I’ve been seeing the same talk therapist for over 9 years now, and it’s been one of the most simultaneously rewarding and challenging relationships I’ve ever had.
His office is small, lightly decorated with office attributes like a bookshelf of textbooks, a spattering of diplomas, and a filing cabinet complete with a pair of magnets – one of Freud, the other Jung. There’s even a giant money tree in one corner all tangled around itself, like a botanical metaphor for the interconnected nature of the mind.
For my therapy sessions I can sit in a high-backed chair for a face-to-face convo, or I can lie down on the quintessential couch for some good ol’ fashioned head-shrinking. One of the first things I struggled with in talk therapy was which one to pick. While the chair seemed a conversational choice, let’s be honest: this isn’t really a let’s-meet-for-coffee-and-catch-up type of conversation. The couch, on the other hand, seemed reserved for “crazy” or helpless people – at least that’s what the movies depicted.
Which one would you choose?
Over time I realized that a lot my angst about which to choose was just a small symptom of an ingrained stigma I have about talk therapy and mental health – my own in particular. Which choice – the couch or the chair – would be the less “crazy” one?
Consider for a moment how readily we speak about a visit to our doctor for an issue related to our physical health: anything from migraines to back pain to sports-related injuries. These are all health-related events we don’t think twice about sharing with others – even complete strangers. Seeing a doctor for therapy and mental health reasons is a much more, shall we say, private matter. And like all private matters, there’s bound to be some misconceptions, false assumptions, and myths.
5 Common Myths about Talk Therapy
Myth: Talk therapy is for unstable or “crazy” people.
Do I really need to debunk this myth? I feel like we’ve come very far in terms of removing the stigma around talk therapy. At the same time, I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t been hesitating for weeks to write this and post it for all the world to see.
The thing is, though, talking in itself is a therapeutic process that each of us do every day. It’s how we translate what happens up here, in our head, to the world around us and all the people in it. A huge part of my therapeutic process has centred around language: the words we use to communicate (either to other people or our selves) play a huge role not only in how we understand the world, but also how we understand ourselves within that world.
Talking isn’t something reserved for a 45-minute session with a therapist. It’s life in itself.
Myth: Talk therapy is meant to be easy.
On the contrary, it’s meant to be hard work – you are effectively rewiring your brain! Picture all those millions of movies you’ve seen with the person who was once paralyzed, and then – with the help of a physiotherapist – learns to walk through sweat, gritted teeth, a lot of swear words, and tears of frustration.
Talk therapy can sometimes feel like that too.
I often leave sessions feeling nauseated, confused, sweating, and more anxious than I was when I walked in. This is because I am working at something, trying to figure it out, lifting up stones to see what’s underneath them. I am effectively reshaping my thinking, and it isn’t something that happens over the course of an hour – it’s something I work at and which slowly begins to shift after years and years of poking and prodding it.
(As a disclaimer I would like to mention that you must always listen to your instincts, given that not all therapists are created equal. Some are better than others, and there’re even a few rotten eggs in the bunch – as is the case with the human race. As a teenager I had a therapist try to convince me that “choosing” to be gay would ultimately lead to a life of loneliness and desperation, and when I argued this point he accused me of being “so fucking stubborn.” In later years I discovered that this man had a severe drinking problem and other issues of his own – clearly. I don’t offer this example to scare you off, but more as a reminder that therapists are human too, and can be flawed as a result. With that said, use your judgment to separate therapeutic feelings of discomfort from genuine assholery.)
Myth: Your therapist has all the answers.
Therapy isn’t about providing you with answers, it’s about leading you to find the answers that work for you – which are primarily all up there, in your noodle. Talk therapy immerses you into a situation where you must look to yourself for answers, and it’s only then that you realize just how often you depend on the world, out there, to define you.
During a therapy session, it’s just you, your self, and a blank canvas in front of you (i.e., the therapist). This can be extremely frustrating for a while (I still know NOTHING about my therapist on a personal level), but eventually you can learn to accept the situation for what’s it meant to be – and when you do, your mind starts to empty out and answers start bubbling up to the surface.
It’s really quite a profound experience.
Myth: Your therapist has a secret agenda.
I was always a bit torn between being afraid my therapist had some sort of agenda behind what we were talking about (What are you writing on that bloody notepad of yours!?); and then, conversely, fearing that in fact he had absolutely no agenda (Maybe he’s just doodling…?).
That can be a confusing and frustrating unknown. But hey, isn’t life about learning to be comfortable within unknowns?
While there are all different sorts of talk therapy – some of which can be more conversational in nature (mine is somewhat “strict” psychotherapy) – for the most part the direction of my sessions is entirely up to me. My therapist makes notes, identifies patterns in what I’m saying, and offers ideas or observations – but there’s no definitive direction he’s steering me in. I’m in the driver’s seat.
Myth: Therapy is trying to change who you truly are.
I’ve always been a really creative person. Writing, in particular, is my chosen form of creative expression, and for as long as I can remember I’ve been completely captivated by stories and everything that goes into making a story.
Some of the most beautiful pieces of art throughout history have spawned from a need for individuals to express powerful human emotions, like pain, fear, and sadness. For a while I was afraid that my therapy would “cure” me of these states, to the point where I’d no longer feel the need to express myself creatively because I’d be content ho-humming all day long.
But the exact opposite of that happened.
As feelings of depression, anxiety, confusion, fear began to dissipate, the creative parts of my core became stronger and more pronounced. I’m able to think more freely and with greater clarity. I’ve learned to concentrate long enough to come full circle around something that inspired me and see all sides of it, rather than getting stuck on the surface.
Talk therapy helped me to realize a very important lesson: that prolonged feelings of depression or anxiety are not part of who I am as a creative individual, and in fact those states of being mask me from truly understanding who I am: an individual with a series of choices.
Some of those choices are big: How will I choose to live in this world?
While others are small: What’s it going to be: the chair or the couch?
But they’re all equally significant.
Which one will you choose?