Who doesn’t love that question? Especially the self-employed. If you are a creative professional it is even worse. “No, really. What do you do for money?” Is a common accusation leveled at freelance artists, musicians or even novelists.
For a long time I have tried not to think about my answer to that question. It is practically common knowledge that nothing shuts up a cocktail party conversation more quickly than the admission that one is a psychotherapist or mental health counselor. People jump out of open windows and lock themselves in the bathroom out of fear one of us will somehow “diagnose” them within minutes of that initial handshake.
One of the secrets of having a higher education and training in human behavior is that when we are off duty, we really don’t want to go digging around anyone’s subconscious. It’s exhausting for one thing. And it’s rude and sort of violating. So, you really have nothing to fear. We probably just want to get to the bourbon.
However, thanks to a conversation I had recently, when someone does ask me what I do, I can tell them the truth.
“I help remove the stigma of seeking mental health therapy for people.”
For as long as psychology has been around, I would have to give it an F for brand marketing and accessibility to regular folks. As a profession it has been horrible at getting normal, everyday people to embrace the benefit that therapy can bring. Even college educated professionals report, albeit unwillingly, a stigma or a reluctance to seek counseling—let alone admit that they are currently in therapy.
Looking at cultural characteristics is a great place to start. As Americans we have this national myth of self-reliance, the cowboy ethos of rugged individualism. We are often reminded of our ancestors of the so-called “Greatest Generation” who not only defeated Nazis but Imperialist Japan and they did it all with no freaking counseling whatsoever. PTSD didn’t even exist back then. They called it Shell Shock, and if you were unfortunate to have it, well, General Patton himself was liable to slap you in the face and call you a coward (true story).
I also think that if you are a child of an immigrant, or come from a recently immigrated family, seeking outside help is often frowned on, or not even recognized as a viable option. Whether your grandparents came from Russia, Ireland, or Vietnam or Ethiopia, there is a stigma—whether it is ever spoken about or not—that the new life in America is both a blessing and a trial. A blessing for the opportunity and trial to prove you belong, that you can achieve your version of the American Dream. Admitting to an outsider you need help, can cause serious internal conflict. As the child of an Eastern European immigrant, the number one rule of the house was to never tell anyone outside the family your problems.
This warning was practically tattooed on.
Obviously, the warning didn’t work so well on me at the end of the day.
Maybe you know someone, or are that someone, who has never considered psychotherapy before.
Breaking down tired stigmas and taboos is an excellent way to move forward.
Send me an email if you want to find out more.