Worries And Misconceptions People Can Have About Therapists

In another article I talk about how it might help to see a counselor. My take is that counseling is just a way to seek outside support, and there's nothing wrong or shameful about it. I don't think everyone necessarily has to do it, but the option is always there. Some people are reluctant to consider seeing a therapist because they have fears or misconceptions about what counseling involves. A subset of these fears focus on what therapists themselves are like. This article will address the common ones I've come across. I'm a counselor myself, so many of these are concerns clients have told me about firsthand.

In a related article I talk about some of the misconceptions people can have about the process of therapy.

(Note: In this piece I use counselor/counseling and therapist/therapy interchangeably.)

Your average therapist is an old bald guy with a beard

There are therapists who fit the Sigmund Freud caricature, but real life counselors come in more varieties than that. You're just as likely to talk to a woman with an Indian background as you are a stern, elderly Austrian man. You would never see most counselors on the street and think, "That person has got to be a shrink." If you had to make one generalization about how therapists look, it would be that your typical counselor is female. Like with other helping professions, the mental health field tends to attract more women than men.

Therapists are cold, detached, and judgmental

This belief often goes hand in hand with the "therapists are old and bald" one. Most therapists don't have distant, stony, "objective" personas, like they're dissecting you from afar. For the most part talking to a therapist is like speaking to any regular person, but one who's supportive, accepting, and really listening to you.

Therapists are really flaky and airy-fairy

This is the second popular portrayal of counselors from the media. In a lot of movies if a counselor isn't an old guy with a German accent, they're going to look vaguely New Age, with cloying, over-exaggerated "supportive" body language. They say things like, "Hmmmm, I know how you feel", and "Express yourself. This is a safe space" while seeming like they've taken too much Valium.

In an attempt to seem warm, inviting, and empathetic to their clients, some therapists can go a little overboard, and come off as a bit fake and condescending. Most counselors don't have this problem, and like I said, talking to them is mostly like speaking to anyone else.

Therapists are corny and speak in nothing but self-help cliches

The third way counselors are sometimes shown in movies and on TV is as the overly peppy coach who rattles off one empty motivational platitude after another - "Do something today that your future self will thank you for!", "There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs!" Most therapists realize these kinds of phrases are cloying and hollow. They know there's way, way more to helping a client than pumping them up with inspiring quotes.

Therapists are hard-nosed "tough love" delivering lecturers

This largely comes from celebrity "therapists" who use a "no nonsense, tell it like it is" shtick. Their approach is more about entertainment value than anything resembling real life therapy. In small, careful doses "tough love" can be useful, but for the most part it makes clients shut down and feel attacked. Counselors want to form an alliance with their clients, not beat them into submission. They see lecturing them as a mistake, something they may do in a weak moment if they're feeling ineffective, frustrated, self-righteous, or more interested in hearing their own clever voice than what the client needs at that moment.

"The therapist will treat me in the way I generally fear all people will treat me"

For example, someone who's socially anxious and worries about people disliking them may have the same fears about any professional they see. They might worry that the counselor will think they're weird, or get annoyed at them for being shy and not opening up enough. Of course, a counselor is there to help. They're not a layperson who might get impatient with someone who's too reserved. Often it can be a helpful experience by itself for a client to develop a positive, accepting relationship with someone they were initially fearful of being rejected by.

Therapists are all head cases themselves. They only went into the field to work through their own baggage

You hear this one a lot. My take on it is that pretty much everyone is "messed up" in one way or another. Lots of us have childhood baggage and mental health issues. You'll find people with personal problems in every profession. Counselors aren't an exception. I also don't think they're particularly damaged beyond that baseline either. Of the many mental health professionals I've personally known, as colleagues or classmates, most of them would strike you as pretty average, reasonably adjusted people (if any of of them stood out in any way, it's that they were a bit more warm and empathetic than average).

Of course, there are counselors who fit the Wounded Healer archetype. If a therapist has their own issues, it doesn't necessarily harm their ability to do their job and help their clients. For example, one may specialize in helping women heal from past abuse. If she struggles with travel anxiety in her personal life, that's probably not going to get in the way of the work she's doing. The real concern is whether there are therapists who have issues, and let that personal baggage sabotage their work (e.g., a counselor who hates his dad may encourage a client to cut off all contact with her own father). Unfortunately there are some of this type out there, but what they're doing is seen as a problem. A good counselor will constantly strive to be aware of any personal biases they bring into their sessions, and take active steps not to let their own issues affect their performance.

Some really good therapists also owe their effectiveness to having personal experience with the problems they're helping their clients with. Again, as long as they don't unnecessarily bring their own baggage to the table, this isn't inherently a bad thing. For example, a great addiction counselor may have been struggled with substance use himself, and grew up with a mother who drank every night. He may be able to understand and help his clients in a way another counselor couldn't.

