Myths & Misconceptions About Counseling & Psychotherapy

womanCounseling and psychotherapy can be powerful methods of healing and growth. They can help us work through challenges, increase our self-awareness, clarify our values, and strengthen our relationships.

However, while our society is becoming more and more open to this idea, there are unfortunately still some common myths and misconceptions about counseling and psychotherapy that discourage people from seeking help when they could really benefit from it.

To get a better sense of what counseling actually is — and is not — let’s explore and unpack some of these myths together.

(A quick side note: I tend to use the words “counseling” and “psychotherapy” pretty interchangeably. Some people use these words differently — with “psychotherapy” referring to treatments for diagnosable psychological disorders and “counseling” referring to a more growth-oriented process. However, I find that the line between the two is often fuzzy and the distinction doesn’t tend to be all that useful. So, at least here on the blog, I tend to use these words to mean the pretty much same thing — a process that is unique for each individual and which focuses both on addressing challenges and overall emotional wellbeing.)

Myth #1: People who go to counseling or therapy are “weak,” “crazy,” or otherwise flawed in some way.

woman on bridgeIn my experience, this is probably the biggest myth that keeps people from seeking help. We may believe that we “should” be able to solve our problems all on our own, and that reaching out to someone else — especially a professional — would mean admitting defeat. Asking for help from a counselor or therapist somehow feels shameful. It feels like it might mean there’s something really wrong with us.

Why do we believe this?

It’s true that there are a lot of cultural and media messages that support this view. And these messages are powerful. But often, they’re just plain wrong.

In reality, the vast majority of people who go to counseling are ordinary, everyday people struggling with ordinary, everyday problems. They may be having difficulty adjusting to major life changes — like becoming a parent, becoming an empty-nester, getting married or divorced, starting a new job, or moving to a new country and struggling with culture shock.

They may be experiencing problems in their relationships, having trouble managing stress, feeling overwhelmed by self-criticism and self-doubt, struggling with body image concerns, or dealing grief or loss.

The fact that these struggles are common — even ordinary — does not mean that they are not painful and challenging. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we somehow “should” be able to figure it out all on our own. Perhaps we could. (Or perhaps we could at least soldier on.) But why not use all the tools at our disposal — including asking for help from a counselor or therapist — to work through them more effectively and improve our lives?

Contrary to what some people think, asking for help does not make a person weak. In fact, it takes courage and a certain amount of emotional maturity to acknowledge that we don’t know all the answers and to reach out and ask for some guidance. Being willing to ask for help is a way of taking responsibility and doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves.

Asking for help does not make a person weak. In fact, it takes courage and a certain amount of emotional maturity to acknowledge that we don’t know all the answers and to reach out and ask for some guidance. Being willing to ask for help is a way of taking responsibility and doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves. And in so many ways, that’s the very definition of strength — not weakness.

And in so many ways, that’s the very definition of strength — not weakness.

Related to this first myth is often a concern about what other people might think if they knew that we were “talking to someone.” Even if we think it could be helpful, we might fear that others would judge us or see us as weak or fragile.

It’s true that there are some judgmental people in the world. There are some people who buy into this myth.

But most people I know who’ve sought counseling actually find that other people in their lives are incredibly supportive of their decision. Their friends may even admire their courage and their willingness to make their own wellbeing a priority. Sometimes this inspires their friends to prioritize their own self-care and emotional wellbeing too.

On the other hand, it’s also true that it doesn’t have to be anyone’s business but yours if you don’t want it to be. Just as your friends aren’t entitled to know about what goes on in your medical appointments (unless you want to tell them), they also don’t have to know about your counseling. You can share with people you know will be supportive and not with the Judgy McJudgersons in your life. It’s totally up to you.

In all likelihood, you probably know several people who seem well-adjusted and “normal” and who either are currently seeking counseling or have benefited from it at some time in the past. You just might not know about it.

