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Myths and Misconceptions About Therapy and Therapists

Starting therapy can be a daunting experience. Many misled ideas and myths about therapists and the experience of therapy can confuse both people who have had experiences before and those who are new to it. Many have also wondered about the experience of therapy in the first meeting and what should happen, which can lead to further confusion. While many therapists will continue to advocate for the awareness of mental health support and its positive effects, there is still an unfortunate amount of widespread stigma that exists about therapy.  With so many therapists actively providing services in Chicago alone, it is also understandable why there would be distress about finding the right therapist and not knowing what therapy is about. We want to be able to connect with the person that we are sharing our life experiences with; and it can be difficult to find the right provider.

There are many misconceptions of what therapists are like in a therapy session; even with the information provided in their online profiles. Cultural assumptions remain present in today’s world about how therapists typically work with clients and what their role is. While views on being in therapy may be starting to change from previous negative stigmas, many of the myths and preconceived notions continue to persist. It’s not uncommon to be unsure of what to focus on when starting therapy either. Whether it’s on improving relationship quality or seeking advice, the expectations brought into a first appointment can also come with common misconceptions for how therapy functions.

Some misguided ideas about therapy can be attributed to its depiction in media such as movies and television. Media can portray therapy in the harshest environments and situations; giving many the idea of how and where to begin along with the circumstances. Whether the depiction is about the client or the therapist, the power that imagery holds can be a strong deterrent. We can also link the misconceptions of therapy and therapists to a lack of knowledge about its purpose and cultural differences about the implications of seeking support; limiting those who want to pursue therapy from doing so.

One of the biggest reasons for why these stereotypes exist is actually from a good reason; that therapy is ultimately a private experience. That makes it all the easier to create ideas about what happens behind the door. The honest take is that therapy is supposed to be about fostering a safe relationship between yourself and your therapist to unravel intimate details about your life’s experiences.

This article will focus on the misconceptions of being in therapy and what therapists do. The definition of what therapy is will be explained briefly, in order to further clarify the misconceptions. While there are many myths that exist, we will focus on some of the more common themes many may be confused by when thinking about therapy.

What is Therapy?

Therapy, also known as counseling or psychotherapy, is a type of treatment typically focused on alleviating emotional distress and mental health issues. It involves gaining insight into one’s history, decisions, behavioral patterns; and can be utilized for individuals, couples, and even families. Therapy sessions are typically defined as a structured meeting time between the person and a licensed provider, the therapist, with the goal of improving some aspect of the life experiences.

The therapist is typically compassionate towards the needs and topics that are presented in a therapy session. An important point is that the experience is often collaborative and can be conversational between the individual and therapist. The collaboration that takes place along with the discussions often help to identify changes over time.

Another important distinction to point out from earlier is that therapy is always a private experience. Confidentiality is one of the highest priorities along with your experiences and concerns. Licensed therapists are expected to abide by strict confidentiality standards, ethics and laws. The goal is to ensure that a safe space is created for clients to explore their concerns without worrying that their privacy is being breached and trust broken.

Now, here are some of the common misconceptions about therapy:

1. Therapy Is for “Crazy People”

One of the more common misled ideas about being in therapy. The idea that the term psychotherapy is for what some might define as “crazy” people might come from the prefix ‘psycho’. Such that this prefix being used for a type of treatment and tool to focus on experiential, relational, and emotional experiences does not acknowledge those who want external support in their lives. It has since evolved into an approach that focuses on not only what may be perceived in media as hospital or facility-based experiences, but also seeking support in a private space when needed for life adjustments and emotional conflicts.

Now, seeking support and treatment can be seen as a sign of resourcefulness or empowerment. In order to also help with breaking this stigma, the appropriate and preferred naming of the person seeking support is “client” rather than “patient”. Such that the word client can signify that the participant is not ill nor should be treated differently in any negative way. Rather, the client is always considered a person who is seeking additional support in life.

2. Therapy Gives Me All the Answers

Yes and no. No one therapist would reasonably be able to completely provide an answer to another person’s presenting concerns without being an all-powerful deity. More realistically, a therapist has not fully lived the experiences or consequences that clients have faced. What is important is the therapist tailoring the sessions around the client’s needs; rather than plugging in formulas for success. What is also important is not what the therapist believes is important for change, but primarily what clients believe is important.

A therapist might be able to provide feedback about overarching and underlying themes based on the narratives they listen to from an objective stance. Facilitating change and seeking answers mostly comes internally because the concerns and experiences are on an individual basis, not from the therapist.

3. “I Will Feel Better After Every Session”

Also a yes and no misconception. Feeling better after a therapy session can certainly be a good thing. It is also valid that there may be times where the end of a therapy session might leave us feeling negative emotions. Therapy can be painful because of specific emotions being uncovered through active participation in recognizing something that is bothering us. In contrast, the therapy experience can also bring positive emotions through the client recognizing the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” after an in depth conversation with the therapist.

