What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of a psychologist?
A couch on which you are invited to lie down, while, on a chair next to you, the psychologist is writing down your words and asks you from time to time And how did that make you feel?
Or maybe you are thinking about that pure madness in the asylums, like in a movie scene, with a psychologist, dressed in a long white robe, walking through the hospital hallways, while patients display their madness in front of the cameras.
In the following I try to answer 10 of the most widespread preconceived ideas about psychology, psychologists and psychotherapy. My answers are subjective, they come from my vision and my therapeutic approach, and they are valid in my office. I hope they will bring you more clarity and will help you better outline your expectations for therapy.
Let’s separate facts from fiction!
People come to therapy for countless reasons. They are ordinary people with ordinary, everyday problems. They can ask for support through difficult times such as losing a loved one, losing a job, going through a divorce, moving to another city / country. Others want to improve their relationships, increase their self-esteem or they need support in managing a personal crisis or a disease they are going through.
By definition, the word therapy means treatment, it means healing. And for this, psychotherapy services address depression, anxiety disorders, addictions and more. Other people simply want to reduce their daily stress. In the fast pace of today’s society, many people are starting therapy to better manage the work responsibilities with family responsibilities, when personal, quality time becomes almost impossible to find.
What would others say about me if they find out I’m in therapy? Well, if you ask me, they will say that it is a sign of maturity. It is a great achievement to be willing to do what is necessary to take care of yourself, to be better. So why are we discussing this matter?
I believe the ideas from the competitive business world have influenced us more than we realize. We have quickly embraced the Alpha personality trend, of the strong personalities, but the consequences that follow for being weak, not being good / strong enough don’t leave much space for vulnerability acceptance. Maybe we have been teased or intimidated by others. Maybe we were avoided or completely excluded, by friends or even family. As a result, we quickly learned our lesson: we do not show ourselves completely and authentically to others, we do not show them our vulnerability, in order not to experience once again the awful rejection experience. We camouflaged ourselves under a smile that numbly accompanies our communication: How are you doing? Fine / I am fine / Everything is fine.
Could you imagine it being just as taboo to go see an orthopedist when you break your leg? Or to a cardiologist for hypertension? Mental health has its role alongside physical health for us to experience overall wellbeing.
Having a close social circle, on which you could rely for support, is a great advantage. Whether we are talking about friends or family members, they can be extremly helpful in difficult times. But sometimes you may need an objective, external perspective.
What makes a psychologist different from a friend is his professional training. We are trained to listen. Really listen . But we don’t just stop here. The techniques we work with have been built, verified and strengthened through decades of research, with the help of hundreds of thousands of other people who have turned to psychologists, just like you, and who have benefited from them in the long run.
Psychology relies on scientific research methods to investigate human behavior. That means that the variables are controlled, allowing experimenters to test different hypotheses and then use statistical analyzes to determine the probability of such results being due only to chance.
Sometimes, after hearing the latest psychological research, we tend to answer with an ironic Yes / Of course /It is not really necessary to research something that everyone knows.
It’s common knowledge that Opposites attract, but also that Birds of a feather, flock together. These contradictory beliefs exist because there is anecdotal evidence to support both sides. Only controlled research can help us determine under what circumstances one is true and under what circumstances the opposite is true.
Why do people waste their time researching things that are just common sense? This is the thing with common sense – just because something seems obvious, doesn’t necessarily mean it is valid.
Would you deliver potentially fatal electric shocks to a stranger just because someone in a position of authority would tell you to? Common sense makes you empathetically say no, but psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated in a famous obedience experiment that most people would do just that (Milgram, 1963). And don’t worry, the experiment was widely replicated, reaching the same conclusions each time.
Psychological research has also reach conclusions that can seem counterintuitive. One example is the bystander effect: we can expect to receive less help when we are in a crowd, than when there surrounded only by a few people. (Darley & Latané, 1968).
Psychologists and psychiatrists are two different professions. Both specialists deal with mental health issues, but have different approaches and training.
- The psychiatrist is a medical specialist and is a graduate of the Medicine School. His approach to mental disorders is mainly with medication.
- The psychologist doesn’t go to Medical School. A psychologist can usually practice after completing a master’s degree study in the field of psychology. We use many techniques and resources with people who come to therapy, but we never prescribe medication.
