I’m Not Saying You’re Crazy – How To Talk About Therapy

“Where to look if you’ve lost your mind?” – Bernard Malamud, The Fixer

Recently, the question of how to refer someone to therapy has come up a lot.  The topic can be a difficult one to broach, especially with colleagues, co-workers and work friends.  On the one hand, you can clearly see that the person is having difficulty of some kind and is in distress.  On the other hand, you do not want to overstep your bounds, or worse, offend the person by suggesting that they should go to therapy.  For many that would be like calling someone crazy.  Only crazy people need therapy. I’m not crazy; ergo, I don’t need therapy.  Thank you very much.

Unfortunately, these sentiments arise out of the still pervasive and persistent stigma associated with mental health issues and treatment.  The stigma is based on a number of common misconceptions, the primary one being that therapy is for crazy people.  Leave aside for the moment that the term crazy is really meaningless.  The truth is that therapy is or can be for anyone.  It is for anyone who is struggling with stress or anxiety, anyone who is overtaxed at work, anyone who seeks resolution of feelings arising out of past events, or even anyone who just needs someone to talk to.  While we are still a long way away from actually publicizing seeking therapy, it is not something to be ashamed of.

Rather, seeking assistance is a clear strength.  It proves that a person has recognized his difficulty and taken affirmative action to address it.  How many people do you know who are in denial about their issues, who do not act, instead letting things pile up until they erupt in a self-destructive fury?  My guess is at least a few.  Those are people of whom you think: if they could just get their act together.  Well, going to therapy is the act of getting your act together.  It is to stridently emerge from denial to face difficulties and fears.

Therapy helps accomplish this by providing a framework for delving into the murky world of feelings, where emotions are typically thought of as bad and scary.  This is another common stigma-perpetuating misconception.   The reality is that emotions just are.  They exist.  We all have them.  Problems arise when we assign values of good or bad, positive or negative to them.  We are socialized to believe that an emotion like sadness is bad.  Therefore, we should not be having it, should get rid of it, and should certainly not talk about it for fear that the badness would make us appear bad to others.  However, sadness, like all emotions, is not bad.  It simply is.  It is our evolved response to external and internal stimuli.  Emotions help us to process all of the information around us that is constantly streaming in.  In the case of sadness, it can be an adaptive response to a loss, from which we can learn to do or think about things differently in the future.

Which brings us to another very large component of stigma – what other people think (or might think).  We have all been admonished by someone, usually our parents, “who cares what other people think?”  Well, we do.  We care.  Maybe too much, but we can’t really help it.  We tend to judge ourselves as compared to others, the flipside of that being that others are also judging us as they judge themselves.  That’s a lot of judging going on.  And none of it is particularly conducive to positive self-image or good mental health.  Still, if other people knew I was going to therapy, they might think less of me.  That maybe true.  But it is also true that we cannot control what other people think.  And we are often wrong about what others think because we tend to project what we think onto them.  Thus the underlying judgment is, I think less of me because I go to therapy.  Meanwhile, the other person could just as easily think I am a stronger, self-actualized person because of it.  Either way, what they think is up to them, not me.

So now we come full circle back to where we started – how to talk to someone about therapy, even though it comes wrapped up in all of these assumptions and negative connotations.   How can we strip the communication of the baggage and express our honest concern?

1.  Be honest, but not brutally.  These discussions usually start with a person coming to you for advice or to vent about something that is troubling them.  Either way, what they mostly want is to be heard.  A person feels heard when they believe that you understand what they are saying and where they are coming from.  The way to convey that is to reflect what they have said first before offering suggestions or solutions.  The therapist’s empathic standbys are “that sounds really difficult,” or “it sounds like you are having a very tough time of things.”  Now is not the time to opine or try to solve their problems.  Listening is all that is required.

2.  Be forthright, but not judgmental.  Sometimes people want your opinion and advice.  Sometimes.  If they ask, give it in a straightforward and gentle way.  Try to avoid judgment.  Avoid labeling things as good or bad, demonizing another person, or adhering to one particular side too strongly.  An honest opinion is still only an opinion.  You may give it, but the person need not take it.   Rather than judgmentally exclaim, “then why did you ask me?” try to be a model of acceptance.  Phrase ideas as suggestions rather than commands.  You might say, “have you ever thought about talking to someone?” or “I know someone who has experience with these issues.  He might be able to help you.  Would you be interested?”  You provide the option and the person then feels cared for rather than defective.

