Some self-disclosure: I’ve never been on the other side of the couch.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I went to a child psychologist when I was three or four – my parents regale me with tales of my “weirdness” as a child (apparently speaking entirely in quotes from Winnie the Pooh is “abnormal”…but really, what do they know?), but I only have a few vivid memories from my childhood (someone can analyze me on that one). There was the time in 10th grade, when I got sent to the guidance counselor after my grandfather died. And there was my one-therapy-stand in college to deal with re-adjusting after studying abroad, where my therapist’s coldness and judgmental attitude only strengthened my desire to enter this field.
But since then, I’ve only been the therapist, rather than the client. And as I begin to establish a career in the mental health world, I’m realizing how problematic that is.
Without delving into personal issues and what have you, I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone would benefit from a brief or extended stay in therapy. Everyone has their stuff that needs to be worked through at some point in their lives, and psychiatric medicine and self-care techniques are not cure-alls. There’s endless research that supports therapeutic techniques in dealing with most mental illness or adjustment issues. So why haven’t I done it yet?
Because today’s society still connects therapy with “craziness,” or “disordered,” or “abnormality.” Most people don’t publicly announce their therapeutic stints, let alone diagnoses. And gone are the days of extended soul-searching – most therapy today revolves around insurance coverage and “solving problems.” Many times, you’re reduced to a problem, a diagnosis, something to be “fixed.” Depressed. Bipolar. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Borderline. Schizophrenic. Unless of course, you pay out of pocket and have the luxury of going to a therapist that doesn’t deal with insurance companies and diagnoses.
There’s a discrepancy between ideal and realistic counseling. Before applying to graduate school, I thought that I was going to become a therapist to solve the puzzle and fix people. But you can’t fix people. Therapy isn’t about being “fixed” – it’s about coping, healing, learning how to deal with what life throws at you. Therapy is supposed to be a journey between the client/member/patient (depending on place of employment), not a quick fix to a diagnosed problem. Yet in reality, people become generalized, and insurance companies dictate your needs. Treat substance dependency this way. ADHD that way. You have three months to “cure” them. GO.
I’ve considered going into therapy a number of times during graduate school, primarily because I believed I need to feel the client experience. Yet each time, something stopped me. Maybe I “figured out” the issue, or vented to my friends, or the waiting list was too long, or the university counseling center only dealt with acute adjustment issues, or I felt “normal.” Someone, please tell me what normal is, because I’m fairly certain nobody in this world entirely fits the dictionary definition. But what really halted my process of therapeutic discovery were my own impossible standards. I praise people I know that choose to go to therapy and have never once considered them “crazy” or “mentally unstable.” But if I go, it means my own self-determination and independence aren’t enough, that I’ve failed at managing my own mental health. It means I’m reduced to a diagnosis, and that I need to be “cured.”
I recognize how ridiculous my own standards and core beliefs (thank you, CBT) sound, particularly when I write them down. I could blame my graduate program – after all, if they just implemented mandatory counseling for all students, perhaps I wouldn’t have applied the stigma surrounding mental health care to myself. But in the end, it’s my decision, and using graduate school as an excuse would have only heightened my self-applied stigma.
One thing remains true: empathy and the therapeutic relationship are the most important components of therapy. You can use techniques from a countless number of orientations, but specific CBT or psychoanalytic skills are going to do NOTHING if you haven’t fostered a positive relationship with your client or developed a sense of empathy. Even if you are diagnosed, a good therapist will be non-judgmental, won’t think you’re “crazy,” and will treat you like a human. How are we supposed to really understand our clients if we haven’t been in their position? Given that mental illness and therapy continues to be stigmatized, I can imagine that going into your first therapy session can produce feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, and doubt. But I don’t really know. I’ve never really been on the “other side” of the couch. That needs to change.
In the end, we’re all human. Even your therapists have their stuff. So now, it’s finally time to banish my own stigma and look up therapists. There’s no shame in that. It’s about time.
Would you trust a therapist who has never been in therapy?