Have you been thinking about therapy? If so, this is the blog post for you - three reasons that I think it would be good for everyone to try it, and two reasons that you absolutely shouldn't.
"But Sarah," I hear you say, "of course you're going to think everyone should try therapy, you're a clinical psychologist!" And I guess part of that is true, but I do wonder what a world where everyone had the opportunity to go to therapy would look like. Would we be able to be kinder to ourselves, and to others? Maybe we'd be so introspective that we'd miss the bigger picture. I don't know. But here's what I do know:
Therapy helps you to understand yourself
Therapy done well, whether you're experiencing serious mental health difficulties or looking for someone to help you work through some life issues, helps you to understand yourself better. Life can pass by quickly, and it's easy to fall into patterns of behaviour that are comfortable. Often they're comfortable because they insulate you from the difficult stuff that you'd quite like to avoid (why deal with your anxiety when your partner can keep doing the things that you're anxious about for you? Why do anything about your low mood when you can function at work and then crash in front of Netflix for the rest of the day?). Therapy doesn't allow you to hide in comfortable routines. It drills down into everything you're doing, and asks for the reasons that you're doing it, hopefully in a compassionate, careful way. I often ask my clients to fill in activity diaries for me - not because I'm just nosey, but because they're an invaluable way to work out how people spend their time and what they consider "normal." Through this, I can find out that someone spends five hours playing video games rather than spending time with their children, or spends hours washing and changing their bedding each day due to obsessive compulsive disorder. It's fascinating, and if people want to change, they have to understand why they do these things in the first place.
Therapy helps you to understand others
Once you understand your own motivations for behaving the way you do, you can start to understand other people better. Often we prefer to think about others in a way that confirms our biases; when you're feeling low the barista didn't smile at you because she doesn't like you, your friend doesn't text you back because he secretly doesn't want to spend time with you. Reality can be a bit different though - none of us are mind-readers, however much we might like to believe we are. There is usually a more mundane explanation for behaviour - the barista didn't smile at you because she's tired, your friend didn't text you back because he's been busy at work. I'm not saying everyone has benign motivations, but if I was having a bad day I know I would want it to be treated as the one-off that it was, rather than it being investigated more deeply.
Being in therapy can change your outlook on life
If you're struggling with life, then therapy is a good place to be. If you think everything is good, but want it to be better, then therapy is also a good place to be - you don't have to wait until everything is awful to seek it out. Admittedly, in the UK you have to be in a pretty bad place to get therapy on the NHS, so if things are good maybe consider paying privately to see someone. There's something about engaging in a therapeutic relationship with someone that is really special - you don't learn very much about them, this isn't a friendship, but they help you to notice the best (and worst) parts of yourself and hold them up to the light like gemstones. And once you're aware that you are more than the sum of your parts, more than "Jack's mum" or "the school cleaner" or "Alice's wife," you start to reclaim the bits of you that you thought were lost, or the bits you never had time for - relaxation, laughter, kindness towards yourself. Really good therapy can help you with both recognition of where you want to be, and give you the tools to get there. Fundamentally, that's a part of why I love my job.
Reasons you shouldn't go into therapy
Having said that, there are some very good reasons that therapy isn't for everyone. Ultimately, therapy is talking to someone else about your life - some people find that really uncomfortable. That discomfort isn't a reason not to give it a try, but you're got to give us a little bit of yourself if you want to get something back. The main two reasons I think therapy isn't the best idea are:
You're expecting the therapist to fix you
Therapy is a collaborative effort (the specific type of therapy I prefer, cognitive-behavioural therapy, is a relational therapy first and foremost - and if it isn't, then it's not being done well in my opinion). As I previously said, none of us are mind-readers, and therapists aren't psychic and can't change your life for you. The best we can do is give you some tools to set better boundaries, manage your mental health differently, and look after yourself better. We can't get you a new job, or a new partner, or a different body to the one you already have. You have to change some of those things yourself - but we'll be there to help if you want us to be.
You don't want to put the work in, or you can't
As above, if you're not going to do the work, it's hard to help. We can break the work down into tiny, tiny bite-sized pieces so that it's easier to do - but if you don't want to do it, I can't make you. For example - I'm scared of spiders. I know how graded exposure works and I don't want to put myself through it right now - and I don't need to, because I'm getting better at managing my phobia myself. But if I'm not willing to really commit to it, there's no point in me doing it.
The flip-side to that is if you're really struggling to survive - therapy isn't the answer to everything. Sometimes the answer is a paid heating bill, or a roof over your head, or a decent meal. Some therapists are doing great work in this area (the NeuroTriage Project is a good example of this) but in general I don't believe that therapy should be forced onto people who aren't safe and secure. We all need to do more to help the most vulnerable people in our society, and there are loads of ways to do that without therapy being the first option.
Let me know about your experiences of therapy in the comments!
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects