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Myths About Therapy: Hard Work

Over the next few weeks, I would like to debunk a few common assumptions people seem to have about therapy, therapists, and clients. Since these assumptions limit the mental health field in a variety of ways, I am a strong advocate for interrogating them. Today’s post will interrogate the idea that hard work is necessary for change.

This field has an obsession with the idea that people must work hard to create the change they want. It is probably a direct result of the American ethos, that if you work really hard you can get what you want, combined with a little insecurity on the part of therapists who cannot help certain clients change—clients who “didn’t want to do the work.” However, mental health is not obtained in the same way that so many other things in our culture are. In fact, we should think of the therapeutic space as somewhat insulated from the broader cultural assumptions about what life is and how one should live. Otherwise therapy and therapists are just another normalizing force in our society, another arm of the mainstream culture that, by definition, is always going to leave some people behind.

The notion of hard work is just one of many cultural assumptions that should be absent from the therapy room. Other notions include gender roles, racial or classist stereotypes…even a handshake, which in many circles is a standard form of greeting, need not be the customary greeting between client and counselor.

Of course, a client needs a certain level of commitment in order for therapy to work: he/she needs to show up on time for their appointments. But outside of that, if anything, I have found a negative correlation between effort put in and results achieved. Quite understandably, many people will come to therapy armed with an incredible work ethic, but oftentimes this gets in the way. Perhaps it creates expectations around how and when they should be better. It puts pressure on the therapist, too, because here this client is, willing to do anything as long as it will help…so there should be no excuse for failure. But like I said, I find these people usually begin improving as soon as they stop trying so hard.

I, too, have been advised on many occasions to do less. I remember being shocked by the results when I finally gave it a try. I met with a client who always resisted me and the therapy hour, and instead of trying to coax him into talking, I sat back and watched the clock. About halfway through the session he began talking more than he ever had. I think he eventually realized I wasn’t going to do the talking for him, so he might as well take charge himself.

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