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Ten Scary Myths About Therapy

Ten Scary Myths About Therapy

More people are recognizing that therapy can benefit just about anyone who chooses to pursue it. But we haven't completely embraced it yet. We're still wary of what it means to get therapy. Our understanding of what therapy is, how it works, and who it's for is still shrouded in myth.


Many people resist therapy because of what they fear it means is true about them if they go. Some fear that it will be too painful and difficult to bear, while others wave it off as too easy or simple to be of any use. Yet others fear it will change them in ways they don't want to change.


If you've hesitated to seek therapy for any of these reasons, this article is for you. Read on to learn more about the real reality behind some of the most common therapy myths.


1. "Going to therapy means that I'm weak."


If you've delayed starting therapy hoping that you'll get better on your own, you are not alone. You live in a culture where you're told you should be able to figure it out for yourself and do it on your own. If you can't, you're made to believe that you're the exception. Everyone else can tough it out and figure it out without having to go cry about their problems in therapy, so why can't you? It must be because you're weaker than everyone else.


This is the myth-iest of all therapy myths. It isn't true from any angle. First, people don't work through deep emotional challenges by shoving aside their emotions and "toughing it out." This is a form of denial and repression that preserves conflicted feelings in amber. For this strategy to work, you have to stay numb or distracted.  The pressure created by denying or hiding from your emotions wears you down, leaving you brittle inside and ready to snap as soon as your defenses give way.


Second, going to therapy is an act of strength. It takes courage to face yourself and your struggles and talk to another person about them. It means you're willing to invest your time and energy into truly resolving your problems. It means you're willing to bravely face whatever challenges you'll meet along the way, just like the hero in the hero's journey.


Third, good therapy helps you become stronger. In therapy, you'll get to know who you really are and what really matters to you. You'll get more comfortable with yourself and your feelings so you don't have to waste so much energy and strength avoiding them. You'll release old hurts and faulty beliefs that chip away at your sense of confidence and self-worth. As you continue to work through your blocks in therapy, you'll become less of a pushover and lose tolerance for toxic people and avoidable misery. You'll start to project a quiet strength that others will notice.



2. "Going to therapy means something is wrong with me."


This one is complicated. First, you don't have to have a diagnosed mental health condition to go to therapy. Second, if you do have a mental illness, it doesn't mean that something is wrong with you—at least not in the way you might be thinking.


Most insurance plans require a therapist to give you a diagnosis to cover your therapy sessions. One reason this frustrates many therapists is that it's an artificial barrier that doesn't reflect the nature of their profession. In addition to treating mental health conditions, therapists also help people work through relationship problems, navigate career transitions, and address personal growth goals that often don't correlate with any diagnosis or disorder.


But even if you do meet criteria to be diagnosed with a mental health condition, it doesn't mean something is wrong with you in the sense that you are "flawed" relative to others and need to be "fixed." Having a mental health condition does not make you defective or any less valid than someone who doesn't have one. It makes you a complicated, whole human being who has lived through pain and has the capacity to recover, enjoy life, and do great things. It means enough people have gone through something like what you're going through that a therapist is likely to know some proven strategies to help you heal.


Our understanding of the mind is still quite small. We honestly don't know what "normal" is, aside from the fact that feeling lots of feels and struggling through life in an imperfect world is part of being human. We're all a little weird behind closed doors and we all accumulate various unhealthy coping strategies by the time we reach adulthood. Wanting to heal your wounds and improve your life means there is less wrong with you than with people who don't want to deal.


3. "Therapy takes too much time and costs too much money."


Have you thought about going to therapy, then worried, "But I'll have to be in therapy forever?" With hourly therapy rates ranging to $200 an hour or more, calculating how much you'll end up spending on years of therapy can be nerve-wracking. It can make therapy seem like something that isn't meant for you.


Fortunately, that's not the case. Therapy doesn't have to be so prolonged or expensive. There are a lot of inexpensive options you may not be aware of that you can find out about by surfing the articles and listings on our site, including university counseling departments, integrated health clinics, local mental health non-profits, and the public mental health system.


Also keep in mind that therapists charge variable rates. Many therapists offer sliding-scale rates and some even offer pro bono sessions. They may not advertise that on their profiles but you can always ask when you call to inquire. I've personally gotten discounts based on my income both times I've done therapy. Our sponsor, BetterHelp, offers income-based discounts on their base rate that range from 10 to 40 percent.


As far as how long therapy takes, that is absolutely and always up to you. How long it will take you to achieve your therapy goals depends on what your therapy goals are. If you've got a very specific, circumstantial problem, you might be able to address it in just a few weeks. If you want to untangle a complex trauma, it will probably take longer. But you always have the freedom to pause or take a break from therapy as needed to honor your financial and other needs.


It's actually helpful to the process to take a break from therapy here and there if you're working through longer-term issues. Pauses can help you integrate and apply the work you've already done. Once you've made progress in therapy, it's something no one can take away from you. It's an incredible investment in your future even if you don't finish the work all at once.


4. "Talking about my problems won't really change anything."

