I think everyone in the world should visit a therapist at some point in their life. Therapists are fucking great. Whether you have a mental illness or not, you’ll experience some challenges in your life that require a bit of a mental health tune up, and a therapist can give you the tools to get through them.
So I spend a lot of time telling people they should try therapy.
There are a lot of really bad ways to do this. It’s easy to sound like you don’t want to deal with someone’s problems, to brush them off as “crazy”, to come across as uncomfortable with their behavior. Just saying “why don’t you see a therapist” can bring up a lot of negative reactions due to the stigma against therapy and mental illness, the fear of the unknown, and even just the common place desire to not change or be wrong.
There are significantly fewer very effective ways to recommend therapy to a friend, loved one, or family member. Since I’ve had a lot of practice, I thought I’d share some of my more effective methods.
This is something that I try to do with everyone I know, because it helps fight the stigma against mental illness, and makes it easier for other people to talk about therapy. Also when you’ve been in as much therapy as I have, it’s hard to talk about your life and avoid it. I make a regular practice of mentioning therapy or my therapist around others. Where in the past I might have said “I have an appointment” I am intentional about saying “I’m seeing my therapist”. This makes it easier for you to approach someone in the future because a. they know you know what you’re talking about and b. therapy seems like a normal thing that other people do rather than a punishment, evidence of being sick, or shameful secret.
Change the Way You Talk About Therapy
Many of us who talk about therapy only seem to mention it when there’s a problem. This makes sense. We don’t really talk much about going to doctors when we’re not sick. But we also all know that we’re supposed to go to the doctor for check ups, vaccines, and routine care, even when we’re perfectly healthy. Therapy is the same way. Mental health isn’t something that just sorts itself out. We all need the preventative measures (skills, self understanding, etc.) that can help us stay healthy.
In fact, sometimes you need to see a therapist when there’s nothing wrong with you but life is particularly difficult. It’s important for those of us who talk about therapy to mention all of the different reasons and ways that someone might go to therapy, so that it’s not simply relegated to “mentally ill people do that.” Everyone can and should see a therapist when their coping skills aren’t up to par.
In fact, the extent to which we see therapy in a negative light even extends to how we talk about our therapists. How often do you hear someone say “I love my therapist”? How often do you hear someone talk about what a good relationship with a therapist actually feels? Almost never. I have news. It’s fucking amazing. I have never had a relationship like the one I had with my best therapist. It’s complete trust and vulnerability, knowing that they will validate, help, and challenge in equal measures. Knowing that there are no expectations and no requirements of you, that this is the one relationship where you are allowed to be entirely selfish.
Let’s talk about the good parts of therapy, the moments we have a breakthrough, the times we feel that wonderful rapport with the therapist. Let’s make good therapy moments a normal part of our conversation about mental health. It makes the whole process seem more worth it and less scary to those who might be interested in trying it for the first time.
Seeing a Therapist Doesn’t Say Anything About Your Character
A lot of people think that therapy is for sick or crazy people. I don’t really like describing mentally ill folks in those terms, but that’s how some people think of it. All of the above suggestions are ways to remind them that therapy is for everyone. But of course sometimes it’s helpful to just say it straight out: therapy doesn’t mean you’re a failure, that you’re broken, or that there’s something wrong with you. Asking for help is normal and nothing to be ashamed of. We don’t learn appropriate mental health skills growing up; we learn to eat our vegetables and exercise, how much water to drink, what it feels like to get a cold and how to get over one. We don’t learn these equivalent skills for our basic mental health upkeep, and therapy is a great way to learn and grow. It’s just someone who’s going to help you, nothing more.
You’re In Control
One of the common refrains that I hear from people who aren’t interested in therapy (and one of my biggest fears) is that therapy will change you, that the therapist will force you to do things, that it will make you into a different person. So after you say “hey, you seem like you’re struggling. Have you thought about therapy?” I almost always hear “I don’t want to change.”
It’s odd, but people seem to forget that they are in fact paying the therapist for a service and that as the client, they are the one who has all the power. A therapist can’t make you do anything.
Great reminders for someone who’s nervous: you can try it and then stop if you don’t like it. You can try it, stop, and try again. You can try it, decide you don’t like the therapist, then switch to a different therapist you like more. You have the power.
Now it is possible that therapy will result in you changing. Most people don’t go to therapy to keep feeling and acting the exact same way. But it’s self directed. A good therapist will help you achieve the goals that you want to achieve. You are the one who gets to choose if you’re going to follow through on their suggestions, who gets to ask for specific kinds of help, and who gets to decide the direction that the therapy takes. You can fire your therapist if you think they’re not good. It’s all up to you.
Which leads directly into my next point…
Yes Therapy is Hard
One thing that I strongly recommend when talking to someone about therapy is to be honest. Which means that I never tell anyone that therapy is great and I love it and always want to go.
In my experience, one of the biggest challenges for people to being open to therapy is that they don’t really know what happens. It’s a foreign experience. Especially for someone who might have anxiety, the unknown is nerve wracking. How am I supposed to act? What can I expect?
I think that it can be incredibly helpful to talk a bit about the actual nitty gritty of what a therapy session looks like. For me that means letting people know that each individual session is rarely pleasant. We’re often talking about difficult and painful things. Often we’re taking a hard look at what I dislike about myself, where I think I’ve screwed up, things that frustrate me, and situations that are causing me distress. Other times my therapist is asking me to look at things differently: instead of seeing myself as the odd one out in my family, I’m someone with slightly different needs (she described me as a hobbit in a family of dwarves: I can survive underground for a while, but I’m not meant to live there). That’s intellectual work.
And perhaps the hardest part is that many sessions involve your therapist asking you to do things differently. They suggest scripts for you to use with other people, ways to interrupt old thought patterns, new behavior to change relationships or manage stress or deal with things you don’t like in your life. That might mean that you have work to do in between therapy sessions. My favorite therapists have given homework, like “practice mindfulness 3 times this week” or “have this difficult conversation with a family member.” They give you the tools, but you have to be the one to put them into practice.
So at the end of the day, therapy is just being with a person who will help you achieve your goals. It’s another tool in your life toolbox, that comes with someone who’s always in your corner. Why wouldn’t you want that?
So if I were to sell therapy to someone here’s what I’d say.
“It sounds like you’re struggling. I’m so fucking sorry. Life is balls sometimes. For me, therapy was a really important part of learning how to manage. Society doesn’t prepare us for dealing with seriously hard emotional shit, and therapy is where I learned how to do that. I can tell you more, or recommend someone if you’d like?”