Let the Buyer Beware

I’m pleased to (finally!) announce the publication of my third book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference).’ Among other things, it contains real-life examples of how some kinds of therapy can actually be harmful. Like any product or service you pay for, you have to be sure the therapy (and the therapist) is right for you. The purpose of my new book is to help people in their decision to seek out — or not seek out — the services of a therapist.

Over the years, I’ve encountered mental health professionals who engage in some of the practices I refer to in my book as ‘bad therapy.’ Therapists are human too, and ‘let the buyer beware’ applies as much to my profession as to any other. To that end, I’ve come up with 5 things that therapists might do, often unwittingly and for whatever reason, to keep you in therapy.

1) Labeling your troubling emotions as an “illness.” An illness is something that happens TO you, and is usually out of your control. Of course, certain behaviors like smoking, for example, are under your control and can cause illness. But once you get sick, only medical intervention can attempt to reverse it.

Emotions, on the other hand, come from your ideas and beliefs. They are not always conscious, but you can usually make them conscious and then challenge and correct them if necessary. Some biological illnesses such as dementia do, of course, affect your emotions, but unhappy feelings are not by themselves proof of medical illness.

2) Defining your failure to achieve what you want as ‘depression.’ The term is so overused that it’s now devoid of any real meaning. Yes, it might seem harsh to blame yourself for your failure to achieve your desires, but it’s the only way to face the truth so you can make course corrections.

“Oh, I’m depressed. That’s why I haven’t done what I wanted,” ignores mistaken beliefs that can be the real reason you’re not achieving your goals. It just seems kinder to be forthright with yourself, rather than to buy into flawed ideas that encourage you to blame depression for all your ills.

3) In spite of the American Psychiatric Association’s definition, “functioning in society” is not necessarily the standard of mental health. If you lived in a society dominated by Nazis or terrorists, would ‘fitting in’ with them be the criteria for rationality? Besides, are the opinions of the majority always the most rational? ‘Fitting in’ is surely not a valid definition of mental health.

4) Blaming your obnoxious or otherwise self-defeating behaviors on external factors. For example, “I ‘suffer’ from procrastination.” Or, “I ‘suffer’ from OCD.” Accurate or not, how does it help you to claim you “suffer” from your own odd behaviors? Are you a victim of yourself? Normally we think of a victim as someone who has been physically coerced. But if you’re doing self-defeating things — things you can change — then you’re not a victim of anything. You’re simply doing things that you find it easier to continue doing rather than to change. Sadly, there are well-paid mental health professionals who will be happy to help you delude yourself into believing that you’re a helpless victim of your own behaviors.

5) Psychiatry and psychology are not exact sciences. It’s true that medications do very real things to your brain, but actual science is more than just a pill. For example, a physician who prescribes an antibiotic is reasonably certain that it will eliminate the infection which was detected using medical tests. This is not the case with psychotropic drugs. Diagnoses are performed by inference and subjective feeling, not practical examination. There’s no empirical test for ‘sad,’ ‘unhappy,’ or ‘nervous.’ After spending as little as 5 or 10 minutes with you, a psychiatrist will often prescribe the medication he or she personally likes best. If it doesn’t work, they try another. During all this, you get little time to explain how you’re really feeling.

Medication and convenient labels are never the answer. A person can do many things to improve his life. He can spend 45-50 minutes talking with a therapist, or even engage in some honest introspection (looking at your behaviors objectively, as you would somebody else’s).

Drug companies and the popular media work hard to convince us that drugs and made-up labels are the universal panacea, while patients usually just stay the same. They quietly conclude, “Well, I guess it’s working — how could a doctor be wrong?”

It’s more possible than you think.