You've probably heard the saying, "Talk is cheap." This unfortunate saying is based on a partial truth. It's true that people often find it easier to talk about problems than to take specific steps to address them, and it's also true that talk doesn't always lead to action. But it's equally true that you have to talk about something before you can take effective action to address it.


On the simplest level, the talking you do in therapy helps you develop insights that you can turn into actions. For example, you need to realize that you don't have good boundaries with certain people before you can start to work on improving those boundaries. You need to understand that your perspective is a depressed perspective before you can start to question it.


On a deeper level, talk sometimes is action in itself, especially the kind of talking you do in therapy. When you tell someone something you've been keeping secret, it loses some of its power. It's no longer just circling around inside your own head, consuming your energy and dampening your mood. It's also easier to notice that certain thoughts are irrational when you talk about them with someone else. It's not just a trick that talking can make you feel lighter. It's the only way to start the process of change and heal your relationship with yourself.


5. "Talking to a therapist is the same as talking to a friend."


So, you might think, if talking is so helpful, why pay a therapist when I could just talk to a friend? Well, while it's true that talking to friends can be helpful and healing, it's definitely not the same as talking to a therapist. Therapy is not simply venting, chatting, or getting advice. It is a unique process that can only happen if you're with someone who's been trained to do it.


One thing that distinguishes a therapist from a friend is that therapists intentionally limit how much they talk about themselves. Their focus is on you and helping you through a process of self-examination, catharsis, and insight. Unlike a friend, a therapist doesn't need to give equal (or any) time to their problems. They don't need to compete or compare themselves with you. By maintaining the focus on you, a therapist can help you go deeper than a friend can.


A good therapist is also more neutral and less reactive than a friend. Even well-intentioned friends can sometimes make you feel worse when you tell them something that they don't understand or that they find threatening. A therapist helps you open up by creating a safe space where you can share your thoughts and feelings without fear of being judged.


Unlike a friend, a good therapist doesn't just listen and give you advice based on their beliefs. In therapy, you are the expert on your own life, not your therapist. Your therapist's goal is to help you discover your own truths and achieve your own insights, not tell you who they think you should be. Think of your therapist as a guide with a torch to light the way through your inner world as you navigate it together, not a guru who has all the answers.


For more insights on what makes a therapist different from a friend, you can read our article, "How Therapy Works."


6. "We're just going to talk about my childhood the whole time."


It's true that reflecting on experiences from childhood can be a source of powerful insights in therapy. So many of the hurtful or limiting things you believe about yourself, your relationships, and life in general are rooted in what you learned as a child. In therapy, you can finally examine and challenge these assumptions and free yourself to think and live differently as an adult.


That said, there is a lot of therapeutic work that doesn't require delving into your childhood at all. Not only do many modern methods, like solution-focused therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), require no information about your childhood experiences to work, many issues and therapeutic goals don't require it either. For example, if you're getting CBT for depression, while you'll need to examine and modify old beliefs in order to address your symptoms, you won't need to pinpoint exactly where they came from. And If you're trying to recover from a recent trauma, you'll focus more on that event in your sessions than on your early life.


Keep an open mind, though. You might start working on an issue with your therapist that doesn't seem to relate to your childhood experiences—like a communication issue in your relationship—only to find that it does, and that the only way to resolve the issue is to clarify and release the beliefs your parents passed on to you. You might be surprised how light and liberating these moments in therapy can be, and how rarely you need to dwell on them.


7. "I'll lose myself, my passion, or my creative ability if I go to therapy."


For as long as we've misunderstood mental health and psychology, we've misunderstood the creative process. In former eras, at the same time people shunned and stigmatized people with mental health conditions, they also glorified creative masterminds who experienced depression and mania. To create works of genius, artists must suffer, they believed.


Millennials and Generation Z are questioning the trope of the tortured artist, but the trope still lingers. You might wonder about it, too. If you go to therapy and start to work out your issues, will you be less yourself than you were before? Will you be less creative, less driven, and less interesting? Will you feel less passion? Will your adventurous spirit fade and become more conventional? Will you put down your paints, your guitar, your pen, start working as a clerk, and forget all the artistic dreams and visions you once had?


The answer is an emphatic no. Going to therapy made me more creative, more adventurous, and more willing to take risks and pursue my dreams. It's done the same for friends and family members. At its deepest level, therapy helps you shed your false self and connect to your true self. It helps you overcome fears of self-expression and heal your creative blocks. If anything, you're more likely to take that trip around the world, start that YouTube channel, or write that novel when you've addressed the psychological issues that have been holding you back. It's so much easier to create when you have a clear mind and feel safe enough to play and express who you really are.


8. "Being honest with my therapist will get me in trouble." 


It's easy to turn a therapist into an authority figure. One of the classic principles of therapy is transference, in which you project feelings related to your parents onto your therapist. This means that if you feel anxious around your parents, you'll probably feel similar anxieties with your therapist. It also means you'll expect your therapist to think about you and react to you the same way your parents did. If you grew up with a parent who judged and punished you harshly, you're likely to expect your therapist to be the same way.


