Bethany Donovan, MA, LMHC, MHP
Who Needs Therapy Anyway?
There are a lot of unhelpful myths about therapy which have, unfortunately, survived the test of time.
Many people still believe that one must be struggling with severe mental illness, addiction, psychosis, or some combination of these in order to seek out counseling. Some believe that their issues are “not serious enough” and that someone else would be more deserving of the counselor’s time.
Some people grew up in families where “we don’t talk about that stuff,” and sweeping the issues under the rug, or pretending to be the “perfect” family were the modus operandi. Or maybe you know a family member or friend (or a few) who have insisted that they “turned out just fine,” and you then wondered what their definition of “fine” is. The unspoken (or spoken) belief was often that therapy is for “really crazy people.” I hear it all too often.
I truly believe we all need some help from time to time. Life is intense—I affectionately call it being “in the arena,” a reference to first century AD Roman gladiator games—and so few of us get out unscathed that I’m not sure anyone really does; life knocks us down, and then kicks us when we’re down, from time to time. No one is exempt from this.
It’s time to acknowledge this truth and stop pretending we don’t ever have weak moments, because we’re all just human. It’s time to stop perpetuating the antiquated, shame-provoking beliefs that prevent so many from admitting that they can’t do it on their own, or that they feel lost, down, and need help.
Fortunately for all of us, the tide is turning in terms of how therapy is viewed overall. People who have never tried or considered mental health counseling before are beginning to dip their toes in the therapy water, so to speak. This makes my therapist heart so, so happy.
A great deal of credit is due to the younger generations (from what I have observed in my work and in my own life) for transforming seeking out mental health care from taboo to socially acceptable, and even encouraged! Millennials and Gen Z have really done a ton of groundwork in making therapy okay to pursue and talk about. You all are awesome. Thank you.
Hats off to you as well, Gen X and Baby Boomers, who have chosen to be in therapy and bravely chosen to take care of yourselves against potentially immense social and cultural bias, especially in the decades when it was not so common, and it was definitely not something to talk about. You’re setting an example for others that it’s okay—that it’s normal, like going to a doctor or dentist—to seek out mental health care. Thank you.
So that leads us to the main question: who needs therapy anyway?
Well, I may be a bit biased (*ahem* I am a therapist, after all), but I believe that we could all use therapy at different times in our lives, simply for the fact that some of the most important things that come out of therapy are ideally going to be greater self-awareness, greater mindfulness, greater self-understanding, and overall positive growth as a human being.
Greater understanding and patience with oneself lead to greater understanding and patience with others.
When we get to know ourselves deeply, when we learn self-compassion and unlearn the intensely negative, self-critical thought patterns, and when we can unpack, process, and let go of our painful pasts, we can then strive to be the best version of ourselves (from a place of kindness, rather than from a place of feeling “not good enough”).
This means we become better friends, partners, parents, and neighbors. Self-growth and healing are not just for self; they are for everyone we touch in our daily lives. The world could use a whole lot more emotionally healthy, patient, compassionate, mindful, self-aware, and grounded people, am I right? Just imagine…
Not only that, but it seems that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis.
From the individual suffering to the collective suffering that we’ve all experienced in the last few years, there are a lot of folks hurting out there right now. Hurting is an insufficient word to express that pain, I know. More like devastated, right?
It’s evident in the increase of explicitly expressed frustration and aggression in public. I’ve also seen the last few years bring out some real beauty in people. Yet, there is still immense suffering.
That being said, there is no suffering that is too small to ask for help with. I’m serious. It’s okay.
I know that far too many of us have been conditioned to believe that asking for help is weakness, and that being totally independent is some measure of the strength of our character.
In my humble opinion, I believe that asking for help is one sure sign of tremendous inner strength, because it requires vulnerability and quieting our pride, both of which can be very hard to access internally when we’re struggling.
If being willing to feel our deeper, more significant (and possibly painful) emotions were easy and pleasant, we would all be doing it willingly, all day, every day. We love feeling joy, excitement, pleasure, love, belonging, and all the really “good” emotions, but even a whiff of a “bad” emotion, and we run for the hills! We escape through TV, smart phone screens, drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling, and so much more. We just don't know how the hell to be with our pain and know that we're going to survive it.
It seems to me that for human beings, physical pain is far easier than emotional pain to sit with and feel. So really, if we’re being fair, I think it’s clear that being willing to look at painful truths, memories, and emotions for the sake of growth and healing is a tremendously courageous thing to do.
No shame. It’s okay to reach out for help. It’s okay to be the first in your family to do it. It’s okay go to counseling now, even if you used to shame others for going before. It’s okay if you’re older and unsure about trying it for the first time. It’s okay if you’re young and scared and need help. (In the state of Washington, you can seek out mental health treatment on your own if you’re 13 years of age or older.)
If you’re thinking about trying out therapy but are unsure, it’s okay to call or email a few potential therapists to set up introductory calls. If the therapist match doesn’t feel right, it’s okay to find someone else. If therapy doesn’t feel right for you, you can change your mind. It’s better to start and give it a shot than never try.
I encourage you to leave the old notions about therapy in the dust and reach out for help. There is so much to be gained in the richness of the process that is healing and forward momentum; there is little that can compare with the joy of finding yourself, feeling empowered, and knowing your own resilience.
What do you have to lose? Start today. You just might thank yourself for it later.