Despite the fact that more than 59 million Americans seek the services of a mental health care professional each year, there’s a stigma that therapy is only for people suffering a debilitating mental illness or going through a massive interpersonal issue. But that idea is as dated as phrenology.
“The benefits of therapy extend far beyond periods of crisis,” says Ryan Howes, Ph.D., a California-based psychologist and writer. “Many people want more than to be ‘not depressed.’ They wonder what they can do to be the happiest, most productive, most loving version of themselves.”
Because achieving your full potential requires a heck of a lot of self-knowledge, self-control, and—let’s be honest—hard work, it’s best done when you’re not in freak-out mode.
What’s more, if there’s an issue in your life that’s causing you distress, it’s better to deal with it sooner than later. Over time, minor difficulties can bloom into disasters that have you hitting the tissue box hard. But the earlier you go to therapy and engage in introspection, the better off you are in the long run.
Interested in kicking off therapy during a trauma-free time, but still have some questions? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Here are some common concerns raised by those on the fence about seeking professional help.
Can’t I just talk to my friends?
Hey, by all means bounce your internal thought processes off close buds and sympathetic family members. But there’s a reason to go to a pro: Will your pals and relatives grant you undivided attention? And will they be totally unbiased? Not likely.
The benefit of seeing a mental health professional is that it’s literally their job to reserve judgment and guide you toward what’s best for you. “If a client says he wants to quit his job and my gut instinct is to yell, 'No!'” says Howes, “I have to examine that, be aware of why I’m feeling this way, and temper my reaction so that the session remains about the client—not about me.”
But what if people think I’m nuts?
It’s possible not everyone will react favorably if they hear you’re seeing a shrink. But psychologist Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D., author of Insecure In Love, says that folks who hold their own prejudices about therapy “often come around to supporting treatment once they see that it makes a person happier.”
Her advice for challenging those who give us a hard time: Tell ‘em, “I’m trying to help myself get to a happier place, and I’d really like your support in doing that." If they care about you, they’ll back down.
Then again, there’s no rule that says you have to declare to the world that you’re in therapy. (You can always tell potentially judgy people that you’re off to a meeting, because you are! Or say that you’re just, well, busy.)
Whatever your decision, keep in mind that people’s resistance to your pursuit of mental health typically comes from their own fears: If you’re in therapy, it must mean they should be too. Or if you’re in therapy, you’ll change in a way that makes you less willing to be friends (or romantic partners) with them. While this can and does occasionally happen, Howes says any changes that occur during therapy were likely waiting in the wings before your sessions started. Therapy simply allows it to happen with less trauma.
What if I change too much?
So a few weeks worth of self-inquiry leads you to realize you’re in a relationship that isn’t right for you or enlightens you to the scary reality that you’re headed down the wrong career path. Is it therapy’s “fault” you’ve suddenly come to this conclusion? Nope. (Sorry!)
While therapy can help remove the wool from your eyes, it won’t create problems where there were none to begin with. If you (rationally) determine you’re not in the right place—career-wise, romance-wise, or otherwise—congratulations! You’ve just identified a buried source of suffering. And by clarifying the origin(s) of your distress, you’re that much closer to living an authentically happy life.
Even more surprising, you might discover that everything is a-OK, and thanks to therapy, you can finally embrace that truth. Psychologist Leslie Sokol, Ph.D., co-author of Think Confident, Be Confident, says many clients are in a perfectly good place, but they’re consumed with worry. “All that fretting takes you out of the present and prevents you from enjoying what you have. Often if you put away all that meta-analysis, you actually are in the right situation.”
Which type of therapy is right for me?
The most common types of therapy include cognitive behavioral, psychodynamic, family, and group.
Whether you’re looking for a quick(ish) fix to a bad habit, anxiety issue, or phobia, or you’re just interested in some serious soul-searching (“What’s my life’s purpose?” “Why do I keep doing ____ in romantic relationships?”) there’s a therapy that’s waiting for you.
So therapy will make me happy... right?
Probably, but that isn’t the ultimate goal. Therapy isn’t supposed to eradicate all sadness, anger, frustration, or other negative emotions (envy, embarrassment, self-doubt, etc.). And thank goodness! Because often those tough emotions serve as an internal cue—if you’re listening.
That’s where therapy comes in. It’s there to help you learn how to sit with, accept, and not be debilitated by these feelings—all while cultivating self-awareness. The result? You’ll be able to tune in and make choices that make the most sense for you. Rather than achieving perpetual bliss, the end result of therapy is to confidently navigate your life off the proverbial couch.
How long will it last and how do I know when I’m “fixed?”
As long as you want. (Or as long as you can afford.) In the initial few weeks of therapy, Sokol explains, you and your doc set goals for what you’d like to accomplish during your sessions. Once you feel that goal’s been reached, then... there you have it!
On a deeper level, adds Becker-Phelps, you know you’re through once you’ve “internalized” the emotional process that occurs in therapy. By that we mean you can think most things through on your own, thanks to the psychological skill set your therapist has helped you hone.
What if I can’t afford it?
The cost of mental health is, unfortunately, still unmanageable for manys. The good news is that under the Affordable Care Act, an estimated 62 million more Americans should be able to receive coverage for mental health and substance disorder treatment.
What’s more, there are many free or low-cost support options, from hotlines to help groups. Those interested can visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s website for more resources.
You can also check with your health care insurer to find a professional in your network, or search for practitioners in your area online. Or, if you’re a student, contact your campus health center.
Keep in mind that it’s important to find a therapist you “click” with. Often, this can mean trying out a few different providers before settling on the one who feels right for you.
Therapy isn’t just for moments of earth-shattering personal tragedies. It can also be useful in reorienting yourself toward your true wants and needs, training yourself in the art of self-compassion, and better understanding, respecting, and communicating your feelings. And—surprise—it’s often easier to pursue these goals when you’re not wrestling bigger, darker obstacles. So consider this your permission to give therapy a try, even if your life is going hunky-dory. Your future self may just look back and say, “Thanks!”