After being a therapist for almost 15 years, I became accustomed to hearing the media, clients, friends and even fellow therapists say things that sounded true on the surface but – in my experience – weren’t true at all. Over time, I came to challenge people who said them as if they were obviously true, opening the discussion about commonly held notions. We talked about what made these ideas true or false, and who decides what works and what doesn’t. Here are a few of those therapy myths:
- You have to want help yourself – not because of anyone else.
FALSE – Get help for any reason. Your personal motivations can come later. Sometimes clients come into counseling because someone encouraged them to do so, even if they don’t really see a need. Often, those are the clients who report being surprised by the helpfulness of the process and thankful for the tools and experience.
- Most couples have communication problems.
FALSE – They have attitude problems, and they’re communicating just fine. They are communicating and conveying contempt and bitterness with crystal clarity. These clients would be better off working first on a spirit of willingness, human kindness and basic decency before fast forwarding to the portion of counseling where we work on how to get a message across. First, work on the message. Next, work on communicating that message.
- Judging is wrong.
FALSE – Judging is great. It means you have discernment, which translates into good sense. There is nothing wrong with looking at a situation from several angles, analyzing your own place in the scenario and acting accordingly. In fact, for your own safety: please judge. Notice if the man in the parking lot is looking at you like prey, judge him to be dangerous and get out of Dodge. Notice if your sister-in-law has bad boundaries, judge her to be troublesome and tiresome and set clear, firm boundaries of your own. Judge away.
- You have to wait until you hit bottom before you can really get help.
FALSE – Hitting bottom means being dead. Let’s try to catch this thing before it goes that far. Be proactive, not reactive. The idea of waiting until the last minute is a game of chicken that therapists would prefer you don’t play. It’s wise to make an appointment to talk with a professional earlier in the scheme of things rather than later.
- No one can make you feel anything.
FALSE – I understand that the idea here is that people need to be responsible for their own feelings, rather than blaming them on others. Still, this one gets under my skin. If I read a really good book about something sad, I feel sad. If I watch a funny movie, I usually leave the theater feeling lighter and happier. Books and movies make me feel things, and so do people. We affect each other. It’s a good thing to recognize and appreciate. This doesn’t mean you don’t have a fair amount of control over your own reactions; it means we are all connected and we impact one another.
- Everything happens for a reason.
We don’t know this. I won’t say FALSE because there’s just no way to know for sure. What I do know is that if you hug a widow at a funeral and say, “Everything happens for a reason,” she’ll nod numbly. But she might also temporarily hate you. Try not say something like that while someone is grieving. Also, try to avoid any talk of “God’s Plan” when someone gets a grave diagnosis or when someone’s child gets hurt. Although you certainly mean well, the grieving or hurt person often just feels very alone and isolated when faced with offerings such as these.
- All love should be unconditional.
FALSE – Once you’ve reached adulthood, your relationships need limits. For instance, if your boyfriend shoots your mom in a fit of rage, it makes sense to me that you break up with him. Certainly my love for my spouse is conditional enough that I require she not use firearms on the people I love. Or on anyone who isn’t threatening her with deadly harm.
Think about your own sense of what’s true and what’s not. Just because a belief is commonly held doesn’t mean it’s correct or true. And simply because you find one truth doesn’t mean another truth won’t rise up and contradict the first one. Remember, Danish Physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” We are complex human beings and can rewire our brains to see all kinds of truths with more clarity and deeper perception.