“Caveat Emptor” for Those Seeking Therapy

Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware! Like any product or service you buy, you have to be sure that the mental health professional you choose is right for you. My most recent book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)” was written to help people in their decision to seek out — or not seek out — the services of a therapist. By the way, that book is still available exclusively at DrHurd.com.

Over the years, I’ve encountered therapists, psychiatrists and the like 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 some therapists might do, often unwittingly and for whatever reason, to keep you in therapy unnecessarily.

1) Labeling your troubling emotions as an “illness.” An illness is something that happens TO you, and is usually out of your control. 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 ideas and beliefs and are not always conscious. Good therapy helps to make them conscious and then challenge and correct them if necessary. Unhappy feelings are not by themselves proof of medical illness.

2) Defining your failure to achieve 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 failures, 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. Isn’t it kinder to be forthright with yourself and not buy into flawed ideas that encourage you to blame your ills on depression?

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 standard for rationality? Besides, are the opinions of the majority always rational? “Fitting in” is surely not a valid definition of mental health.

4) Blaming your self-defeating behaviors on external factors. For example, “I ‘suffer’ from procrastination.” Or, “I ‘suffer’ from OCD, ADD (or whatever)” How does it help you to claim you “suffer” from your own odd behaviors? Are you a victim of yourself? If you’re doing self-defeating things, you’re not a victim of anything. You’re simply doing things that you find easier to continue doing rather than to change. Sadly, there’s the occasional well-paid mental health professional who’ll be happy to help you delude yourself into believing you’re a victim of your own behaviors. Caveat emptor!

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. A physician who prescribes an antibiotic is reasonably certain that it will eliminate the infection detected by medical tests. But this is not the case with psychotropic drugs. Diagnoses are arrived at by inference and subjective feeling, not practical examination. There’s no lab test for “sad,” “unhappy,” or “anxious.” After spending as little as 5 or 10 minutes with you, a psychiatrist will often prescribe the medication he or she 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 or her life. She can spend 45-50 minutes talking with a therapist, or even engage in some honest introspection by looking at her behaviors as she would somebody else’s.

While drug companies and the popular media try to convince us that drugs and pseudo-scientific labels are the universal panacea, patients usually just stay the same. They quietly conclude, “Well, I guess it’s working – how could a doctor be wrong?” Well, that’s more likely than you think.