Why Literally Everyone Can Benefit From Therapy
Don’t think of it as a phase or a reaction to difficulty. Think of it as an act of kindness
There’s a meme that I encounter every now and then that reads: People go to therapy to deal with the people in their lives that won’t go to therapy.
It reminds me of a conversation I often have with various friends. We’ll be dissecting some relationship conflict or family crisis, and inevitably reach the same exasperated conclusion: Why doesn’t everyone just understand they should go to therapy! Life would be so much easier! And look at the evidence!
Of course, it’s true that therapy isn’t as financially accessible as it should be, and that many of the challenges we face today are things that therapy simply can’t solve. But we know that therapy, in its varied forms, works for addressing everything from acute trauma to more general patterns and attachment styles. As a beautiful account of one transformative therapeutic relationship in the digital magazine Aeon put it: “Two people sit in a room and talk, every week, for a set amount of time, and at some point one of them walks out the door a different person, no longer beleaguered by pain, crippled by fear or crushed by despair. Why? How?”
Perhaps because it replaces something we’ve been missing.
Therapy can be proactive, not just reactive
As with all forms of self-healing and growth, there is a bit of mystery surrounding the transformations therapy can bring — which may be one reason why some people are so resistant to trying it. After all, it’s hard to explain precisely why, when a therapist interrupts a passing comment with a simple “tell me more about that,” a client may begin to disentangle a web that they might otherwise spend the next decade ensnared in.
Emily Anhalt, Psy.D, is a clinical psychologist and the co-founder of Coa, an online mental health platform that offers a therapy-matching service as well as live therapist-led emotional fitness classes. She notes that there’s a difference between the idea that everyone needs therapy and that everyone would benefit from it.
“There are plenty of people who can live satisfying and meaningful lives and have good relationships without therapy,” Anhalt said. “But if you’re asking if I think every single person would benefit from some form of therapy, I would say yes. When you get down to what therapy actually is, it’s just a relationship with another person who’s been trained to help you understand who you are in the world in relation to your own mind. And that’s something all of us could improve on.”
Anhalt believes that much of the skepticism around therapy comes from the perception that it’s for people with a “mental disorder,” or for those who are weak or self-absorbed. In her role as the co-founder of Coa, Anhalt wants to undo that perception. Her goal, she says, is to normalize the idea that therapy should be less a reactive step to some urgent life crisis, and more a proactive one done out of self-love.
Therapy models the right behavior
One person who tells a lot of people to go to therapy is Heather Havrilesky, the advice columnist behind The Cut’s Ask Polly column. A prominent theme of her work is the profound bravery and inward curiosity it takes to live an honest, integrated life and her belief that therapy is an integral part of that.
“Because our culture is very broken, it’s hard to find other people who understand that having needs and desires doesn’t make you a selfish person,” Havrilesky wrote in an email. “If you say, ‘I might want to leave my perfectly great job’ or ‘I don’t think I love my amazing boyfriend anymore,’ a lot of people [who aren’t therapists] are going to come to that discussion clouded by their own needs or lack of strong, healthy boundaries, which will make them treat you like an ingrate for wanting what you want.”
As Havrilesky knows perhaps as well as any therapist, often what a person gains from the safe, dedicated space of therapy is a healthier model for how to treat themselves — one that hasn’t been tainted by intergenerational family patterns or the relentless expectations of capitalism.
“A good therapist is compassionate and also models compassion for a client, who might not even know what it feels like to be treated with compassion or to be listened to and really heard and understood,” she said.
Therapy replaces missing support
The idea that everyone stands to gain a lot from therapy — whether they’ve experienced acute trauma or life’s more typical knocks — doesn’t address why so many of us need it in the first place. Is it because our culture is uniquely messed up and divorced from the kinds of grounding, community structures that could keep society and families from descending into dysfunction? Is it because capitalism has trained us to work in pursuit of income and stability above our mental health and well-being? Or are humans just doomed from day one, regardless of what era we are unlucky enough to be born in?
Anhalt takes something of a philosophical view: “Life is suffering,” she says. “It’s hard to be a human. We won this weird existential lottery where we’re the only species we know of that can ponder the complicated truth of our existence.”
Havrilesky notes that our emotionally avoidant culture — in which so many people are “intensely bewildered by [their] own emotions” — can drive sensitive, feeling people to feel hysterical amidst the dominant, numb norms of the day.
“The culture at large is shaped by these sorts of evasive reactions, with everyone kind of handling each other and backing away from each other and ghosting each other until no one directly states their needs or addresses anything in the room,” Havrilesky says.
At the same time, Anhalt notes, “our capacity in the world is tied to the support we feel.” And support — from family, community, friends — is harder to access due to the avoidant, tech-dependent, and nuclear family-obsessed way we live. But therapy is a way we can step in and begin to provide some of that support for ourselves.
Indeed, providing that support for ourselves feels more necessary than ever. Therapy may start out as paying a trained professional, but eventually, it can take the form of a kinder, more compassionate relationship with the self, enabled by the insights gained in the therapy room.
Much of going to therapy is relearning how to be a person who not only knows how to state and meet their own needs, but who does so unashamedly. It helps you uncover the person you actually are.