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10 Things Therapists Wish You'd Understand About What They Do

January 30, 2015

Most people don't know what they're walking into when they finally take the plunge and first visit a therapist. Perhaps you expect the jargon-spouting, new-agey caricatures you see on television; people who gossip about your deepest secrets with their brunch pals or will jump into bed with their clients. But chances are, your therapist is more like you than you think. This is both horrible and wonderful news: To be good at what we do, we've taken time to sit in the other chair. We know what it's like to lay your head and heart on the table like a science experiment gone wrong. And we know that if you're paying money to sit in a room with us, then we better make it worth your while.

While your friends and family can be great for guidance, sometimes, you need a professional who has no bias or stake in the outcome of your life. So if you're thinking about trying out counseling, here are a few reminders that might calm your fears about taking the plunge. Here are 10 things we'd like you to know about what it is we actually do — and don't do — as your therapist.

1. We won't call you crazy.

Therapists are trained to see the bigger picture. You are the way you are partly because of your environment, genes, society, and family. We understand that a lot of our bad habits and unhealthy thoughts emerge as a strategy for simply getting through life. We're not going to call you crazy or judge you.

2. We don’t talk about you at brunch.

If therapists felt comfortable talking and writing about clients without their permission, we’d be writing pilots for NBC. As fascinating as a client might be, I keep my lips zipped. I’m only talking about you if I’m seeking guidance from a supervisor or expert colleague, and even then, I’m not giving out your name or info.

Besides, if I'm at brunch, I'm talking about whatever life-ruining television show I'm watching at the moment. Not everything is about you.

3. Change is always an absolute bitch.

People change when they’re up against a wall and they don't have much of a choice. Change is hard, and that reality isn't lost on us. So asking “How many sessions will it take until I’m fixed?” won't get you much of an answer. "What would it take for me to start doing something different?" is a better question to ask yourself.

4. We’re tired of you blaming only your parents.

The best therapy clients are the ones who understand that the only person you can control is yourself. Exploring past and present family hurt can be an important part of the work, but so is figuring out what the hell you're going to do with the life you’ve been given when your alarm bleeps in the morning. If you’re not ready to stop blaming others, then you’re probably not ready to make a major change in your mental health.

5. You cannot shock us.

Seriously. I cannot emphasize this enough. Sleeping with your ex may feel like the crime of the century to you, but chances are, there is nothing you’re going to share that will make us blink. And if there is, well then ... you’re exactly where you need to be.

6. Talking is not the only work that you need to do.

Ninety-nine percent of your outcome is dependent on what you do after you get up and walk out of the room. Are you taking better care of your mind and body? Putting yourself in difficult situations to grow and learn? Reacting maturely when your family annoys you for the millionth time? Therapy is like learning football plays. At some point, you have to run them and see what happens.

7. This is not a TV show.

TV therapists are bohemian-chic nodding machines that start all of their sentences with, “So who I hear you saying is...” As a counseling professor, I can assure you that we scrub those cliches out of our students’ minds before we let them graduate. I’ve never seen a TV therapist worth imitating, unless you count Tracey Ullman singing karaoke to Ally McBeal. That’s more my jam.

8. We’re also human.

Spoiler alert! We get anxious. We struggle with relationships. I have so many irrational thoughts that I named them Carl. Carl is kind of annoying and not interested in facts. Many therapists landed in the mental health field because we’ve had to do hard work on ourselves, or have experienced a life-altering event in our past. So be patient with us, and we’ll be patient with you. There’s no cure for being human, but there are solutions and strategies for mental illness.

9. Don’t save the best for last.

It’s human nature to divulge important or embarrassing information right before you escape out the door. Therapists call this a doorknob comment, and it puts us in a difficult position where we want to help you, but also have honor the person who might be coming in after you. If it’s an emergency situation, then absolutely ask for help. But if it’s past drama that can wait another week, then be patient.

10. We don't forget you.

I find myself wondering about past clients long after I’ve worked with them. That doesn’t mean I’m Googling you (unethical!), but I do hope that you’re happy and that you’re better now than when you first walked in the door and we first sized each other up. Therapists take the lessons that you’ve taught us in our work together, and we try to apply them our own lives and our future work. And we want you to know that for this, we are grateful.
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