- Some psychiatrists also specialize in a therapeutic approach.
Open collaboration between psychiatrists and psychologists is a fundamental condition for promoting mental health. The scope of action of the psychologist is limited in the case of severe mental disorders. In these cases, psychotherapy can accompany psychiatric treatment, the latter being paramount.
This is a more recent debate. Both psychologists and coaches deal with the wellbeing of their clients, and sometimes the scope and methods used overlap. I met coaches who are very involved in their work to help others get better. In turn, psychologists have diversified their sphere of action, from a one-way analysis of the past, to a collaborative process, actively focused on current topics of interest.
And as in this case of the previous question, the same distinction is valid. One thing that differentiates psychologists and coaches is their training and professional recognition:
- In most countries, being a coach is an unregulated profession, as through an official, legal framework. That being said, anyone can have any kind of coach diploma, from any institute.
- On the other hand, being a psychologist is a regulated profession both in each country and, also, at European level. The title of psychologist is protected by law. You cannot carry the name of being a psychologist unless you have accumulated 5 years of university studies in the field of psychology. You cannot call yourself a psychotherapist unless that after the academic training, you have followed a psychotherapy training program of at least 2 years, followed by a period of supervision of at least another 2 years. All these years of study, specialization and then supervised experience give psychotherapists the expertise to analyze, understand and treat in depth the complexity of the human psyche.
Another common stereotype presents the idea of psychotherapy as a passive action. The psychologist does nothing but shake his head occasionally and ask you How did that make you feel? while discussing only your past.
Now I can’t speak for all my colleagues, but in my office things don’t work like that. I told you I am an integrative psychotherapist. This means that I see in you a complex person, formed by many components of your life. Your history and your emotions integrate into your personality system, but I don’t limit myself to them. You are also what you think and how you think. You are part of all your past and present relationships with friends, colleagues, family or life partners. You are what you wish for, you are your dreams and your future plans.
In particular, you are an active partner involved in therapy. It is your therapeutic process and you are the one who decides rhythm of our work. Usually the first sessions are intended to establish these terms. Do you want us to focus on your past? Do you want to focus on the current difficulties and how we can overcome them in the not too distant future? It’s your choice. The resourceful therapy process comes with a beautiful collaboration and active involvement, in which we work together to achieve your goals.
A session at a psychologist’s office is not an oral exam with two possible verdicts: wright / wrong. It is quite the opposite. As a psychologist I do not tell you that your decisions were / are / will be good or wrong and I do not make decisions for you. You are the only one who lives your life and implicitly you live the direct consequences of your choices.
What is it that we do then? We are working to develop more awareness about what causes you a problem (particular ways of thinking, communication style, avoiding behaviors, dysfunctional patterns of dealing with various emotions). We clarify to what extent these current patterns are useful to you or not, and we experience in the safeness of the office different new ways to think, to act, to cope or to relate.
I think this idea is coming from the Freudian psychoanalysis, where sessions took place 3 or 4 times a week, for several years. This movie is quite old, a few decades old. Today, research shows (in the U.S.) that half of those who start a therapy use 10 to 20 sessions. One in nine goes for more than 20 sessions, and yes, there are the cases of those who choose to keep their therapy going on for years.
I believe it is helpful to look at therapy not only as a financial investment, but more like a personal investment. The therapy will last as long as it needs, as long as you need it. I fear that there may be a higher cost when you do not make this personal investment to improve your life satisfaction. Looking at your wellbeing – or lack of – and how it will affect relationships, health, career success and overall life satisfaction, therapy is an investment that is clearly worth making.
I got to admit it, this one has some truth in it. In most cases, the process will not be easy. Psychotherapy requires involvement and dedication. It will ask you to take a hard look at yourself. Along the way, there will probably be times when you feel worse, before you will start feeling better. Talking about traumatic experiences, for example, could disrupt sleep. Analyzing ways others have treated you badly can lead to sadness and anger.
Dealing with something you are afraid of can create more anxiety in the short term. In the difficult moments during transition, it’s helpful to remember that also the old patterns felt bad. Maybe it’s worth taking some time to see if this difficult time will lead to something better in the long run.