Saturday, January 9, 2016

Five misconceptions about therapists

If you or your gifted child need therapy...

How do you know what to look for, whether to trust that person sitting across from you, and when to listen to your gut if it just doesn't feel right?

Several recent blog posts and articles have highlighted what to ask when seeking therapy for yourself or your child, when therapy is helpful for gifted children, adults, and adolescents, and how to find a therapist.

But if you have never tried therapy (or worse yet, had a bad experience), it might be helpful to clear up some common misconceptions:

1. Therapy is not just about giving advice.

In fact, most of what occurs in therapy involves a lot of listening, interacting and clarifying to help you come to the best possible decision. Therapists rarely offer much advice - instead, they provide suggestions, ideas and directions to pursue, to ultimately help you sort out what you need.

2. The therapist is a real person - with a lot of training for the job.

All of the buzzwords - sounding board, shrink, blank screen, etc. - diminish the therapist's role, and mock the process involved. Therapists actively listen and participate collaboratively in therapy. They may look relaxed, but they are always thinking about what to say (or not say) to best enhance your personal growth and development. They also have a lot of training. Psychologists, for example, typically receive five years of education and clinical training beyond college, along with post-doctoral training. And therapists actually have real feelings (shocker!); they don't "shrink your brain," they don't just passively listen and they have a larger vocabulary than "how are you feeling about that?" 

3. Therapists are not there to solve their own problems, be your friend, or form a special relationship with you.

Even though therapists are real people, they learn how to separate their personal lives from their work. They are not "using" you to feel better about themselves, and although may be thrilled with your progress, do not take much credit for this or use it to boost their own self-esteem. They may like you a great deal, but recognize that they can never become your friend outside of therapy, as this would compromise the trust built within the therapy relationship. Therapy is a support and catalyst to help you improve relationships in your life; it is not a substitute for finding real relationships.

Therapists should NEVER cross boundaries. Obviously, certain actions are never acceptable, such as forming a sexual or romantic relationship with a client, or releasing confidential information without consent (except in situations required by law or professional ethics, such as when an individual is dangerous to self or others). But there are other boundary violations that are more subtle and are also harmful. Forming friendships with former clients or their family members, forming a work relationship with them, sharing highly personal information, or relying on the client in some way - all of these are unacceptable.

Sometimes these crossings cannot be helped. For example, if there is only one electrician in a small town, the therapist just might have to employ that individual's services, even if he/she had been a client. But when there are other options, it is the responsible choice to go elsewhere. It might feel wonderful if a therapist singles you out for a friendship or special treatment in some way. But unless there is some highly unusual circumstance, this is not the norm, and should be a red flag that something is inappropriate about the relationship.

4. Therapists are not obsessed with their own privacy.

Yes, it can be frustrating when your therapist won't share much personal information with you. In fact, most therapists probably would prefer to casually share their day-to-day events and family milestones. However, therapists realize that the more you know about them, the more it can affect and inhibit what you may be willing to share in your therapy. Information related to your therapist's parenting challenges, political views, and even his/her favorite restaurant can influence what you might be willing to share. Experienced therapists carefully decide when it is important, necessary and helpful to communicate information about their personal lives, always keeping in mind whether they believe it will help or hinder your therapy.

On the other hand...

5. Therapists really do have a personal life.

Since therapy is a "helping profession," sometimes there is an assumption that therapists are always "on," eagerly available to listen, and are "analyzing" others. While most therapists have a curiosity about the human condition that lends itself to viewing behavior with some complexity, they really do relax and act like everyone else. So when you meet a therapist at a social event, don't assume that he/she is scrutinizing your every word. Don't expect the therapist to be careful, conscientious and completely "zen" about how he/she interacts with the world. And most therapists need time away from work. This is healthy and allows them to be present and focused when they see you in therapy. So allow them the time and space to have a personal life away from their work and role as therapist.

Other myths and misconceptions about people who participate in therapy or what occurs in therapy are also worth noting. If you need to find a therapist, ask your physician, school counselor, minister/priest/rabbi, friends or another trusted source for a referral. Your insurance company is often the worst source, though, because they may provide a random referral with little concern for whether the therapist's skill or training matches your particular needs.

Characteristics to consider when searching for a therapist will be discussed in a future blog post.

What do you think? What have you found are common misconceptions or beliefs about therapists? Let us know in the comments section below. Thanks.


  1. This is really helpful. I always wondered why my last therapist never told me much about herself. I thought she was being a little too strict, but I can see why it was important. Thanks for explaining it.

  2. One of the greatest challenges is that, as you say, therapists ARE human. That means they have their own set of biases and preconceptions. Also, they may be trained for the job *in general*, but for outlier kids & families, finding a therapist who is trained to understand the specific issues at hand can be challenging - especially when you don't live in a bustling metropolis. While there are some great therapists out there, the damage done by those who insist on being the Expert and that They Know Best can be tremendous, especially for children. It's no wonder so many parents and children are hesitant to talk to someone they don't actually know (or know anything about). It would be wonderful if therapist training programs included topics such as giftedness, neurodiversity, impacts of domestic violence, institutional abuse (by schools, family court, etc), and how to handle situations that don't fit into the boxes they are trained for.

    1. Corin, You raise some excellent points. Therapy is a collaborative process, and when a therapist engages in an authoritarian stance, this is problematic (with the exception of certain situations when an individual is at risk for self-harm, for example, and the therapist needs to intervene). A good therapist should know his or her limits and refer someone elsewhere when a presenting concern is beyond his or her area of expertise.

      I agree that it would be ideal if psychotherapy training programs emphasized the areas you mentioned. Psychologists receive at least five years of training, the most of any of the helping professions, and if their training programs don't offer education on giftedness, it is even less likely that social work or other master's level programs will find the time to fit this in. It is extremely unfortunate. However, most competent and ethical therapists continue their training and education throughout their career through peer supervision, consultation, workshops, continuing education, training seminars and keeping up with the research literature. And their graduate school training should enable them to "grow on the job" with sufficient exposure to new ideas. So there really is no excuse for a lack of awareness when treating gifted individuals.

      Any client should feel empowered to choose a therapist who is the right fit. And if possible, meet with several therapists before choosing one, don't rely on your insurance company as a referral source, and speak up if you have concerns about how therapy is progressing.

      Thanks again for your feedback.

  3. Thank you for sharing; this is such wonderful information. Keep up the good work guys!