Over the last decade, therapy has become more common and less stigmatized in popular culture. Millennials and Gen Z are talking more openly than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did about their experiences with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. This destigmatization has certainly saved lives.
But lessening the stigma against it does not make therapy a universal solution for all of life’s problems.
In my clinical practice and field experience in social work, I’ve sometimes looked in the mirror and doubted whether we in this field even can accomplish what we set out to do, which is, help people feel better and improve their lives, given the inequalities and oppressive systems that exist everywhere, even in therapy.
In those moments, I am reassured when I remember that having a healthy dose of suspicion can be a good thing. Therapy is a valuable — but limited — tool that can help people achieve powerfully healing outcomes, but it’s not a miracle cure. And with the increased visibility and popularity of therapy, I believe it’s important for anybody who practices therapy, recommends it to others, or seeks treatment themselves, to understand clearly what therapy is — and what therapy is not.
One person may find that therapy is helpful for their situation and another person may not find it helpful at all, even if they have the same therapist. The most important factor in determining success in therapy is the client-therapist relationship. Every therapist has different values and unique takes on mental wellness. Your best progress will come when the therapist you are working with is best suited to fit your personality, needs, and values.
Right for everyone.
People have been getting through hardships for centuries and psychotherapy is only one way to work through mental illness. Some people have had bad or even traumatic experiences in therapy and they aren’t ready to return to it. Therapists aim to do good but they might not have the right solution for every circumstance.
Accessible to everyone.
Therapy can be expensive. In my practice, I am able to serve a limited number of clients without insurance at lower cost, but economic barriers still prevent many who would benefit from therapy from receiving care. Non-economic barriers exist as well: many people don’t know where to begin to look for professional help, or how to ask.
A place to get advice.
My approach in therapy is not to tell you what to do with your life. Instead, I’ll help you understand your emotions better. I’ll help you process your experiences; help you address self-critical thoughts; help you better connect to your values and to the people in your life; and help you set attainable goals based on what you desire.
A replacement for friendship, family, community, art, religion, or personal hobbies.
However, therapy can help connect or prepare you to engage in those other outlets. Therapy might be the first step in creating a more fulfilling life for yourself.
Immune from systemic oppression.
You might experience racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, fatphobia, ableism, or other forms of discrimination in therapy. A good therapist will have a deep understanding of systems and will continually work to be aware of how those systems are present in each client relationship. Individual therapy may not solve macro problems in society, but a good therapist will be able to help you navigate the injustices you face.
To be used as a weapon.
Therapy is commonly ordered as an intervention by judges or recommended by lawyers and social service agencies as a way to control or examine the accused. Only so much progress can come from mandating a person to participate in therapy treatment while threatening to incarcerate them or remove their children from their care.
A hard science.
Mental health is as important as physical health, but the two are not measured or tested in the same ways. While therapy sometimes includes pharmaceutical interventions that are proven effective in clinical trials, talk therapy is a less precise science. Good therapists rely on evidence-based theories and modalities, acknowledging that such tools cannot be observed or controlled with the same precision as, say, a chemical reaction. All scientific research is vulnerable to some degree of human bias — and despite our every effort otherwise, “soft sciences” such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology are especially vulnerable.
Exempt from capitalism.
The client/therapist relationship is inherently transactional. Therapists use marketing and sales tools, and as therapy has become less stigmatized, it has also started to be commercialized. Today, there are plenty of popular voices telling you you need therapy with the same vigor and enthusiasm as the voices telling you you need a new car. You can be a savvy consumer of therapy like you would be of any other purchase.
A lifetime commitment.
You can go in and out of therapy throughout different periods of your life. You might not always want a partner or guide for your mental health. You are free to decide when you want professional help and when you don’t.
Therapy (with me) is…