Myth #2: Counseling or therapy is just for treating mental illnesses, “disorders,” or severe psychopathology — not for personal growth or development.

growthWhile counseling and psychotherapy certainly are appropriate — and usually very helpful — for people struggling with diagnosable mental health problems such as major depression, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse issues, bipolar disorder, etc., this doesn’t mean that they’re not also appropriate for people whose difficulties don’t fit into these categories.

(What’s more, people struggling with diagnosable mental health conditions are so much more than their diagnoses! And diagnoses are just short-hand labels for different clusters of symptoms and difficulties.)

This myth is related to myth number 1. As I already mentioned, many people who benefit from counseling are struggling with everyday life challenges (whether they have a diagnosable mental health problem or not). They’re not in some fundamentally different group of people. They’re us.

However, I think what lies beneath this myth is actually belief that counseling only focuses on the problems (even if they’re common problems), rather than on growth, development, and overall wellbeing.

While some types of therapy do tend to focus more on finding solutions to specific problems (or treating specific diagnosable conditions) and less on enhancing a person’s overall wellbeing, this certainly doesn’t have to be the case. Many counselors combine a focus on addressing problems with facilitating growth, emotional wellbeing, and overall resilience.

If you’re concerned about this, make sure you learn more about a prospective therapist’s approach. Ask questions about how they work. You have the right to make an informed choice about whether or not their approach resonates with you.

Myth #3: Counseling is just self-indulgent and makes people too focused on themselves.

The flip side of myth number 2 (that counseling is only for serious mental illness) is that anyone who doesn’t have a serious mental illness and who spends time and financial resources on their own wellbeing and personal growth must be self-absorbed and self-indulgent — that counseling is all about endless navel-gazing or blaming everyone else for your problems.

It’s true that counseling involves reflecting on your thoughts, feelings, choices, and relationships and increasing your self-awareness. But the point of all that increased awareness is to allow you to make more informed choices about what’s important to you, how you get your needs met in the world, and how you impact other people — so that these issues don’t continue to get in the way of your focusing on other things. While it does take a certain amount of self-reflection, it often ends up with you being more attuned to and present with other people in your life, and less up in your own head.

smiling womanTaking care of yourself actually frees you up to be a better friend, partner, parent, or colleague.

A favorite metaphor used by therapists everywhere is that of the airplane oxygen mask. You know how flight attendants tell you that if the cabin pressure drops and oxygen masks fall down, you need to adjust your own mask before helping others? Of course, the reason for that is that you’re not going to be of much help to anyone if you’ve passed out from lack of oxygen. (In fact, then everyone’s going to have to spend time attending to you rather than taking care of themselves or others who need help.)

The same is true of therapy. We do a better job of helping others when we’ve made sure our own needs are taken care of first. If we don’t, other people suffer. Being a martyr doesn’t serve anyone.

Personally, I think this myth is based on people’s fear of vulnerability. It takes a lot of courage to look at yourself, your feelings, and your relationships honestly. Many people find this idea threatening, so they shame those who do have the courage to take that leap as a way of distancing themselves and decreasing their own discomfort. But you don’t have to buy into to their shame-based message.

Myth #4: Therapy just makes you dependent on your therapist. It goes on forever and will end up costing a fortune.

couchWe have a saying in the field of psychotherapy: the goal of a good therapist is to put him or herself out of a job.

A therapist’s goal is to help you reach a point where you ultimately don’t need therapy anymore. You may still have personal work to do — who doesn’t? — but you learn the skills you need to be your own therapist over time. Or you do a part of the work that’s most important in that phase of your life. We’re all ongoing works in progress, but that doesn’t mean that therapy has to go on forever. A therapist can help you set the process in motion, but at some point you can carry on by yourself.

It’s true that some people continue in therapy for years (even decades) although they’re in the minority. Some people remain in therapy for so long because they have years of trauma or hurt to work through. Others may have therapists who actually foster this sort of dependency. However, the vast majority of therapists want to see their clients become more independent, more capable of handling their challenges on their own — not more dependent on therapy.

