to learn about myself, how I handle certain feelings and situations and my needs.
9. There's a set time frame for being in therapy.
There's a lot of good debate surrounding the appropriate length of therapy. But personally, I've been in therapy for six months and counting -- I'm very happy with my therapist but do believe that there will come a point where I won't have to go as frequently. I have a friend who has been going for over two years, and I know someone who went for two months, twice a week for guidance through a traumatic experience. The length of therapy and the frequency of visits is something one works out with their therapist, having full control of whether or not to stop at any point.
10. We can't let go of things.
Therapy isn't synonymous with being unable to let go of the past. Often, being able to tackle present struggles requires us to discuss past experiences, but that doesn't mean we are harboring our past, it just means that we have to revisit it to really dissect and understand certain connections and underlying problems we are having presently.
11. You should feel sad for us... or scared of us, or any emotion that you wouldn't have felt before we admitted to being someone who goes to therapy.
This just enables the stigma surrounding seeking help. Don't look at us or talk to us differently because we've admitted to seeing a therapist. There's no shame in seeing a therapist and there's nothing wrong with seeking help or guidance from a professional. If you have to feel an emotion, be proud of us. Applaud us on our choice to work on ourselves and cater to our mental well being.
12. We're on medication.
Due to a quick fix mentality our society has learned, it's common for people to assume that therapy-goers are also on medication. But this isn't always the case and not all of us are on medication. Yes, there are illnesses that warrant the need for medication, but therapy provides people with the coping and problem-solving skills needed to live a healthier, happier life.
13. Our therapist tells us what to do and what to think.
Don't ever counter something we've said with a snarky, "Oh, did your therapist tell you that?" Seeing a therapist doesn't mean we've relinquished control over our own thought process and feelings. We're still human beings who, at the end of the day, will rely on our own basic instincts and knowledge to make decisions and choices we deem fit. A therapist is there to help us uncover our strengths, work through our struggles and help lead us to a healthier, happier life not tell us what to do.
14. Our therapist can help you/your friend.
While I commend anyone who is looking and wants to see a therapist, therapists are not one size fits all. It's important to search directories and filter for your needs and wants. I'll admit that it's hard. Finding a therapist is exhausting in itself and can feel very daunting for anyone who is already hesitant. However, a lot of therapists will provide a brief consultation, and most will also be receptive to an email exchange so you can figure out if they will be a good fit for you.
My hope is that by breaking down these common misconceptions of people who go to therapy, we'll be one step closer to being a society that seeks help when we want and need to without stigma... and that I can talk about seeing a therapist as seamlessly as I can talk about my doctor's appointment next week.