Psychotherapy: Myths and Reality
The word “psychotherapy” is surrounded with a myriad of myths that often have nothing to do with the reality of this very specific process. Human beings have a tendency to fear the unfamiliar and to be anxious about something that we have only a vague idea about. That is why I would like to dispel the haze around the word “psychotherapy” and, hopefully, decrease the fear or anxiety that some people may experience when they encounter this concept.
Myth # 1. Psychotherapy is something vague, unclear, and indistinct. Nobody really knows what it is and every psychotherapist makes whatever he or she wants of it.
Reality. The fact that there are numerous definitions of the word “psychotherapy” largely contributes to the belief that psychotherapy is something vague. Moreover, because more than 400 different systems of psychotherapy have been identified to date, some people assume that each psychotherapist makes whatever he or she wants of this process.
However, despite the fact that the number of systems of psychotherapy is big and still growing, psychotherapy is a very specific process with several distinct characteristics. When looking at several definitions of the word “psychotherapy” from general (universal), specific (professional), and official (legal) sources (click here for definitions of psychotherapy), it is possible to single out the following three marked characteristics of this phenomenon:
- It is a systematic treatment
- It is aimed at change
- It involves a professional relationship
Although, all three of these characteristics are crucial in definition of psychotherapy, I would like to emphasize the last one. The vast majority of contemporary psychologists and psychotherapists would agree, that authentic, open, and trusting relationship between a client and a therapist is a necessary condition for psychotherapy to be successful. While often the process of psychotherapy involves a conversation between a client and a therapist, it is fundamentally different from a conversation between two friends. The main difference is in the fact that psychotherapy is not a mutual support, typical for friends, but a professional relationship, aimed at the change in client's life and elimination of a client's suffering.
Myth # 2. A psychotherapist reads the mind of another person.
Reality . You can say that a psychotherapist reads or sees clients' minds only figuratively. Literally, one of the main goals of a psychotherapist is not to read clients' minds, but to determine the patterns in clients' perceptions, emotional reactions, and behavior that cause them their emotional suffering.
Usually, a good therapist is able to determine the maladaptive patterns in clients' perceptions, emotional reactions, and behavior after having only a few sessions with a client. Then, the main goal of therapy shifts into helping a client see these patterns him or herself; figuratively speaking, helping a client read his or her own mind . After this is accomplished (which may take a while), the mutual work of a therapist and a client continues in the direction of helping a client change his or her maladaptive patterns of perception, emotional reactions, and behavior to more adaptive ones. These new patterns are likely to help a client overcome his or her emotional struggles, increase his or her self-confidence, encourage his or her self-exploration, and bolster any endeavor that a client may choose to undertake in his or her life.
Myth # 3. A psychotherapist gives advises on how to solve a problem, resolve a conflict, or overcome emotional distress.
Reality. Usually, psychotherapists do not give advices to their clients, and there is a reason for that. Firstly, in giving advices, a therapist offers his or her own way of solving a problem, his or her own perspective. This perspective reflects a therapist's own viewpoint and often has nothing to do with the viewpoint of a client.
Secondly, in giving advice, a therapist often deprives a client freedom of choice – the fundamental right of any human being. Finally, the main goal of a psychotherapist, as I believe, is not to give advices, but to help clients change, find their own ways, discover new resources in themselves, see themselves, others, and life itself, from a new perspective.
Myth # 4. A psychotherapist will cure me from my emotional suffering.
Reality . Psychotherapist cannot “cure” a client. Psychotherapy is the joint work of a psychotherapist and a client, the work that needs effort and devotion from both sides.
Whatever level of competence and talent a psychotherapist possesses, whatever desire and ability to help he or she reveals, if a client does not do anything in order to contribute to the joint process of his or her own emotional healing, a therapist is helpless. Therefore, in order for the therapy to be successful, a client and a therapist have to become equal, trusting each other in the joint task of easing the client's emotional suffering. And if psychotherapy is successful, a client will know it because he or she will feel substantially better.
Myth # 5. It does not matter whom I choose to be my therapist. I just need someone to listen to my problems.
Reality . It is extremely important whom you choose to be your therapist. I believe that one of the reasons for people often being disappointed and dissatisfied with the process and results of psychotherapy is the absence of the “match” between a client and a psychotherapist.
It is extremely important to find a therapist, who “matches” you, or in other words, with whom you can develop a trusting, open, and genuine relationship. This kind of relationship has been proven by many empirical studies to be a necessary condition for the process of psychotherapy to be successful.
Why is it important to find a “matching” therapist? Although there are certainly many competent and talented psychotherapists to whom you can safely bring the truths of your life, it is hard to find the one who will match specifically with you. As in any relationship, there is “interpersonal chemistry” involved in a relationship between a client and a therapist. As I mentioned above, your relationship with a therapist has to be genuine in order for psychotherapy to be successful. If the fit between you and a specific therapist does not work, the therapy is likely to be unsuccessful. Yet, you may benefit from working with other therapists and this therapist may be able to work effectively with other clients.
How to find a “matching” therapist? I believe that in order to find the right therapist for you, it is important to do the following two things:
- Shopping around: trying one or two sessions with several psychotherapists
- Listening to your vibes: asking yourself with which therapist I feel more safe, confident and motivated for change? With which therapist do I feel more genuine?
Myth # 6. I do not need psychotherapy because I read many self-help books and know everything that a psychotherapist may tell me.
Reality. It is very possible that you do not need psychotherapy. I believe that not every person does. However, I also believe that every person can benefit from psychotherapy. The following three criteria may help you indicate if you NEED psychotherapy:
- You have been suffering emotionally or physically for a long period of time.
- You have a poor support system or, in other words, you believe that you do not have people around you who are supportive and accepting
- Despite reading self-help books, meditating (praying), and having a strong support system, you still suffer emotionally or physically.
The next three criteria may help you predict if you are likely to BENEFIT from psychotherapy even if you do not NEED it:
- You want a change in your life.
- You are willing to take a risk and step into an unknown zone of discovering various new ways of looking at yourself, others, and life in general.
- You are willing to: (1) shop around for the right therapist and (2) trust your “gut feelings” in finding the “matching” psychotherapist
As for reading self-help books, it is wonderful if you read books on psychology, spirituality, and personal growth. I will gladly share with you the list of books that have had a profound influence on my own personal and professional development (See References).
In our current information-oriented era, the “I know it all” attitude is very common. “Knowing” is undoubtedly important. “Experiencing”, however, is different. “Experiencing in a genuine, non-judgmental professional relationship with another human being” is unique and special. Precisely, the presence of this experience differentiates the process of psychotherapy from a self-help process.