Again, if you have concerns about a potential therapist’s approach, ask them. You can even ask them how long they think you’ll need to come see them. They probably won’t be able to give you a definitive answer, but their response may give you some clues about their general expectations and attitudes. Don’t work with someone who’s response doesn’t resonate or feel empowering to you.

It’s true that therapy is a financial investment, and, depending on how long you continue, it can be a significant one. However, when you consider the potential long-term benefits — decreased distress, feeling freedom from old limiting patterns and beliefs, more satisfying relationships, increased emotional resilience — and when you also consider what you’re willing to pay for other goods and services (some of which probably don’t have the same long-term benefits), most people feel that it is well worth the investment. After all, it’s an investment in your life and your future.

Myth #5: Talking about my problems — especially with a total stranger — won’t change anything.

It’s true that just venting and rehashing your problems over and over probably won’t change anything. It might feel good and cathartic in the moment, but when you leave, the problems are still there.

manFortunately, that’s not what counseling is really about.

Counseling is about discussing these problems in order to develop a new understanding of them, to explore what caused them or keeps them going, and to consider and experiment with alternative solutions. In other words: to work toward making real changes that will help you feel more satisfied with your life.

So why not just do that with a friend?

While we can certainly do some of this with a good friend or close family member, these relationships sometimes get in the way of our being able to be as honest and vulnerable about our feelings (or as open to considering alternative perspectives) as we need to be for real growth and change to occur.

What’s more, our friends and family members are likely to be invested in particular outcomes for us. They think they know what will be best for us (or they know our choices will impact them too), and this can get in the way of their being able to listen with as much acceptance, openness, and patience as we may need. Or they may have their own struggles, which may make it hard for them to be as present as we need them to be.

Sometimes we need someone who is not so personally invested in the outcome to hold that space for exploration. The fact that your counselor is less personally invested in the outcome does not mean that she or he does not care about you or want what is best for you. It just means that, by virtue of their role, they can be more open to helping you discover what really is best for you and what you really want, rather than trying to impose their views of this on you.

Myth #6: Talking about my problems in therapy could actually make them worse.

It’s true that talking about problems or painful emotions that you’ve been trying to ignore for a long time may feel more uncomfortable for a while.

Feelings may come out that you’ve been working hard to stuff down. But they’ve been there all along, and they’ve probably been impacting you in various ways — through physical health symptoms, nagging worries or discomfort, strained relationships, etc.

Sometimes things have to get a bit worse before they get better. Broken bones sometimes need to be reset before they can heal properly.

But that increased discomfort is temporary. And it leads to things feeling better.

cupboardIf your room is a bit of a mess, because your closet looks like a tornado went through it, and there’s no room to put anything away, you may need to pull everything out of the closet and dump it in the middle of the room. Then you can sort through it all, figure out what you want to keep and what you don’t need anymore, and then put things away more neatly.

Someone who comes in in the middle of that process is likely to think, “Wow, things got even worse in here!”

But if you don’t pull thing out and look at them and figure out where they go and whether they’re even useful to you anymore, you can’t address the problem — and things really will keep getting worse. If you give yourself a bit of time to sort through everything, as you move through that process, you’ll feel more in control of your space.

That may sound a little overwhelming when it comes to emotions, but it’s likely that some parts of your metaphoric closet are already doing just fine, while other sections could use some attention.

Furthermore, counseling does not involve pulling all of the stuff out of your metaphoric closet at the same time. (My metaphor only goes so far…) You can move at your own pace, and a good counselor will help you figure out how to pull things out in manageable amounts so you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed.

Fact:  Counseling isn’t always easy. It’s challenging. At times it can be uncomfortable, even painful. But a part of the job of a good therapist is to be with you in that experience, teach you skills to manage (not avoid) the discomfort, and help you learn to have compassion for yourself in the process, so you don’t have to feel overwhelmed. All with the end goal of feeling better and working through the issues so they don’t keep getting in your way.

Myth #7: A therapist will either judge me and make me feel ashamed for my problems or else will blame the other people in my life (especially my parents).

