Why do people go to therapy? Perhaps to avoid cutting off their ear like our friend Vincent van Gogh. I’m sure we can all agree desiring the removal of a bodily appendage is a valid reason to go to therapy. What about the feelings of sadness, despair and confusion that underlie this compulsion? We focus on the image of a person losing control, rather than the reason for their unravelling. We do this out of fear. As human beings we are all capable of losing control. When we see others who have crossed the boundary of mental health, we avoid emotional connection because we want to distance ourselves. HE is crazy, but I am sane. As if relating to that person will bring you a little closer to expressing the unacceptable thoughts lurking inside you. We all have them, and we all persistently deny them. Unfortunately, we are taught to believe how you look takes precedence over how you feel. We stigmatize mental illness because it is discrepant from how we are “supposed to be.” We should all be happy, successful and popular, right? In reality, feeling depressed, anxious and confused are normal aspects of being human.
Understanding why we have such strong reactions to individuals with mental illness may help de-stigmatize psychological disorders and therapeutic interventions. Historically, the treatment of mental illness does not have a good track record. Before the field of psychiatry emerged in the early 20th Century, the mentally ill were locked away from society, forcefully restrained and heavily sedated. It wasn’t until Freud invented the “talking cure” that psychology began to develop as a field separate from medicine. Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques of free association, use of the couch and neutral expression were so revolutionary they remain iconic images of therapy even today. However, there is more to therapy than lying on a couch and telling a stranger your problems. There is a lack of understanding regarding therapeutic styles, practices and techniques, making it incredibly difficult to shake the traditional views of therapy as a passive process. This perception contradicts one of the most firmly held values of North American society: independence. “We can handle our own issues!” However, when it comes to medical problems we go to a doctor and are provided with a cure. We do not expect to actively participate in the development of the cure.
In many forms of contemporary psychotherapy, the idea that a “cure” is necessary is debateable. Even modern subsets of Freud’s psychoanalysis focus more on strengthening relationships rather than unconscious processes. The third wave of cognitive-behavioral therapies like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) avoids pathologizing altogether, suggesting negative emotions are part of the human experience. I often tell my clients, “The world is both light and dark; we cannot know happiness without pain.” Every experience we have helps shape who we are. If we could learn to value the negative as much as the positive, imagine how much we could accomplish.