Illustration by Rob Day
I just love therapy. I savor all its varieties—physical therapy, music therapy, sports therapy, whatever—but psychotherapy is my favorite. My inner life, not to mention my career, is built on a foundation of headshrinking premises and techniques. That's why I'm always surprised to find out how little most people know about being therapized. Some seem to assume that it's reserved for the total whack jobs who eat sod and perform strip routines at the DMV. Others are once burned, twice shy—they've bravely gone for help, had a terrible experience, and given up on therapy altogether.
If you're in either category, you might want to reconsider. Good psychotherapy is one of the best things you can do to improve your experience on planet Earth. There have been times when it has literally saved my life. Nowadays I put it in the same category as chocolate: I could live without it, but since it boosts serotonin production and makes things more fun, why should I? This article is meant to help you figure out whether you might benefit from therapy as much as I do. And if the answer is yes, it will also provide some guidelines on how to choose a therapist who can meet your needs.
Do You Need Shrinking?
The term mentally ill certainly applies to some people who need psychological help, but for most clients, the model of illness is less appropriate than the model of injury. Therapy is most effective for basically healthy people who have been grazed—or hit smack in the heart—by one of the infinite arrows of outrageous fortune: trauma, persecution, rigid judgments, lost love. Whatever their cause, until treated by a skilled healer, emotional wounds can lame as badly as a broken limb.
This isn't to say that every emotionally wounded person needs therapy. The human heart can be healed by any intimate connection with a psychologically savvy individual. Psychologist Alice Miller calls such people the "compassionate witnesses" of others' emotional experience. If you're blessed with one or more of them, you can survive devastating circumstances with relatively little psychological damage. In the absence of compassionate witnesses, however, even a relatively mild emotional injury can fester. When it comes to our hearts, the old adage isn't quite true: Time heals only those wounds that are shared and understood.
There are literally thousands of diagnostic tests you could take to determine whether therapy might be useful to you. (I've included one on this page that you might want to try.) When you come right down to it, though, you have to answer only two questions to know whether counseling could improve your life:
Do I always or almost always feel joy in living?
Do I have a loving, open, honest relationship with at least one other person?
If the answer to both these questions is yes, you don't really need psychotherapy (though you might still enjoy it). If you got one yes and one no, seeing the right therapist could vastly enhance your quality of life. If the answer to both questions is no—in other words, if you are not only suffering but suffering alone—you need and deserve what good therapy can give you.