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Myths About Therapy: Happily Ever After

“Happily ever after,” an idea-fixture in our minds that is undoubtedly reinforced by our media, can make reality seem disappointing in contrast. Retirement is a good example. The narrative of retirement is certainly one of “sailing off into the sunset.” With your life’s work complete, you are free to do whatever you like, absent all those worries that dogged you for so many years. The truth is that retirement is usually an extremely difficult transition for people to make—made more difficult by the assumption that it’s all great and easy.

Therapy also suffers from this idea of “happily ever after.” If you have a mental health problem, a therapist can fix it and send you on your merry way. The only problem is that mental health does not work like this. Dental work does, to some extent. Even primary physical care. Those trades to some degree specialize in removing problems and returning you to your normal mode of life. But let’s take a look at why this doesn’t make sense with therapy.

Say one day you suddenly experience a toothache. You take some medication and hope that it will go away. The next day you wake up and the pain is even worse. By mid-day, you decide it is unbearable. Nothing can be accomplished until the pain is removed. So you schedule an appointment with your dentist, who fixes the problem, and then you go back to living your life.

The important difference between what happens in that example and what happens with mental health problems is that you will never think about your toothache again, unless in passing or unless it reoccurs. The toothache occupies little or no mind-space except when it is pressing; it says almost nothing about who you are; it has little to do with your past and your future. In other words, when the toothache is fixed, it is pretty much gone. By contrast, how would you propose to remove your childhood? How can you do away with your relationship with your parents? What’s the quick fix to enduring discrimination on the basis of your age, race, orientation, et cetera?

In mental health’s dark annals, there was a period not too long ago where this type of thinking was put into practice. It resulted in lobotomies where we simply tried to remove the parts of a person’s brain that were causing their problems. This type of approach not only gets scary quick, it betrays a disturbing philosophical undercurrent of the society that would accept it.

Perhaps a better way to think about the issues that will always be a part of who you are, and that will always go through your mind, is to conceptualize them as something you can one day have a better relationship with. Therapy offers the opportunity to bring these relationships—say, with your parents, your boss, or your ambition—into the here and now (into the conversation) so that you can begin relating to them in a way that is not only more manageable, but also more meaningful.

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