Counseling Ignorance

My apparently neuro-typical, white, male-identified, married to a woman, father to two kids, upper middle class, Midwestern-born and raised by a loving and supportive family, science PhD-holding and apparently healthy, happy and successful coworker – whose social circle consists of mostly the same – is an extremely friendly, nice, generous and socially-minded moderate liberal. He’s a great listener and conversationalist and an intellectually challenging and supportive coworker; I LOVE to work with this guy. But he just asked me – in all seriousness with hope that he’d get an honest answer –

I don’t understand psychologists. You know, I don’t think I know of anyone who has been to see a therapist for counseling. I can’t imagine letting anyone tell me how to interpret my emotions. Why would someone need that?

This led to a long discussion (well, a diplomatic, coworker-appropriate rant from me, with pauses for him to nod or make minor comments):

  • You probably do know people who have been to see a therapist, or even who routinely see a therapist. 
    • These friends likely don’t tell you that they’ve been or go to counseling because there is still a stigma against those who have mental illness or who seek counseling to improve their quality of life (i.e. – help managing stress, relationships, decision-making, personal/professional/educational development, etc). 
    • “Invisible” illnesses and internalized struggles and stress tend not to come up in everyday conversation, especially if your friends – or the people with whom you spend much of your time thanks to grad school or work – are also your professional contacts.
    • (And by the way, you’re looking at someone who’s seen a therapist, who’s married to someone who takes drugs daily to manage his clinical depression, and who has more friends than she count count on both hands who either deals with a mental illness or seeks counseling.)
  • Psychologists don’t “tell you how to interpret your emotions”. They try to give you the tools that can help you work that shit out because ultimately only you can do that for you.
  • You’re a neuro-typical, healthy and happy person who has pretty much succeeded in life, as far as many people would define success. How much harder would it have been to get where you are if you’d had to struggle to get out of bed every day, or argue with jerkbrain morning to night, or been born without the ridiculous amount of privilege with which you’ve lived your life? Counseling can help some people work through that stuff.
  • Don’t make assumptions about why someone would speak with a therapist. There are different kinds of psychologists – people receive different therapies and counseling for all sorts of issues. Whether a person is struggling with a major mental illness, emotional distress brought on by a particular situation, wanting guidance with making life decisions, or anything what the hell ever – lots of people seek professional help. 
  • Wanting to talk to a psychologist is normal and healthy. Applied psychology is a tool that we have at our disposal to keep us healthy and happy or to help us get there, and it’s a tragedy when it’s seen as anything other than one more type of medical specialty. Bravo to people who make use of counseling when they want or need it (and have access to it).

What do you think? I’m certainly no expert on counseling, so what else could I tell him? He’s not trying to troll, he’s not being willfully ignorant – but he’s obviously not had a lot of experience with psychology or counseling. Also, and this is the biggie, he’s willing to listen.

Counseling Ignorance
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4 thoughts on “Counseling Ignorance

  1. 1

    The typical male equivalent of “I don’t need to ask for directions.” There are qualified people who know the road you’re going down, and which roads to take, and which roads to not. Or to let you know there’s a scenic route or direct route.

  2. 2

    This shows a lot of ignorance about what psychologists and therapists actually do. Last I checked, telling you how to interpret your emotions wasn’t part of it. Sometimes (since I’ve been) a therapist might try to connect how you are feeling to what’s going on in your life, or might ask you to really think about how things you’re doing might affect your emotions. I really don’t see how seeing a therapist is different than seeing a doctor, or even a personal trainer. If I see a therapist and the therapist tells me that I seem stressed out so I should limit my work commitments if I can, how is this really any different than a doctor saying that if my knees are hurting, I should cut back on riding a bike?

  3. Pen

    Well partly in response to your post and partly inspired by smmda, I would like to know more about the demonstrated effectiveness of therapy. Like your colleague I’m a bit of a therapy skeptic, but in a different way. I’m not actually expecting you to answer these questions but to give you the idea of what I mean: is therapy really like seeing a doctor or could it be like seeing an acupuncturist? Does it work equally well for all the conditions you mentioned or only for some? How does it compare with a placebo? Or talking to a friend? I’m pretty sure that in circumstance where that’s not possible, a therapist will be very effective, but is it more effective? If it’s a case of getting tools can someone who prefers that route use a book equally effectively? Can we validate the training therapists receive? I have a friend who is a therapist and I totally believed in her, but honestly I believed in her incredible interpersonal skills, and rather less in the training and specific therapies she practiced. (She wouldn’t have agreed, needless to say, had I mentioned my beliefs to her.)

  4. 4

    My husband doesn’t quite understand why I see a therapist. He sees results, and he’s happy, and the last thing he would do is stop me, but he doesn’t quite get it. The closest I’ve seen to the light coming on in his mind is when I told him, “Yes, I become anxious and worry too much, I agree. You have ways of keeping your mind from doing that. I never learned those things before. So now I’m learning them.”

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