It is important to know that therapy can bring about many different feelings. There might be times where painful memories are resurfaced, leading to hurtful emotions. There will also be positive experiences being processed with joyful emotions present. Both sides are valid and can be felt in the private space of therapy.

4. Therapy Is a Quick Solution

Pulling back to previous points about answers and media portrayals of therapy, many fictional representations might portray a therapeutic experience as a quick solution for one’s struggles. Having quick sessions, defined here as one or two sessions total, to “fix” one’s problems would be problematic in itself as it takes time to not only build a professional working relationship between client and therapist, but also time to unravel the root of any presenting issue.

The first few appointments typically focus on intake and getting to know the client. It may be uncomfortable for some to fully be vulnerable while in contrast some might feel comfortable expressing themselves as quickly as possible. It would still, however, be difficult for a 50-minute therapy session to provide a quick fix for all of life’s experiences. Such that it would be unlikely that lasting changes can take root if we were to think about 50 minutes compared to the number of minutes we’ve lived already.

5. Therapy is a Venting Session

Therapy can easily involve a lot of talking. Likewise, we also feel comfortable and safe talking to our loved ones about issues that are troubling us. It is understandable then how talking to a close one can be misled as an impromptu therapy session. The main differences between discussing an issue with a therapist versus a loved one is that therapists are trained to hone in on key themes and identify behaviors and patterns; and are also able to incorporate evidenced based interventions to help process the emotions that surface, and help you gain coping strategies for symptom alleviation. Processing issues in a therapeutic space can also provide an opportunty for constructive feedback through an objective and unfiltered lens.

6. Psychotherapists Can Prescribe Medication

A very common myth. While some psychotherapists in some states are able to provide medications, it can be easy to mislabel psychotherapists and psychiatrists. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who tend to focus on prescribing psychotropic medications and monitor its effects on the patients they see. Psychotherapists fall under the umbrella of many professionals including social workers, licensed counselors, and family therapists.

Therapists and psychiatrists can also work in tandem to ensure the well-being of mutual clients. The main difference being that therapists are focused on the everyday situations of people and allowing space for them to reflect and understand their experiences while psychiatrists are medical doctors.

7. Therapy Is Not Private

It is understandable to worry that therapy sessions would not be confidential. On the contrary, all therapists, whether working with individuals or groups, are bound by strict confidentiality  laws and ethics to keep all personal information private. This level of privacy is an incredible and important way that therapy can be an effective tool for healing, and the intimate and vulnerable experiences shared are valued by you and your therapist.

There are, however, some exceptions to this rule. The primary reason that confidentiality may be breached is if there is indication of imminent harm or danger to either the client or others. Therapists are mandated reporters, meaning they have a legal obligation to report knowledge of safety concerns. Therapists should do their best to let you know if they need to make a report of any kind or if they are concerned about safety. Breaking confidentiality should not ever happen without a client being informed, unless there are extenuating circumstances. 

That being said, breaches in confidentiality is a very true experience for many individuals. 

I would be remiss not to mention that mistrust in healthcare providers, including therapists, is not uncommon and also not unfounded. Specifically for people of color, there tends to be a higher amount of DCFS reports and hospitalizations. There are many complex factors that contribute to this, all of which stem from white supremacy. Mistrust in systems is valid; and  searching for a therapist should lead you to consider inquiring about how they approach reporting and whether or not they practice through an antiracist lens.

Ultimately, you have a right to privacy and confidentiality and a good therapist will work hard to ensure this right is protected.

8. All Therapy / Therapists Are the Same

It is not uncommon for those trying therapy for the first time to believe that all therapists and therapy are the same. Instead, many therapists are trained in specific schools of thought for how to treat specific issues. Therapists can also utilize a variety of different therapeutic orientations to work with clients. No one therapist would work with grief or life stage adjustments, for example, the same way the next therapist would. Such that different modalities and different methods of talking might lead to positive results and change in different ways.

There are many different forms of therapy that can be effective for treating one’s presenting issues. For example, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are among two of the more commonly known modes of therapy in contemporary psychotherapy that can focus on skill development and behavioral changes. As another example, psychodynamic therapy focuses on uncovering unconscious thoughts that can influence present day thoughts and behaviors while also taking time to process the emotions from the uncovered unconscious thoughts.

Closing Thoughts

To conclude, there are many myths and misconceptions about therapy. Whether it’s about who therapy is for and what it entails, many of these misled ideas can come from public portrayals and personal expectations. While various thoughts about being in therapy have shifted towards a positive direction recently, it can still be an uphill battle being open about beginning or presently participating in therapy. Misconceptions about the process of therapy continue to linger, and cultural differences may also play a role in some having such preconceived thoughts of finding support.

Therapists themselves can also face misconceptions about what they do. But, they are genuinely invested in allowing the space for you to heal and grow. The reality is that therapy can be a helpful tool for growth and discovering aspects of yourself you may not have previously recognized. No one therapeutic experience will be the same; nor should it diminish our wanting to take care of our health as a whole.