When I started seeing clients in Maryland five years ago I noticed that people often had the same comments or questions regarding the therapeutic process. They typically go something like this:
“but you haven’t experienced [parenting] so you don’t really know what its like,”
“you must have the perfect marriage,”
“I didn’t want to come because people in therapy have real problems and ours isn’t a problem,”
“I figured that if I came to therapy once a week something would change”
….these types of comments and more go on and on. In short, people think ALL sorts of things about therapy. So, in an effort to unveil some of the truths behind therapy I’d like to expose a myth. Exposing this myth is to help create transparency around couples therapy. Because you oughta know (Alanis Morissette, anyone)?
Couples therapy is not meant to be some secret. It’s not meant to be confusing. Sending an email can be something you feel confident about when you know what you’re signing up for. Are you ready to learn more about couples therapy right now?
For less than the cost of a first session you can learn everything you need to know about the couples therapy process AND have some practical tools for growing today so that your first session can be intentional and productive.
OK, back to the myth! In reality, people have a lot of ideas about what therapy is and is not. I don’t think Goodwill Hunting and the late Robin Williams punching his client in an actual session helped, but I digress. Here’s a really common myth about therapy that’d I would like to unpack, and it’s a tough one!
Myth #1: Just attending therapy will fix things.
Attending therapy WILL fix things. But there’s a big IF.
Let me first give you a little insight into the eyes of a therapist. When I start working with a new client I have a typical routine after we schedule our first appointment….
Make sure they found the office OK,
Explain how we are going to spend the time during our first session,
Go over the paperwork, remind them of the importance of confidentiality,
Make sure they know how to reach me, etc.
Then I get going with the therapy magic. A lot of people don’t know what to expect in a first appointment, especially if they have never been to therapy before. No two appointments are the same. Each session is tailored to the needs of the client, which is why therapists have be flexible, curious, empathic, and intuitive.
But there’s more. During that first session I’m keeping a close eye out for several things. Things that I know if a client has will make therapy so so smooth. Things that I know if a client doesn’t have, will make therapy much more intensive. Not impossible, certainly not impossible, but yes, intensive.
So what am I on the lookout for? Drumroll please…
I could spend an entire blog writing about each of these but I want to focus on that last one. So, I’ll summarize the first three.
Grit is another word for resilience. Check out this awesome TedTalk, or book, (PS- I get nothing for promoting these, they are just really, really good) for more information on the concept of Grit. Essentially, it’s the idea that some people can have the worst circumstances and still learn to rise above. Not instantaneously, not perfectly, but in the end, they learn to rise. I like to pull forward Andra Day’s Rise Up when I think of grit.
Insight is that deep level thinking about self and others. Can a client sit back and see how their choices impact who they are and where they are at? Can they assess how others view them and how they view themselves? Tasha Eurich has a fantastic read on Insight, if you’re looking to learn more about yourself.
Insight and systemic thinking are close siblings. Systemic thinking is a more nuanced layer that I actually specialize in from my therapeutic background as a marriage and family therapist. The basic gist is that system thinkers can consider the systems [context] they operate in and how these systems impact them. For example, if someone is going through a divorce and they have a flexible job, they are more easily able to adjust their schedule for their new co-parenting arrangement. However, if they don’t have a flexible job and on top of that they just had a parent tragically die, then they are being impacted in different ways. Add in that they also need to move a less safe neighborhood due to finances changing and one of their children was just diagnosed with ADD and now you have layers upon layers. Systems thinkers see the layers within themselves, their relationships, and their environment.
I know what you’re thinking. If someone comes to my office and takes a seat they are motivated, they’re in therapy, aren’t they? Yes, they are motivated, to a certain degree. I never, never underestimate how difficult making that first phone call can be and sitting down in a therapy chair when you’ve never sat there before. These are really difficult choices and any client willing to take the risk, no matter what the circumstances, has courage.
But motivation is a little different. A client can come in and say oh, I’m motivated, she’s threatening to leave me, I’m motivated. But that motivation does not tell me how ready the person is to change. So, let me introduce you to Prochaska’s stages of change.
You’re sticking in really well, keep reading! Or just go ahead and buy the e-course so you don’t have to finish reading the blog – ha!
Prochaska’s five stages of change are what therapists use to assess where a client is in their openness to growth. And whether you like the idea or not, if you are thinking of changing or doing anything, anything at all, then you fall somewhere on the stages of change. So what are these stages? Simply put:
Here’s the short of what each stage means in reverse order.
Maintenance: the change has already been made, the person is now maintaining their progress
Action: the person is taking clear steps regarding the change
Preparation: the person is ready to take steps, they are considering how/when/where to take the steps
Contemplation: the person is thinking that change is needed
Pre-contemplation: the person is thinking about thinking about change
That last one is the hardest to understand. Pre-contemplation means that the person may understand that things in their life are not desirable but they don’t truly recognize the problem or may be defensive about their behavior because they cannot fathom changing. They may occasionally throw out a comment about change but they are still swirling in whether they are even ready to explore the idea of change (e.g., thinking about thinking).
So you see, therapy will fix things. A therapist can help fix things. In fact, they are highly qualified and specialized at helping people explore their own world, feelings, opinions, and experiences, walk with them, and navigate new paths together.
IF the client is ready.
And, if you’re reading this and thinking 1. I’m in therapy and realizing I’m not ready for change or 2. should I not attend therapy if I’m not ready? Hang on just one second…
Therapy is still the right place to be. While you might not feel prepared or ready to change, therapists are still able to help. In fact, they are trained on how to help someone move from stage to stage. Remember that word I used above? Intensive. Yes, to be honest, therapy is more intensive when someone isn’t ready for change. It can often take more time and require more patience but that is exactly what a therapist is here for.
I am here to support, to encourage, to challenge, and to empower. I am here to assess where you are and help slowly move you to where you want to be. And, to be completely honest, that’s not just my job. It’s my joy.
So, together we debunked one myth of therapy: just attending therapy won’t fix you. At times you have to do hard work… homework, deep thinking, challenging thoughts, channeling emotions, and more. You can’t just sit in therapy and expect a magic wand to change your circumstances. But if you’re willing to take the risk of coming and exploring, well, I’m here to help.
Dr. Kendra A. O’Hora, Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist
PS – Hopefully through this post you learned a bit about one common myth of therapy. Interested in learning more about our latest e-course or other resources we offer? Keep reading!
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