Common Misconceptions About Therapy and Counseling

A bookshelf with books and magazines

I’ll never forget how nervous I felt the first time I went to therapy. I fumbled through the magazines in the uncomfortable waiting room chair, anxious about meeting my therapist in person. Even more than that, I was anxious about what this person may think of me, judge me for or say to me.

What would they think of my story? Would I be told there was something wrong with me? Was there something wrong with me? I second-guessed my decision to begin therapy in that waiting room. 

I second-guessed my decision to begin therapy in that waiting room. 

These are not uncommon fears to have when beginning therapy for the first time. As a practicing therapist myself now, I try to always keep in mind the inherent vulnerabilities in opening yourself up to a complete stranger for the first time. I often ask in the first session how the client is feeling about starting therapy. It breaks the ice, allows them to voice any fears and helps me to normalize their concerns or answer any questions.

Throughout the years, I have found some common threads about why people won’t go to therapy. This information is often volunteered to me about a person’s spouse, parent or friend once they know I am a therapist. They might roll their eyes and say something like,”My husband would never go to therapy because he doesn’t want someone telling him what to do. He doesn’t want advice.”

These misconceptions are completely understandable, but they unfortunately can keep people from getting the help that they could benefit from. Here are the most common misconceptions about therapy I hear and (as someone who believes in the power of therapy, both personally and professionally) I am happy to dispel:

A therapist is going to tell me what is wrong with me.

This is a very common and understandable fear—that you will show up to the therapist’s office and be told all the ways you are lacking or messed up. This sounds infinitely worse than a trip to the dentist. It sounds more like being put on trial than going to therapy.

What happens instead, however, is that you—the client—tell the therapist where it hurts. You tell the therapist what is not working and what is difficult or painful, not the other way around.

You tell the therapist what is not working and what is difficult or painful, not the other way around.

People are driven to seek out therapy most often because they are suffering in some way. In your therapy session, you will be given space to share, perhaps in lengthy detail for the first time, what is hard, hurting or painful for you. I often find that people are pleasantly surprised by what a relief it is to tell someone their stories.

Therapy is advice or someone telling me what to do.

Advice implies that the “advisor” knows more than you, and I believe that is one thing that repels people from therapy. “Who is this person to tell me how to run my life?” is a common question I’ve heard.

Therapy is not advice. Therapy is experiential, and it utilizes science and your relational experience to help you find healing. Therapy is more about what you think about yourself, rather than someone telling you how to live your life. Yes, a therapist should have more education on mental health than you do, but that education is meant to be a tool to help come alongside you as you enter your process of self-discovery and healing. 

Therapy is not advice. Therapy is experiential, and it utilizes science and your relational experience to help you find healing.

Therapy at its best is collaborative. I often give this explanation as I am detailing the therapy process to a new client. Then, I add “you are the expert on you.” This means that you know a lot more about being yourself and living in your skin than I ever will. A therapist should always take a position of curiosity without judgment. I want my clients to teach me about themselves and about what it is like to be them in the world.

Therapy is all about my mother or dwelling on the past.

A common misconception I hear is: “I don’t want to just talk about my mother. I don’t want to dwell on the past.” Therapy actually begins in the present with what is not working or what is hurting now, and the hope is not only for the present but for the future.

I often tell clients I am trying to work myself out of a job, but we all know that our present has been informed by our past. This is not dwelling on the past. This is understanding it and how it impacts you today.

Some people have a fear of talking about the past—that it will overwhelm them. Other times, it is a fear of being disloyal to a parent if you “complain.”

Our past is in some ways like a marinade. It is not who we are or who we have to become, but it undoubtedly impacts our view of ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. Unpacking your own story allows you to decide your future rather than be controlled unknowingly by your past.

Understanding should truly lead to freedom. Freedom is the goal, not dwelling on the past.

Understanding should truly lead to freedom. Freedom is the goal, not dwelling on the past.

It is vulnerable to open up to a therapist, but that vulnerability is often where you meet yourself, where you find healing and where you understand more about your past. That sacred place of vulnerability is not about someone telling you what is wrong with you or what to do.

Instead, it is about clearing space in your life for you to really hear, connect to and understand yourself and your relationships. Therapy at its best creates an emotionally safe place for you—free of judgment and free of the unwanted advice you get in other relationships. It gives you a chance to understand your own story.

What are some of the negative perceptions you believe or have heard about therapy? How can understanding our pasts and our internal processes lead to greater self-awareness and freedom?

Image via Joe Schmelzer, Darling Issue No. 17

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