The truth is, the last thing most therapists want to do is judge, hurt, or hinder you. (Read our article on how to spot unethical therapists for tips on how to avoid the few bad apples who do.) One common trait that draws therapists to the field is empathy—they are sensitive to others' emotions and feel good when they help others feel better. The best therapists take pride in being open-minded, appreciate the diversity of human experience, and genuinely find their clients interesting. A good therapist doesn't want to tell you what to do; they value your freedom and individuality and want to help you figure out what you want to do.


Therapists are bound to strict confidentiality requirements. They can lose their licenses if they talk about clients outside of the office. There are exceptions: if you disclose that you actively want to harm yourself or someone else or that you are abusing a child, your therapist has to report it. But even though therapists have a professional duty to disclose these things (they can seek to have you committed if you're planning to harm yourself or others and will report child abuse to child protective agencies), they are required to limit even these allowable disclosures to when they think a risk is serious and active. They don't want or need to report or have you punished for your past "sins"—they want to help you heal and find peace.


9. "Therapy is easy. All I have to do for therapy to work is show up for my sessions."


You can't simply pay your therapist, lean back, and let them do all the work. Therapists aren't like mechanics, who work on your car while you sit in the waiting room, or surgeons, who work on you while you're under anesthesia. Therapy only works if you do the work. Think of your therapist as a collaborator and guide, not a technician you pay to perform a service for you.


Being an active participant in the therapeutic process means doing the work both inside and outside of the therapy room. Your sessions will be a lot more powerful if you're open, honest, and ask deep questions. Therapy is also more effective if you identify and track your goals and discuss your progress with your therapist.


It's just as important to do your homework in therapy. Sometimes, that means doing actual assignments your therapist gives you, such as tracking your moods, creating a healthy reward system for positive change, or trying different communication techniques in your relationships. Sometimes, it means doing homework even when it isn't assigned, such as keeping a journal on therapy-related topics or applying therapeutic insights to everyday life.


For more tips on how to get more out of therapy, read our article, "88 Tips for How to Get the Most Out of Online Therapy" (most of our tips also apply to traditional offline therapy).


10. "Therapy is hard. It will be so stressful that it will break me down."


You might fear that therapy is like Pandora's box—once you open the lid on your psyche, all sorts of fearsome creatures will leap out, overwhelming your defenses and leaving you helpless. Will you start bursting into tears at work? Will you lie in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep as a flood of traumatic memories surges through your brain? Will you have to endure intense emotional pain every time you're in session?


The simple answer is no. While therapy isn't effortless, it's not a struggle, either. Your therapist will probably become easier to talk to than anyone else you know. You might be surprised by how much you'll laugh in your sessions. And when you do cry in therapy, it's more likely to be out of relief or catharsis than pain or sadness. As you thaw the emotions you've repressed, they start to flow more easily, and that free flow feels good. So much psychological pain comes from resisting how you feel—which is something therapy helps you learn how to stop doing.


A lot of the things that therapy gets you to do are only difficult because you're not used to doing them. Your habitual way of being in the world is what's uncomfortable. As you do your homework, adjust your boundaries, and give yourself permission to seek joy, life will start to feel easier and less hostile. It's only hard at first because you have to face the fears and beliefs that limit you. But even the growing pains don't have to be too painful—releasing what's been holding you down is liberating. The only things therapy breaks down are the walls you've built.




Therapy is fueled by the tension between hope and fear. The hope that you can heal and live a more fulfilled life is what drives you to face and work through your fears. Built on the healing power of human connection, therapy is a nearly universal method that can help you overcome limiting beliefs you've had for a lifetime. Your therapist is a caring guide who will encourage, reassure, and challenge you as you work through what has been holding you back.


Neither difficult nor easy, therapy is a gently challenging confrontation with yourself that can reconnect you to a more natural way of being in the world. It's as normal and natural to see a therapist to help you heal and grow as it is to go to a doctor to address physical conditions or go back to school so you can start a new career. It doesn't change or diminish you. It doesn't mean you're weak, defective, or "messed up." It simply means that you're ready to change your life for the better.


If you feel ready to start therapy, we've got the tools to help. You can browse our site to find great articles on a wide range of therapy-related subjects, including how to choose a therapist and how to build your relationship with your therapist. You can use our location search to find affordable therapists where you live or use our public mental health pages to find out how your state's system works. You can also sign up with our sponsor, BetterHelp, to try affordable online therapy that includes weekly live sessions. So, if you're ready, reach out—the support you need may only be a call or click away.

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Stephanie Hairston, MSW
Posted on 08/16/2020 by Stephanie Hairston, MSW

Stephanie Hairston is a freelance mental health writer who spent several years in the field of adult mental health before transitioning to professional writing and editing. As a masters-level clinical social worker, she provided group and individual therapy, crisis intervention services, and psychological assessments. She has also worked as a technical writer for a medical software company and as an editor for a company that appeals denials of insurance coverage for behavioral health treatment. As a writer, she is motivated by the same desire to help others that brought her into the field of social work and believes that knowledge is one of the most essential recovery tools. She strongly believes in the mission of OpenCounseling and in making therapy accessible for everyone.