Stigma and 3 Myths about Psychotherapy
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
So often lately I hear from friends, clients and even people I do not personally know at all that they read and enjoy the content of my blog posts. I have even received private messages that refer on specific posts for which they express appreciation about how relatable and enlightening they were for them.
Yet I do not see any engagement from these people on the blog posts themselves- meaning they don’t “like”, comment on or share the posts.
When I first observed this, it made me quite curious and a bit perplexed, so I asked about it.
The answer I keep getting is always along the same lines:
Many people might enjoy mental health- relevant content and even find it helpful and valuable for themselves, yet they are reluctant or unwilling to publicly interact with it out of shame and fear of what others can think of them.
Somehow it is still not ok to acknowledge being interested in mental health.
Long and often meaningless, argumentative discussions unfold under posts of any other sort of content, yet mental health is often read about and reflected upon solo and silently, secretly. It’s still not widely acceptable to admit mental health is interesting to you.
Others should not know that you may have an interest in such topics, because of what that might say about you as a person: that psychology blog posts are relatable to you, therefore you probably suffer from similar issues, or even -god forbid- that you are inclined towards therapy yourself! And what would that say about you..?
In other words, stigma about mental health and psychotherapy is still strong and vibrant, regardless of level of education and social class.
In this blog post, our focus will be exactly this: to untangle the stigma and 3 common myths around psychotherapy that are relevant to it, even just one tiny bit.
What is stigma?
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace or disapproval that is associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.
Think of it like a mental cage where you place yourself out of fear of judgement from others. Why lock yourself up?
Relevant to mental health, stigma is one of the main reasons that many people refrain from seeking help.
Stigma is differentiated between public stigma and self-stigma.
Public stigma is double, in the case of psychotherapy. There is the public stigma of having mental health concerns for which you would seek therapy, that society regards as something to be ashamed of and to remain hidden.
Moreover, there is the public stigma of seeking professional help. Somehow seeking help instead of managing by yourself is something that often makes people feel embarrassed and ashamed, as if they are not strong and resilient enough to deal with problems by themselves.
Self-stigma is internalized. In contrast to public stigma, that is others-oriented, self-stigma has to do with very negative perceptions about the Self. Self-stigma impacts self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence. The more a person sees seeking professional help for mental health issues as a threat to their self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence, the less likely they are to seek help.
3 Common Myths about Psychotherapy
1. Therapy is for the weak
This idea is embraced by many. “I don’t need therapy, I am strong enough to cope just by myself”.
This implies that seeking professional help for mental health issues is a definite sign of weakness.
If you feel sick or break your leg, is it a weakness to go to the doctor instead of dealing with the pain all by yourself and wait until it passes without treatment? No. Instead, it would be irresponsible to just sit and wait. Why should it be any different for inner struggles, then?
Actually admitting that there is something about you that you would like to work on, process, resolve or improve is a sign of strength, not weakness.
It means that you are capable of putting your ego aside, and recognize that a problem does exist. It reflects your willingness to change and grow. It shows that you are strong enough to accept external help from someone with specialized education, training and knowledge. It shows that you are taking action about whatever troubles you, that you are taking a step forward instead of leaving it to luck.
In addition, it shows that you can be vulnerable and willing to trust a stranger with your most intimate thoughts, feelings and memories. There is great power in vulnerability, it is not a negative trait. Being vulnerable is not equal to being fragile. It shows that you are ready to take off the armor of protection and present your inner world naked. Yes, resistance is a natural part of the process, because it is neither easy nor straightforward and old patterns are bound to emerge.
But you did it- you took the step out of passivity and into the unknown. You got out of your comfort zone. The very process of doing so, already has empowering effects on you.
2. Going to therapy shows you have serious mental issues and that you are crazy
Going to therapy means that you must be crazy, that you must struggle profoundly with some severe mental health disorder.
In fact, people go to therapy for a number of reasons. They don’t always have a serious mental disorder, but they go through serious life transitions or face life challenges that happen to all of us.
Maybe you lost someone important to you and don’t know how to cope with grief and loss by yourself. Maybe you are going through a heartbreaking separation from a romantic relationship. Maybe you get extremely anxious at the prospect of meeting new people.
Maybe you were raped and get flashbacks of the terrible incident, even though the rest of your life seems great. Maybe you suffered abuse while growing up, that has left scars on your self-worth. Maybe you have constant arguments with your partner and wonder about how to revive your relationship. Maybe you just moved to a foreign country and feel lonely and shy. Maybe you feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a new, pressuring job.
Maybe you feel unsure about your sexuality or gender. Maybe you face unpredictable panic attacks. Maybe you worry about every little thing in your everyday life. Maybe you have a tough time coping with the daily stressors of life. Maybe you feel low and depressed for no apparent reason, struggling to find a meaning to go on.
Maybe you wanted to lose some weight but lost control in the process. Maybe you wonder how you can be more dynamic and assertive and express more firm boundaries to the ones around you. Maybe you want to communicate more effectively.
Maybe you wonder how come the relationships you have leave you unsatisfied and disappointed. Maybe you don’t understand how your mood can change so rapidly. Maybe you feel distressed very easily and would like to learn how to tolerate and regulate your emotions with more mastery.
Are any of these above reasons signs of being crazy? (And what does crazy mean, anyway??)
No. They are all very human conditions. Whatever your reason is, it is valid.
Going to therapy does not signify you are crazy- just that you are a perfectly imperfect human being that occasionally struggles and wants to increase your sense of well-being and improve your quality of life.
What’s more “normal” than this?
3. You don’t need therapy if you have good friends. Therapy is the same like talking to a friend
Surprisingly, there is this pervasive belief that therapy is no different to talking to a good friend, or that it is completely unnecessary for someone that has good friends.
To disconfirm that, you can go ask whoever you know that is in therapy, and also has good friends. I strongly believe there won’t be anyone that agrees with the above belief.
What could be true, is that someone with good friends could be experiencing more support as compared to someone without friends- so maybe for someone without friends, the sense of support derived from therapy could be much stronger. But still, therapy is not the same like talking to a friend.
First of all, friendships are reciprocal relationships. You and your friend mutually share personal details with each other, exchange opinions and arrange social activities together. In contrast, therapy is solely about you. You are not going to be doing friendly chit-chat with your therapist, nor exchange personal stories and experiences with them.
Secondly, psychologists have specialized training and education in order to be able to assist their clients in the best possible way. Psychotherapy sessions are not just social conversations, but have the focus on your thoughts and emotions about specific issues. You will be drawing parallels between different experiences in order to uncover underlying patterns, and encouraged to gain insights and realize deeper meanings about yourself.
Thirdly, although you may feel very comfortable with your friends, perhaps there are things you censor yourself from expressing. For instance, maybe you are careful not to hurt their feelings, or you don’t express certain opinions because you know they disagree with you.
In psychotherapy, this is not the case as it happens within a context of safety and confidentiality where you can express anything you think or feel.
Your friends are personally involved with you. Your psychologist is just there for you.
In conclusion… Take action against mental health stigma!
There is nothing shameful about being interested in mental health and psychotherapy.
On the contrary, it is just an indicator that you are a human being, inquisitive, conscientious, curious, motivated to improve your circumstances, inspired to change and to grow.
If you are one of those that feel slightly embarrassed to hit “like” on mental health blog posts even when you actually find them meaningful and enjoyable, out of fear of what your friends might think about you, I urge you to take an active step against this stigma today already!
Be yourself, shamelessly and proudly. If you enjoy reading about mental health, promote this tendency also to others. It is with small and simple steps such as this that we can demolish stigma.