Mental Health

What is therapy like? 5 of the most common misconceptions debunked

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Lauren Geall
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Two women having a therapy session

From the belief that therapy is the same as talking to a friend to the idea that it’s not OK to be awkward and unsure at first, here are five of the most common misconceptions people hold about talking therapy – and what an expert wants you to know instead.

Despite being one of the most effective treatments for mental health conditions ranging from mild anxiety and depression to OCD, PTSD, personality disorders and more, many people still lack understanding about what therapy actually looks and feels like.

If you’ve never had therapy, you might imagine it to look something like it does in the movies – a therapist sat back in an oversized armchair sharing their insights while you lay back on a chaise lounge located an arm’s reach away from a luxury box of tissues. 

However, while real-life therapy sessions may share some similarities to the kind of sessions that play out on screen, there are a long list of differences, too. 

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And it’s this reality which mental health advocate, trainee psychotherapist and therapy recipient Jo Love set out to highlight in her new book, Therapy Is… Magic: An Essential Guide To The Ups, Downs And Life-Changing Experiences Of Talking Therapy.   

“I think we have done such a good job of raising awareness about mental health generally, but there are still these odd little lingering areas that need more clarity – especially when it comes to reaching out and getting mental health support,” she tells Stylist. “There’s just so much people get wrong about therapy, but it can be so beneficial.”

So, whether you’re on a waiting list for therapy, thinking about getting private support or simply want to learn more, Stylist spoke to Love about the five biggest misconceptions people have about therapy – and what she wishes people knew instead. 

Misconception one: you need to be mentally ill to have therapy

Therapy can be an effective treatment for mental illness – but that doesn’t mean you have to be really struggling before you seek help. In fact, Love explains, therapy isn’t just for people with mental health conditions – it can help people with a range of issues and dilemmas.

“Therapy can be for anyone who wants to learn tools or techniques to improve their life – whether that’s improving self-confidence or emotional balance,” Love explains.

“I go to therapy for so many positive reasons – I don’t go for my mental illness anymore, I go for my mental wellness. Therapy has become part of my self-care toolkit.” 

Two women talking during therapy
“Therapy can be for anyone who wants to learn tools or techniques to improve their life – whether that’s improving self-confidence or emotional balance.”

Misconception two: it’s the same as talking to a friend

Talking to your friends about what you’re going through can be super helpful, but it’s just not the same as receiving help from a trained professional whose job is to listen and assist.

“Often I hear people say, ‘I don’t need to speak to anybody, I’ve got great friends’, but therapy isn’t a replacement for your friends – you don’t need one or the other,” Love explains. 

“Needing therapy isn’t an indication that you haven’t made good enough friends, either. However great listeners your friends are, you can’t expect your friends to listen and turn up for you in the same way your therapist does.”

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Love continues: “It’s your therapist’s job to put you front and centre consistently – therapy is time where you get to sit and talk about what you’re going through without having to worry about servicing another person or taking up too much air time.

“And while you’ll definitely have times with your friends that feel therapeutic, it’s not the same as carved out time that’s 100% focused on you and your concerns.”

Misconception three: your therapist will tell you what to do

This is probably one of the biggest misconceptions people have about therapy. Your therapist isn’t there to give you advice – they’re there to guide you to make realisations and changes on your own terms.

“Some therapies are more directive than others – there might be suggestions of how to try and change things or homework to do – but your therapist won’t give you direct advice,” Love explains. 

“They’re there to give you an experience outside perspective – what they’re trying to do is help you to gain insight into yourself so you can make better choices in the long run.” 

Visualisation of therapy
“Some therapies are more directive than others – there might be suggestions of how to try and change things or homework to do – but your therapist won’t give you direct advice.”

Misconception four: every therapist and therapy is the same

While the relationship you have with your therapist is different to that you have with a friend, that doesn’t mean the relationship you have with your therapist isn’t important. In this way, it’s OK to go through multiple therapists until you find one that ‘fits’ you and your needs.

“The relationship you have with your therapist is so important to the outcome you’re going to get from therapy, so it’s OK to try different people out,” Love says. 

“At the end of the day, therapy is about two humans coming together, and if you don’t click that doesn’t mean you’ve failed or therapy isn’t right for you, it’s just that you need to find someone who works.”

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Love adds that it’s OK to try out different forms of therapy, too. “If therapy isn’t working for you, it could be one of two things. Either your therapist isn’t right, or the therapy doesn’t suit you. 

“Most people in this country get given CBT because it’s effective and measurable, but CBT isn’t for everyone – there are loads of different types of talking therapies you can try.” 

Misconception five: it’s not normal to feel awkward

While some people may feel more comfortable opening up than others, it’s OK to find the process a little awkward and strange at first.

“It can be really, really awkward to get vulnerable in front of someone – particularly a stranger – but it doesn’t mean that it’s not working or you’ve done something wrong,” Love says. “It’ll take time to feel comfortable, and your therapist will be able to help you with it.” 

Therapy Is… Magic: An Essential Guide To The Ups, Downs And Life-Changing Experiences Of Talking Therapy by Jo Love is out now

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.