First off, any therapist who makes you feel judged or ashamed for your problems is not the right therapist for you. Period.

A therapist’s job is to create a safe, accepting, and non-judgmental space for you to work through whatever challenges you’re facing. A good therapist will show compassion for your struggles and, in so doing, help you learn to have compassion for yourself.

flowerThat doesn’t mean they won’t also encourage you to make changes in your life or to consider the unintentional role you might play in maintaining some of the challenges you’re struggling with.

While that may sound like blame, the good news is that it actually means pointing out ways in which you have more control over the situation than you may have realized. What’s more, a good counselor will also help you learn to be kind to yourself and increase your self-compassion even as you begin to take some responsibility for the change process.

We can learn to accept and have compassion for ourselves as we are, while at the same time working toward change. Sound counterintuitive? It doesn’t have to be. (Another post on this coming soon!)

Of course, if you’re already feeling a lot of self-judgement and shame about something, it can still be hard to open up and talk to someone else about things. It can be easy to assume that they will judge us too, because we judge ourselves so harshly. We might even feel convinced that they are judging us at times, when their reactions are a bit ambiguous. If that happens, though, you can always bring up your concern, and then that becomes a useful part of the conversation.

As for therapists blaming other people in your life for your current difficulties (stereotypically your parents), that usually just isn’t the case — unless, of course, you’ve experienced abuse or been seriously mistreated by someone. But it’s less about blame than about acknowledging the responsibility and putting that responsibility where it belongs or about identifying the origins of our patterns and beliefs that are now getting in our way.

Most situations are far more complicated than just who’s to blame.

dad and babyPeople hurt us or set our difficulties into motion, even when they don’t mean to or have no idea what they’re doing. They may love us and want what’s best for us and still cause us pain. They may have been doing the best they knew how because of their own harsh experiences or their own struggles. Or they may have acted cruelly out of their own pain. That doesn’t make it ok, but it can help us understand and recognize that it might not have been about us, as much as it still ended up impacting us.

A good counselor will help you tease apart how other people may have contributed to your current challenges, but she or he will also help you try to understand their motivations and cultivate some compassion for them as well. It’s definitely not a big blame-fest or pity-party. Life and relationships are more complex than that.

Recognizing the role that others may have played — even unintentionally — in shaping our story up till now is not about blaming. It’s about understanding and setting new boundaries so we can take back the power to shape our stories moving forward.

What Else?

These are just a few of the common myths and misconceptions that I think get in the way of people seeking counseling when it otherwise could be very helpful to them. Are you aware of other myths or beliefs that serve as barriers to getting help or prioritizing self-care and emotional wellbeing? Do any of the beliefs discussed here resonate with you?

As always, I would love to hear from you — your thoughts, reactions, or questions about this post. However, if you choose to share your thoughts below, please keep in mind that these comments are visible to anyone who visits the blog. Therefore, I would encourage you to use a pseudonym (not use your real name) to protect your own privacy. If you would like to get in touch but would prefer to contact me privately, you can do so here.

-Dana

p.s. If you’re interested in learning more about working with me, feel free to check out this page of my website or contact me to schedule a free phone consultation.

Leave a Comment

  1. I like your point that counseling isn’t just talking about problems with a stranger. I think it’s really important to have a good impartial third party that can listen to you without judgement and help you to understand what is happening. Not to mention that it’s not just a stranger, it’s a trained psychotherapist you’re talking to!

  2. This is some great information, and I appreciate your point that counseling isn’t just for people with mental illnesses. I’ve been having some issues with my self-esteem, and my really close friend recommended counseling to me, but I was under the impression that it was only for things like depression or severe anxiety. Knowing that it could be beneficial for me, I’ll definitely look more into it. Thanks for the great post!

    • Hi Lillian, I’m glad you found this information useful. Counseling can be helpful for many different types of personal challenges. Your impression that it’s just for those with “mental illnesses” is a common one that unfortunately keeps many people from reaching out for help that they otherwise could really benefit from. I’m glad you’re exploring information about it and learning more!