Blog: Perspectives on mental health services

Becoming a more informed client and consumer

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Myth: Going to a therapist means I can’t solve my problems on my own

Starting therapy means seeking help, and that isn’t easy for most of us.  And therapy often raises more troubling concerns than seeking other forms of help, such as going to a lawyer, accountant or medical doctor.  After all, we usually have a pretty good idea of why we might need a lawyer, for instance, but may not be at all sure when and how a therapist comes into play.  Plus, most of us want to feel that we can solve emotional problems on our own; we know that lawyers can provide specialized guidance around legal matters we wouldn’t be expected to understand, but we do tend to expect ourselves to have enough of a say in our own thoughts, feelings and actions that we shouldn’t need any help with them.  So even when we encounter something logically distressing such as losing a job or a loved one, we think should be able to rebound on our own. Likewise, we think we should be able to solve work and relationship problems on our own.  And experiences like obsessive thoughts, panic attacks, or flashbacks are uniquely disconcerting because they feel even more outside of our control.

Often we can and do solve these sorts of problems on our own, but if we find ourselves struggling with them we can end up feeling weak and ineffective.  We feel like we lack emotional resilience. We think we have no strength of character.  We decide we’re not smart enough, decisive enough, or capable enough.  Doesn’t everyone have problems?  Why can’t we sort ours out?  The stigma surrounding psychological issues can take many forms: mental illness is one but mental weakness is another.  In this context, just the thought of going to a therapist can actually engender a sense of weakness and vulnerability.

In reality, though, the problems we address in therapy are not a matter of weakness in this sense. In fact, they often reflect tried-and-true coping mechanisms gone awry.  We all have our own coping style and, under stress, we particularly fall back on what we know and what’s worked for us in the past.  Emotionally expressive people become more dramatic, while those who keep emotions at arm’s length push them even further away.  Pessimists see the dark side, while optimists hold out hope and minimize all evidence to the contrary.  Analytical people look to break everything down logically.  And so on.

These characteristic styles are actually strengths in many situations.  Indeed, this is true even for pessimists, who often appraise their life circumstances more realistically than most of us. However, we can also take such approaches too far.  When pessimism becomes hopelessness, cynicism, or fatalism, it starts to blend into depression.  Alternatively, optimists can push themselves so hard to be positive that they ignore or downplay meaningful and sensible negative reactions to life events.  Or sometimes we encounter problems our characteristic approach simply doesn’t fit.  These situations hit us in a blind spot: it’s not that we can’t solve our own problems, it’s that we’re applying familiar and effective formulas to the wrong problems.

For example, you can’t analyze yourself out of the feelings involved in the loss of a loved one.  Of course, you can rationalize, minimize and distract yourself—all of us probably do, and these maneuvers may help us get through a difficult period to some extent.  But in the end, you can’t outthink a loss: you can’t outsmart it, analyze it away or force it into submission.  It’s not that there aren’t things that you can do: you can facilitate the mourning process; you can respect it and protect it.  You can respect your own feelings, and respect yourself for having them.  You can try to understand what the loss means to you.  You can make room for the natural process to unfold, and even foster it.  But this is often hard for analyzers, who are accustomed to seeing everything as a problem they can figure out and solve.  The loss of a loved one is simply not a problem in that sense, and there is no such solution.

Notice, though, that this is not a matter of weakness or lack of ability: the analyzer is just as good at solving problems as ever, but is applying the wrong formula in this case.  This, in turn, leads to a sense of frustration and helplessness when his or her efforts fail to yield their usual results.  The same applies to those trying to cope with symptoms of depression or anxiety, where attempts to deal with our feelings often inadvertently exacerbate the original problem.  The hard part is that it’s difficult for most of us to recognize the mismatch between the problem and our attempted solution, and this is exactly where a good therapist comes in.  This is not about making you stronger because you’re too weak, nor is it simply telling you the “right” way to do it.  We can help you see the real problem you’re facing.  We can also help you see your own style and how it gets in the way.  We can also help you see a new way forward.  It’s up to you to take it.