10 Stereotypes of Mental Health Professionals
So what exactly does a therapist look like, anyway?
Posted Aug 15, 2012
Each of us has at some point held ourselves back due to fear of how we will be perceived. Mental health professionals and coaches, for all their wisdom and training in human behavior, are not immune to that fear. Professionals in private practice have probably agonized for hours wondering how to express their professional image authentically in their marketing, in their consultations, in their appearance, at networking events, and what they disclose to their clients. If we feel that clients choose or reject us based on a photo or a blurb on a page, we might hang on every minutia of our presentation. And for all our fine-tuning, we still find ourselves up against some pretty strong stereotypes of what it means to be a helping professional.
On the other hand, as consumers we rely on professionals to present themselves accurately but also in a way that piques our interest. On top of that, we are influenced by our peers, our culture, advertising, the media, our personal history, our innate draw towards certain characteristics, and what sometimes seems like an endless number of choices. It’s a wonder we can ever come to any conclusions at all!
As a professional, has encountering any of the following stereotypes been cause for self-doubt or a more conservative public presentation of yourself? As a consumer, have any of these stereotypes affected your choice in hiring a professional? Try challenging each of the common stereotypes I’ve listed below:
10 Stereotypes of Helping Professionals
You’ve internalized all those Saturday Night Live skits! A client’s experience utilizing any helping profession can run the gamut of emotions. One session may feel warm and fuzzy, yet the next may be highly challenging. Much depends on that particular professional’s approach and philosophy. If you’re seeking the Dr. Phil tough-love approach, do your homework and choose a professional accordingly. There is someone for everyone.
To narrow down the many choices, visit Psychology Today’s Find A Therapist directory and look for profiles that feel like a good fit. If you’re a professional, the directory is a great place to see how other professionals creatively describe themselves. Release yourself from the pressures of conforming your image to a certain mold and combatting stereotypes. Concentrate on presenting yourself to your niche authentically—you owe that to yourself and your clients. (And remember: you're good enough, you're smart enough, and people like you!1)
2. A counselor/coach will change who I am, take away my casual enjoyment of life, turn me into a goal-setting machine.
Trained professionals learn early on to respect their clients’ choices and, except for a handful of specific situations, do not make decisions for their clients. Many therapists, for instance, use the phrase “client-centered” or “person-centered” to describe their approach. These professionals are dedicated to creating an environment that supports and honors the client’s individuality and freedom to make their own choices.
If ever you feel like the professional you’re working with is overstepping a boundary, leading you in a direction that doesn’t feel right, or is overwhelming you with their approach, you have the right and responsibility to discuss the situation and perhaps seek out someone who is a better fit.
These services, at their core, exist to serve their clients’ well-being. They don’t have a hidden agenda to change people or mold them like lumps of clay. Again, do your homework and choose a professional with whom you feel a connection.
3. Counseling or coaching is only for _______ people.
No matter what we might insert in that blank, we would be wrong—or right. Virtually anybody can benefit from these services, and they are not limited to any stereotype. You name it—presidents, celebrities, macho men, kindly grandparents, marriage therapists, happiness experts, Olympic athletes—anyone can benefit from the support and different perspective of a helping professional. It’s not limited to the pop-culture stereotypes of crazy people or damaged people.
4. Helping professionals must have perfect lives.
If you find one with a perfect life, please point me in their direction—I’d like to sit with them for a 50-minute hour! Nobody has a perfect life, nor should perfection be anybody’s goal.
Schlomo The Fictional Therapist, for example, is expertly trained in his profession and provides top-notch psychotherapy. He may be booked three months in advance because he’s such a phenomenon. But Schlomo has problems of his own. His marriage is on the rocks and he feels lonely when he gets home at night. Yet every morning Schlomo wakes up, arrives at his office, and once again passionately provides the best therapy around. It’s a good thing Schlomo experiences the range of human emotions just like the rest of us, otherwise he would be highly unrelatable to any of us.
5. Counselors and coaches are too happy/ultra-positive/lacking strong opinions/dull, etc.
See #4 above. And speaking again of Dr. Phil, that guy certainly does not lack for expression of emotion or opinion!
More often than not a mental health professional will bring a sense of equanimity to the session in order for the focus to be client-centered and not influenced by the therapist's own “stuff.” But the professionals I've met also like to laugh, act silly, get creative, talk about shared interests, and create a positive but "real" place for good work to occur.
6. These professionals are all-knowing and can provide their clients with all the right answers.
It is common for a therapist, coach, social worker, etc. to get asked “What should I do?”, “What’s the answer to this problem?”, “What do you suggest?”, or for some similar directive. It would be nice if someone could tell us exactly what to do in order to feel better or get to the next step in life, but those answers lie within us. The professional helps us find them.
It’s not to say there aren’t certain situations where a social worker or case worker will suggest next steps for getting a specific issue resolved but, generally speaking, a decision is ultimately up to the client. What the professional can do is provide a supportive and encouraging environment for making decisions, help brainstorm options, prepare for potential outcomes, examine why the decision making process feels difficult, help develop self-esteem and confidence, and a whole host of helpful interventions.
7. These professionals make their clients do strange rituals like putting them in a trance or making them walk on hot coals.
a) Many of the age-old scary interventions have gone the way of rusty archaic medical devices. Variations of hypnosis and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), for example, exist today as evidence-based, highly evolved interventions. But the black and white photos of insane asylums and shock therapy are relegated to museums.
b) Interventions that you don’t understand or feel comfortable with should be fully explained and all your questions answered. You might even do your own research to verify a particular intervention for effectiveness—just be wary of the inaccuracies perpetuated by internet “research”.
Firewalking happens to be in the news lately as a purported confidence-building technique gone awry. If you’re like me and have no intention of willingly placing your bare feet on burning coals, seek a professional who practices accordingly. For some, such rituals may feel exhilarating and mind expanding
c) Save for a very few legal situations, nobody can make you do something you don't want.
8. These professions aren’t legitimate, aren’t evidence-based, don’t require a college degree. Or, anybody can call himself a counselor/coach/social worker/etc.
Some professional titles like counselor and social worker are regulated and require licensure and training from an accredited institution (a minimum of Bachelor's to perform at some capacities, but generally a Master's or Doctorate to obtain full licensure). But much depends on the requirements of the regulating body or jurisdiction of that particular professional. A profession such as life coaching does not currently require specific education or licensure but does have training institutions, professional membership organizations, and professional registrations. This should not suggest any one of these professions is better than the other—they are each different, each respected for the type of service they provide, and each striving to offer the best practices in their respective field. As consumers we must do our homework and choose wisely.
9. Counselors and therapists use too much “psychobabble.”2
Do cogntive behavioral interventions and dialectical behavioral therapies make your eyes glaze over?
As with any profession that exists in the world, a helping professional may possess a certain style or vernacular associated with their profession. However, they should also be able to communicate warmly, effectively, and respectfully with their clients. I feel that, for the most part, the helping professions have evolved to be less stuffy and less psychobabble-y. If you have to meet with a few different professionals before you find one that feels like a good fit, that’s perfectly acceptable. Ask for an initial phone chat or in-person consultation to get a sense for his or her style.
10. The professional I’ve chosen or been assigned to doesn't look right. She/he is too young/old/hairy/boring/eccentric/Freudian/wears too much beige/has a stick up his butt...
A former counseling colleague of mine - a popular one, I might add - was covered in tattoos and called himself an "inked shrink." The variety you’ll find within these professionals matches the variety within humanity as a whole. In other words, helping professionals are just like you and me. They have tattoos, they have disabilities, they get divorces, they dream of being astronauts, they get depressed, they sing karaoke, and they have bad hair days. The stereotype within which you or I have placed them does not make them lesser abled at their profession. A young therapist may be wise for her years and more insightful than a seasoned therapist 20 years her senior. Go in with an open mind and be pleasantly surprised.
Do stereotypes and worry about how you're perceived hold you back from expressing yourself authentically? Do your stereotypes of others prevent you from meeting or accepting new people? Just remember that we are all one human family. Today, practice staying open to possibilities.
Enjoy reading about mental health careers? Check out my my article, 23 Mental Health Professionals Interviewed About Their Jobs
1 "Daily Affirmation With Stuart Smalley". Retrieved 8/15/12 from http://snltranscripts.jt.org/91/91asmalley.phtml
2Psychobabble: Fast talk and quick cure in the era of feeling by Richard Dean Rosen. 1977
Brad Waters, MSW provides career coaching and consultation to clients by phone nationwide. He specializes in working with non-traditional career seekers, entrepreneurs, creatives, introverts, and Millennials. Brad helps people clarify their career direction and take action on life transitions. He holds a Master's degree in social work from the University of Michigan and is a preferred career coach for the University of Michigan Alumni Association. More info at BradWatersCoaching.com
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