3.  Be caring, but not aggressive.  Most people do not like to be told what to do.  In order to maximize the impact of any suggestion, it is important to keep in mind how the person is likely to react.  If you make a suggestion of therapy sound like a command it will be met with defensiveness and potentially anger, both normal reactions to feeling judged.  In order to avoid that, speaking from a place of empathy can help.  Framing things as applicable to you first can reduce the sting suggesting therapy can often bring.  For example, “when I went through a similar situation, it really helped to talk about it with a professional.”  This normalizes the person’s feelings while de-stigmatizing the idea of therapy itself.

What do you think?  Have you had conversations like this with colleagues, and how did you handle them?  All suggestions are helpful.

Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist.  His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts.  Contact him at andy@bostonprofessionalscounseling.com or visit his website at http://www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com

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13 Responses to I’m Not Saying You’re Crazy – How To Talk About Therapy

  1. spiritjohn1 says:

    In addition, that’s how the Intervention came into being. If the problem is serious enough, the concerned people need to contact a good interventionist. I have done many over the years and have always had a positive outcome. Simply put, it works. If an Intervention is not appropriate then your approach is great.

  2. This is a great list with helpful tips! Thank you for writing and sharing these pointers. Therapy really can be/is for everyone and the more openly we talk about it, (hopefully) the more the stigma will decrease. Really… what does crazy mean, anyway?! I see a lot of teenagers in my practice and this is something I tend to have to deal with at the beginning of therapy. “If I see you for more than a month or two, does that mean I’m crazy?”. Pretty sad! I will share this blog. Again, thank you!

  3. Bethrene Laurenson says:

    Thank you for this article, Bernard Malamud. I agree that seeking assistance is a clear strength. Seeking assistance in any area of our life, particularly our health and wellbeing shows a sense of responsibility. Just as we engage a basketball coach or a swimming coach, a life coach (therapist) can teach us skills to help develop a better game plan and to help us have a few wins in life.

  4. Thanks so much for this discriptive article , we all need a shoulder to lean on in times of distress , a problem shared is a problem halved , many clients would rather not open up to the therapist for many reasons , one they felt that they will be labelled as (crazy) , but in actual fact (therapist) are great people and are willing to work with the clients to the best of their abilities under the circumstance. They will also try to break down any barriers between them , the process of accepting help wether from a clients perspective or from a (therapist) point of view , is that the client will benefit from the latter without the minimal distrust reason been the therapist will try to build up a rapport with the client in a sucession of meetings….Then the client can gain a sense of calm will be able to interact with he/she ….and can be more approachable as trust is built ……

    • Damien Dodd says:

      I appreciate this article, Mr. Malamud. I also love the name “the fixer”. I recently wrote an article on the same subject due to my own frusrations and the questions i had gotten in one of my marketing groups. I like your article better. It is much more thorough. So, i will be forwarding to them. Thank you.

      • andrewdkang says:

        Thank you for reading! Actually, Malamud is an author and the Fixer is his work. I should make that more clear! I appreciate the kudos and hopefully you’ll keep reading!

    • The reminder not to be pushy or judgmental is an important one. When we demonstrate empathy, we model for the person who us struggling that the therapeutic process can be a positive and helpful one.

      • andrewdkang says:

        Modeling is so important for the person who is struggling as well as the person watching them struggle. It can really empower everyone. Thanks for reading!

  5. The reminder not to be pushy or judgmental is an important one. If the person is struggling, we must demonstrate empathy to let her or him know that seeing a therapist can be a positive and helpful experience.

  6. Pingback: How To Talk About Therapy II – Confronting The Fear | the lawyer therapist

  7. Pingback: How To Talk About Therapy II – Confronting The Fear | BPC

  8. Pingback: How To Talk About Therapy II – Confronting The Fear | Boston Professionals Counseling

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