I’m going to let you in on a deep, dark secret: I’ve been to see… a therapist. I know, it’s shocking. I’m so ashamed! What would my friends think it they found out? Well, it turns out many of them have too. But it seems like this is often THE taboo subject in Catholic circles. We aren’t afraid to talk about sex (or the various types of mucus involved). We talk about death like it’s a slight cold. We take our kids to protest at abortion clinics. But therapy? Shhhh… Don’t say that word around the children!
But what is it that we object to so strongly? Lets look at some common objections:
1. Therapy is just pseudoscience. Unfortunately it’s true that many therapies and theories are based on faulty science. But the real body of research is done following strict scientific criteria. The psychological community wanted to make a clear distinction between the science and pseudoscience out there, so in 1992 the APA introduced evidence based practice. It’s telling that they even needed to recommend practices be based on sound research; isn’t it obvious? What is more telling is the backlash from the field. That cohort of therapists educated in the sixties and seventies wanted to be free. They didn’t want to be held back by silly rules like having to use therapies that actually work, that’s too hard! This backlash came to a head around 2000, with a shakeup in the whole psychology elite. Things are now finally settling down. Therapists are now trained in therapies that have been proven to work. I want to say something unqualifiedly positive here, but the truth is that, while the trend is positive, there are still problems. There are still completely bogus therapies out there and there always will be. But now they’re officially condemned as bogus. The upshot is there’s a bigger pool of decent therapists and somewhat fewer absolute quacks
2. Therapists are all anti-religious. While it is true that many therapists are anti-religious, and especially anti-Catholic, this shouldn’t keep you from seeking help if you need it. The therapist’s own beliefs shouldn’t be too problematic as long as they have a true understanding of human nature and are using sound practices. That being said, it can be a problem if the therapist’s attitude toward religion make it difficult to establish a relationship or if their view of human nature is totally off. There are lots of great therapists out there. If you need a recommendation, contact your parish or your local Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities offers counseling at reduced cost if you need it.
3. Therapists are just touchy-feely creeps who don’t believe in human nature. Unfortunately, there are many therapists who are influenced by client centered or humanistic psychology. This means they think that you need to get rid of all the social norms that make you feel guilty and just “accept who you are.” These theories derive from faulty science based on faulty philosophy. The good news is that it’s so faulty that all the real scientific research is completely undermining it. Any practitioner who is using evidence based therapies is going to have a pretty solid understanding of human nature.
4. You have free will, just stop it! We often assume that people have more control over their mental states than they actually do. Of course, many in the secular world take this too far and deny the very possibility of free will, but there is a grain of truth in their mistake. Every time you use your brain, something physical is going on: Neurons are firing electrical charges that release chemicals into the little gaps between neurons where they activate or deactivate the next in line. And so on and so on until you have the vast, mind bogglingly complicated network that is your brain. And because everything your brain does is physical, every physical change effects your thinking. Does that mean you have no free will? Certainly not! I exercise my physicality to sing, dance, paint, sculpt, and write poetry, but I can’t do these things if my vocal chords are damaged, I pulled a muscle in my leg or I have a cramp in my hand. Any physical damage to our body limits our ability to do what we want to do. Your brain is another part of your body. And saying this by no means lowers the dignity of thought. You can perform the most graceful dance using the muscles of your body. The dance is not cheapened by these muscles. You can think the most beautiful and profound thoughts using the neurons of your brain. These thoughts are not cheapened by these neurons.
What does a dancer do when she injures a muscle in her leg? Does she just keep dancing on it? Does she accept her fate and stop dancing entirely? Does she take matters into her own hands and start a rigorous exercise program to fix the damage? No. She finds a competent physical therapist who is familiar with this type of injury. Don’t just push through it! If you have a real problem, it’s not a sign of weakness to seek professional help, it’s just the smart thing to do.
5. Just pray more, it’s really a spiritual problem. This objection stems from a misunderstanding about the relationship of body and soul, the spiritual and physical. Yes, prayer is powerful. Yes, it does affect the world. But when you say depression is just the manifestation of someone’s spiritual state, you’re making a judgement unjustifiably. If you see someone lying there with a broken hip, you don’t just say “hey, that hip represents your broken relationship with God. You should really start praying more.” No! You call the ambulance! Of course you should pray too. And you probably have some serious spiritual problems you need to work on. And these problems are probably bound up with your mental problems. I can guarantee you’d benefit from focusing on your spiritual life. But that’s another issue, right now you need to figure out how to get to that phone without further injuring your hip and call 911!
6. Therapy’s for people with serious problems, not me! It’s true that there are a lot of psychological hypochondriacs out there, people who go to their therapist every time they just feel down or uneasy. But that being said, if you have a problem that hasn’t been looked at by a professional, you might not be in the best position to judge how serious it is. You go to the doctor when you have a dull pain in your chest, just to make sure. Chances are he’ll say it’s just heartburn and send you home. Yay! That’s great, now you can rest easy knowing it’s nothing serious. But if you ignore that pain and it turns out it was something serious, you may regret it. And it never hurts to see your doctor for routine maintenance. Likewise, it wouldn’t kill you to go see that marriage counselor your wife keeps begging you to see even though your marriage is totally fine. Preventative medicine is much more effective than reactive medicine.
7. I had a bad experience with a therapist. They don’t work. There are lots of great therapists out there. There are also lots of crappy therapists out there. Don’t give up. You might have to try a few before you find one that clicks. There are always going to be bad therapists out there. But even the best therapist doesn’t work well with everyone. You need to find someone you click with. Research has shown that the greatest predictor of success in therapy is the relationship between therapist and client. If it’s not working, just try again.
And don’t just go by Internet ratings! Remember, all those one star ratings were written by people who needed therapy! Ask for a recommendation. Ask your priest. Ask your friends and family, chances are they all know someone. It’s a dirty little secret, but they’ve all seen a therapist, they’re just not willing to say it out loud.