If you go to therapy, are you weak?

After watching hundreds of people face pain they thought they couldn’t, reveal secrets that had been haunting them for decades and ruining their lives, the answer is a definite “no.” But unfortunately sometimes that’s how people feel about seeing a therapist — men more often than women. In a study I conducted, the main reason that men gave for not considering therapy was essentially, “I can fix it myself.”

I get this. I remember when I stopped my toilet from overflowing for the first time, it was awesome. When I figured out how to make my own pasta, I felt like I belonged on Food Network. Doing things yourself makes you feel good; you both learn from your mistakes and can truly claim a success — as your success.

Therapy viewed as consultation…

There are many instances, however, when you choose between doing something yourself or calling in the expertise of someone else. You can file your own divorce, or seek advice from a lawyer. You can cook, or go to a restaurant. You can organize your own business finances, or find an accountant. You can pray alone, or listen to a pastor’s sermon.

You make these types of decisions every day.

And you probably admire leaders of corporations or countries who surround themselves with people whose opinions may differ from their own, but whose expertise is valuable. You want a good leader to listen to a diverse perspective. Whatever advice is given, that leader may or may not follow it. But you admire them for questioning whether or not they have all the answers.

That’s called humility — realizing that your own perspective isn’t the only one. And you’re not somehow “vulnerable” because you do.

Mental health is the same. When you consult with a therapist, it’s simply calling in someone who’s spent time gaining expertise in the field of emotional expression, communication, or healing from trauma. The tools they use are the facts of your life, what you describe as the problems you’re having, what they may see and hear from their own experience and their own approach technique.

Yet somehow, perhaps because of how therapy is portrayed on television and movies, you may believe that counseling is all about warm hugs and fuzzy feelings, where you’re not asked to do anything hard or that there’s no actual science to it. And in some ways, you’d be right.

Is therapy science — or art?  

Many treatment approaches are backed up by research. But there’s also an art to therapy – because healing happens within the context of the relationship itself.

If you’ve ever been to a really good therapist, or talked to someone who has, you’ll discover that therapy is much more than consultation. Because therapy involves feelings, often very deep ones. And many may avoid therapy not simply because of a belief that, “I can do it myself,” but to avoid that very vulnerability. Too many men believe that “touchy-feely” stuff is not for them. And so they shoulder their pain alone. Yet men are killing themselves in record numbers. The world-wide figures are staggering, and painful to realize.

Therapists may have experience with mental and emotional pain and have ideas about what you can do about it. But they aren’t there to tell you what to do, take over your life, or solve your problems for you.

Far from it.

Good therapy is hard work. Whatever the therapist has to offer, whether it’s a specific technique like EMDR, whether it’s a therapeutic mode of treatment, like cognitive-behavioral or emotionally-focused, whether it’s group, couple or individual work – it involves pain and, at times, harsh honesty with yourself.  

When you add possible perfectionism into the picture, you’ve got real trouble. That can make it even harder to consider vulnerability.

The power of vulnerability…

I respect the men whom I’ve been honored to work with — who risk connecting with emotions they believed they couldn’t feel without breaking — who choose to talk about abuse or trauma they’ve suffered, so they can heal. Many of them will tell you it’s the hardest work they’ve ever done. Yet it’s opened avenues for them in their personal and professional lives that have been freeing.

Here are a couple of true stories:

The perfectionism I’ve been challenged with my entire life led to professional and personal crisis. Interestingly, in my professional life, it manifested itself through inaction because of the crippling fear of making a mistake. By accepting that I’m valuable as I am, with my natural strengths and challenges, I was able to make a career change at age 47 and have been thriving in my new role. It’s ironic that my work product is at its most effective if my career as I’ve relinquished the constant urge to be perfect. Last week, I even found myself coaching one of my direct reports on the value of accepting our abilities, acknowledging our challenges, and addressing mistakes.”

“I’m so much closer to my kids because I’m not yelling at them all the time. I figured out where that anger was coming from, and did something about it. Where I was most amazed was at work. I’d had the fear that by being more open, I’d lose control. I’d be seen as indecisive or wishy-washy. Now people are asking to be on my team. And I’m getting feedback about how appreciated others feel, and thus their own productivity has increased immensely.

These guys didn’t break. They got stronger.

And they chose to stop passing down the myth that anyone has to hide their pain.

 

You can now listen to Dr. Margaret as she talks about depression and many other topics on her new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Click here!

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This was originally published on February 25, 2017 and was updated on April 20,2019.