Why go to therapy? Huffington Post recently published an article titled, “8 Signs You Should See a Therapist,” which points out that “while one in five American adults suffer from some form of mental illness, only about 46-65 percent with moderate-to-severe impairment are in treatment.” The article noted that some problems that don’t qualify as severe mental illness can benefit from treatment and illuminated the symptoms that may warrant psychotherapy:
- Everything you feel is intense
- You’ve suffered a trauma and you can’t stop thinking about it
- You have unexplained and recurrent headaches, stomachaches or a run-down immune system
- You’re using a substance to cope
- You’re getting bad feedback at work
- You feel disconnected from previously beloved activities
- Your relationships are strained
- Your friends have told you they’re concerned
I don’t have a problem with any of the above. If you’re experiencing anything on that list, therapy may be a good choice for you.
But I do have a problem with two issues raised by this post.
The first is the wording. Any time I hear someone say their friend or loved one “should” go to therapy it sounds like a condemnation, and that’s contributing to the stigma that surrounds psychotherapy. Too many contentious arguments end with the shaming comment “You should go to therapy!” which is shorthand for “I think you’re crazy, go pay someone to fix you.” This isn’t a thoughtful recommendation of a valid path to health, it’s an insult. Many rebel against this slam as a way to save face; compliance would feel like losing the argument.
By the way, we generally don’t end up doing things we “should” do; we do things we want to. Consult anyone who ever made a New Year's resolution for an example. You’ll have a better experience in therapy (and probably better results) if you go because you want to learn, grow, and heal, not because someone else thinks you should.
The second problem I have with this article is the focus on pathology (a.k.a. the disease model). Indeed, therapy is effective for helping painful experiences become tolerable. It’s a proven method for changing harmful thinking, relational, and behavioral patterns. But it’s also used to make good lives great.
For comparison, look at two ways you manage your physical health: a visit to your M.D. versus working out at the gym. You go to a physician to treat a medical problem: You feel symptoms and seek treatment to return to your “normal” state. By contrast, you go to the gym to get healthy, achieve a higher physical potential, and generally make a good life better. Two different approaches to health, one focused on illness and the other wellness. Therapy is unique in that it acts as the psychological equivalent of both the M.D. and the gym. We go to therapy to treat problems as well as improve an already decent life.
Would we say that people who work out must be sick or they wouldn’t need it? No. But we still hold on to this antiquated idea that you must be crazy if you go to therapy. Attitudes like the one shown in the HuffPo article are only perpetuating the medical model of therapy — that you go to therapy to treat an illness. In fact, therapy is just as useful in the wellness model of getting healthy, achieving potential, and making a good life better.
In the vein of the wellness model, I present eight more reasons to try therapy:
- You want to love and accept yourself – Many people have difficulty with this, and they’re not necessarily depressed or afflicted with another mental disorder. Therapy can help you explore roadblocks to self-esteem and teach you practical ways to make your happiness a priority.
- You want to make a good marriage great – Many relationships are functional, but are no longer fun. Couples counseling can help improve communication and strategize ways to return passion and excitement to a marriage.
- You want to be a fantastic parent – Many of us, despite our own objections, revert to parenting patterns we observed in our own childhood. Therapy can help you get out of this rut and become the parent you want to be (and your children need).
- You want to thrive in your career – You say you’re unhappy where you are, why aren’t you striving for something different? Is fear, hard work, or interpersonal conflict holding you back? Therapy can be the catalyst for healthy change in your career.
- You want to understand your purpose in life – Many therapists love to dive in and help you find out who you are on a deep level, helping you uncover the passions buried under the busyness of life. A desire for this time to self-reflect may mean that…
- You want one hour each week to focus completely on yourself – Therapy is a course where you are the subject matter. You can explore yourself, go deeper into your current thoughts and feelings, or just sit and “be” for a while. This vital practice has become a forgotten art in our world today.
- You want to let go and forgive – Holding a grudge isn’t a diagnosable condition, but it does have serious physical, emotional, and relational consequences. Through therapy, you can learn to resolve these issues for yourself and move on.
- You want a place to practice assertiveness, expressing emotion, or anything else – Therapy is a laboratory for you to explore, experiment, and practice behaviors that are scary in the rest of life. Shy people can practice confrontation. Detached people can experiment with expressing emotion. When you’ve tried this out a few times in session, you may be ready to take it out into the world.
I’m probably forgetting a few dozen other helpful reasons, but I hope you get the point: Therapy helps treat serious problems, but it offers much more. If we can move past the medical model myopia that contributes to therapy stigma, perhaps many more people will come to understand therapy’s benefits first hand.
Hat tip to Dr. Shaun Wehle, Indiana’s finest psychologist/personal trainer, for the inspiration for this piece.