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A therapist can easily deduce your darkest secrets and issues by observing little things you do

This plays into people's worries of being exposed. You probably know the scene that depicts this fear: In the middle of a session the client comments on a book sitting on the therapist's desk, and the counselor immediately thinks, "Ah, he commented on the green book... This indicates he has repressed psychosexual defense mechanisms toward his sister. He was likely verbally abused by a cold, withholding stepmother."

Your typical counselor looks at the world in a much more straightforward way. They can't peer into anyone's soul. They may learn you're having troubles with your marriage... because you just told them that's a problem you're having. Or they might do what anyone could, like notice your body language looks anxious when you talk about your spouse, and then act on that hunch and ask you about it.

This isn't to say therapists never tune into their client's small behaviors. For example, a client makes an unusually high number of small criticisms about the counselor's policies and office. The therapist wonders if the client may also be too critical with their friends and family, and explores the topic with them. But that's different than being able to go, "She scratched her nose with the ring finger of her left hand. She's a covert narcissist!"

Therapists are often running a hidden agenda while talking about something different on the surface

Some clients worry that while a therapist may be ostensibly helping them in one way, they actually have a hidden agenda and are subtly manipulating the interaction to lead things in another direction. For the most part what you see is what you get with therapists. If they say they're going to help you learn some skills to cope with panic attacks, then that's what they're doing. This point also assumes that all therapists are experts at manipulating and persuading people, which isn't really the case. Psychology grad schools don't teach courses on secret mind control techniques.

Sometimes a therapist will try to subtly lead a client to arrive at a conclusion on their own, one they wouldn't accept if someone just bluntly told it to them. However, their influence even in these cases is limited. They can't trick anyone into thinking things that are totally out of line with their beliefs. For example, a man who's gambling too much may become defensive and shut down if the therapist tried to logically debate him into admitting he has a problem. Instead the counselor may ask questions that cause the client to examine the full consequences of his gamlbing, and hopefully realize on his own he needs to cut down. But if someone truly isn't ready to change, likely nothing the therapist could say will sway them.

A good therapist can cure any client they work with

The misconception here is that if a counselor is skilled and experienced enough they can work their magic on any type of client, not matter how mentally ill or resistant to therapy they may be. This isn't the case. No therapist can work effectively with everyone. For one, some conditions are much more difficult to treat than others. Counselors usually don't have experience and expertise in working with every type of issue either (e.g., someone who specializes in treating teens with eating disorders may only have a passing knowledge of how to work with couples).

Not everyone who comes to counseling is in a place where they really want to work on their problems. A therapist can't really do much with someone who doesn't want to engage in the process. Some clients are straight up forced to attend counseling by the courts, and no amount of subtle finagling on the counselor's part will get them on board to address issues they don't even think they have. Finally, therapists have different treatment approaches and personalities, and they're not all a good fit for everyone they see. For example, if a female counselor coincidentally has the same interpersonal style and mannerisms as a male client's ex-wife, he may never be able to get past that and be able to work with her effectively.

"The counselor won't really care about my problems. I'll just bore them"

Not caring about someone's problems and being bored by them are slightly different things, but I'll cover them together. After talking about what's on their mind, and having their counselor listen to them, it's not uncommon for clients to say, "Wow, I've been talking for half an hour now. I must be boring you by going on about my problems for so long." Sometimes this statement is just a more self-effacing way of saying, "Thanks for listening like this. I appreciate it. I could never get a friend to give me their undivided attention for this long."

Sometimes the client really does worry they're boring their counselor. In their regular life everyone they try to open up to may act distracted or dismissive. They may assume a therapist is no different. I realize this is a very broad statement, but on the whole therapists genuinely care about their clients, and they don't get bored hearing about their concerns. That's what they signed up for. For most counselors their work is a calling. It's not the kind of career someone just goes into on a whim. They're also usually not just in it for the money, or only pretending to care because they're being paid to. There are way better fields to get into if you want a big paycheck.

To be a little less sweeping, sure there are times when a counselor may feel bored while a client is talking. They're still human. However, they don't react to those feelings in a typical manner. They don't think, "Ugh, I feel bored. This person is boring. I don't care what they have to say." They'll examine the reason they're feeling that way, and see what potentially helpful information they can glean from it. For example, with one client a counselor may think, "Hm, he has a habit of putting too many irrelevant details into his stories. He's working with me in hopes of improving his communications skills, so I'll think about how I can give this to him as feedback, in a way that doesn't hurt his feelings."

Another example: "Hm... I'm catching myself starting to feel bored... I've never felt like that with her before. Why now?... Hmmm... she's talking about her new goals in life, but it's like she's just rotely repeating them, like she's parroting someone else's words and values. She seems really bored and unenthusiastic herself, and by empathizing with her I'm taking on that energy... I'll share that observation and see what she has to say."