Why Talking to a Psychotherapist is Not Like Talking to a Friend (And Other Misconceptions)

Recently I came across an excellent video on some of the common misperceptions many people have about psychotherapy that might stop them from ever seeing a therapist.

As the short video below from my colleagues at the The School of Life in London illustrates, these myths include:

Psychotherapy is only for people who are strange, abnormal, or deficient in some way

Psychotherapy is only for people who don’t know how to solve their own problems

Psychotherapy is nothing different than simply talking to a good friend

Psychotherapy is not affordable and is not worth the cost

In this article I will tell you why these four statements are misconceptions, and why you should not be so quick to dismiss the benefits of meeting with a well-trained professional psychotherapist.

But before we get there, first watch the video:

As you can see from the video, psychotherapy is frequently not what people think it is…

Let’s examine some of the myths about therapy a little further:

4 Myths that Might Stop You from Seeing a Psychotherapist:

Misconception #1: Psychotherapy is for People Who are Abnormal

Why Talking to a Psychotherapist is Not Like Talking to a Friend (And Other Misconceptions)

Psychotherapy can make us feel like a misfit of society

One of the most liberating ideas I was presented with as a student of psychotherapy was the idea that all humans struggle. As the famous psychodynamic therapist Nancy McWilliams has pointed out, the question to ask yourself and others is not: Are you crazy? But rather: How crazy are you? and crazy in what way?

This is in many ways the basic premise of psychodynamic psychotherapy: We all have our little neuroses, traits, or peculiarities that get in the way of living the life we wish we could live. We are all a little crazy and a little irrational at times. We all have some fears that other’s don’t. And we all get into situations that overwhelm us, make us fall short, or make us doubt ourselves.

Maybe we find ourselves dating the same type of ill-suited partner over and over or making the same relationship mistakes.

Or perhaps we find it hard to express our needs to anybody in authority, which creates problems at work, or make us sabotage our own success by turning assignments in late.

Whatever the situation may be, we all have something we struggle with that works against our better interest.

The only thing that distinguishes a person who seeks out psychotherapy from someone who doesn’t is therefore their willingness and courage to face the inherent struggles of their human existence.

The distinction is therefore not between someone normal and someone abnormal, but between someone who chooses to hide their abnormality behind the semblance of normality, and someone who recognizes that abnormality is normal and therefore gives themselves permission face their life as it is, not as they wish it to be.

Misconception #2: I Should Be Able to Solve My Own Problems

Why Talking to a Psychotherapist is Not Like Talking to a Friend (And Other Misconceptions)

We can often feel like we have failed if we cannot solve our problems of our own

Okay, so now that you have recognized that all humans struggle, you no longer need to distort your own reality to try to fit in to some illusory idea of what is normal.

However, you may still feel a little ill at ease about asking somebody else to help you with your problems.

Why? Because our culture in general often ascribes strength to the ability to fix-it-yourself.

Many people feel like it is a sign of weakness to not be able to handle whatever issues they are facing on their own. Instead of going to see a psychotherapist many people will therefore instead try out self-help books, or resort to self-made coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs, avoidance techniques, or putting on a forced smile.

However, a psychotherapist can accomplish something with you that it would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish on your own.

In fact a psychotherapist will not just listen and try to offer up new suggestions or solutions. Instead they will help you discover new thoughts and feelings that you have not been paying attention to or may have pushed out of your awareness. In this way they will help carry you beyond your own conscious knowledge of your problems, and will help you see and experience yourself in a new way.

In many ways, psychotherapy is really a process of standing back from your problems to see the bigger picture. Rather than offering solutions to the problems you think you have, psychotherapy helps you view your problems in a new way, so that the solutions you think you wanted, may not actually be the one’s you want.

Psychotherapy is therefore not a linear process of solving a problem, but a transformation of the very way to you experience yourself and your problems. It changes the context within which you view yourself, so that your very desires, needs, and wants may change.

The idea that you should be able to solve your own problems does not apply when it comes to matters of your psychological existence. The solution here is not one you can arrive at simply by applying logic to a known problem.  Instead, it involves a dialogue with someone who can listen in a different way based on parallel thinking, association, and the logic of the irrational, and can help you expand your awareness of things you didn’t know before.

Misconception #3: I Might as Well Just Talk to a Friend

Why Talking to a Psychotherapist is Not Like Talking to a Friend (And Other Misconceptions)

Can’t I just talk to a friend in stead of a therapist?

A friend and a psychotherapist are two very different characters.

We all can benefit from talking to friends. However, as many people often instinctively know, friends frequently don’t really offer the kind of listening and attentiveness that helps us feel comfortable opening up about our deepest fears and most embarrassing quirks.

This is why one of the first training goals for new students of psychotherapy is to unlearn their instinctive ways of responding as a friend.

Friends often do well-intentioned things that psychotherapists have learned are not really helpful.

As friends we often offer encouragement to help others not feel so bad about things. We try to cheer them up by telling them that things will be fine, or giving them reasons why they they should not feel sad, or guilty, or what have you. However, this inadvertently sends the message to the other person that we can’t tolerate or don’t want to hear about their pain, and that their pain is “irrational” or silly.

As friends we also often offer advice based on our own experience of what has worked for us, but such advise is often premature and ill suited for a person with other values and inclinations than our own. If you are honest with yourself, how often do you really find other people’s advice helpful? Most of the time, only when a part of you was already kind of thinking about doing the thing you friend has suggested. More often, however, advice simply feels invalidating and infantilizing. If our problems were so simple that we could simply solve them by following some piece of advice, we could probably have thought of the solution on our own.

An excellent video that illustrates why advice and encouragement is really not that helpful is Brene Brown‘s video on the difference between sympathy and empathy:

Finally as the video from The School of Life illustrated, friends most likely don’t have the deep understanding psychotherapists have about the complexities of human nature and the “normality of abnormality”. Friends therefore often have more limited views of what is acceptable, normal, and good and less tolerance for what is outside the cultural norm in our society or our immediate friendship groups. It therefore often does not feel that safe to admit to feelings or thoughts that may not be in line with what we think others deem to be acceptable or normal.

A psychotherapist on the contrary has a discipline to how they listen, how they respond, and how they make sense of what we say. They don’t make premature conclusions, don’t offer premature advice, and don’t shut down explorations of the aberrant or what lies outside of cultural standards of good and bad. This means they can meet us where we are, tolerate a wider range of our emotions, and help us expand our own knowledge and awareness of what we really think, feel, and want, even when we can’t quite accept these things about ourselves.

Misconception #4: Psychotherapy is Too Expensive

Why Talking to a Psychotherapist is Not Like Talking to a Friend (And Other Misconceptions)

Is psychotherapy really worth the investment?

It is true that psychotherapy can often be quite costly. This is both because good psychotherapists need a lot of training, and because psychotherapy by nature is a very time and labor intensive process.

When it comes time to consider whether therapy is really worth the expense, it is often helpful to consider the value you place on living a life of greater self-knowledge and awareness. For some people this kind of life is not really a priority, and for those psychotherapy will almost always feel too expensive.

If, on the other hand, you value living a more conscious life, you will feel less hesitant to see it as a worthwhile investment and will almost always be able to find room within your budget to see a psychotherapist.

At the end of the day it is often not the price of psychotherapy that is prohibitive, but the value you place on it.

Some people will easily spend thousands of dollars on a vacation, or will not hesitate to get Lasik surgery for their eyes, or Invisalign for their teeth, but will not want to spend the same kind of money on their mental and psychological well-being.

However, as the video from the School of Life makes it clear, life is not a skill we instinctively master, but a skill we have to learn. This in my book, makes psychotherapy an essential ingredient of any person’s quest to live a more fulfilling life.

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