Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways Talk Therapy Can Help

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by the front page article in the New York Times magazine over the weekend  by Daphne Merkin, which provides an account of the author’s life-long search for the perfect psycho-therapist.

I have a feeling that this article could serve as another great example of the age-old “there are two types of people in the world…”. On the one hand, there are undoubtedly people who will be turned off by this five-page, detailed meditation on Merkin’s ongoing relationship to psychotherapy, using it as confirmation that psychotherapy really is just an extended exercise in (pointless) narcissism. On the other hand, there are people (like me) who – while acknowledging the self-indulgent nature of therapy – find both the process and analysis…of analysis…endlessly fascinating. Which is another way of saying that I couldn’t put the article down.

Wherever you fall on the “therapy as literature” debate, I do think that seeing a therapist of any sort can be extraordinarily useful at certain points in your life. And, apparently, more and more of my adopted country’s citizens agree with me. While talk therapy has long been an important part of American life,  more and more Brits have gotten on board with psycho-therapy in recent years. A a recent survey suggests that 94% of people in the U.K. now consider it acceptable to have counseling and psychotherapy for anxiety and depression, compared with just 67% in 2004.

If you’re a therapy skeptic or just haven’t felt the need to see a shrink, here’s a layman’s perspective on five ways talk therapy can help you (But be sure to read my “five things not to do in therapy” before you go!):

1. It gives you a narrative. Whether of not you actually pay someone to help you do this, most of us spend a good portion of our adult lives trying to figure ourselves out. Therapy is a useful tool in that process because – if you stick with it long enough – you gradually acquire a story that you can tell yourself to make sense of your past. At the risk of dumbing things down, think of this as a sort of “thesis sentence” (remember 9th grade English?) about your life. It might be something as simple as “I was put on this earth to accompany my sister” or “I was invisible to my parents.” Whatever it is, having a framework about yourself is helpful for moving forward.

2. You identify patterns. As you begin to unearth your own narrative, you’ll discover that you have a habit of repeating certain behaviors. In my own case, a shrink once casually observed that “freedom of movement” is a defining characteristic of who I am. And in one fell swoop, I made sense of about five different things going on in my life, from relationship issues to living overseas. It’s not until you can clearly see the patterns that you can think about change.

3.You normalize your problems. “Ordinary Misery” or “Ordinary Unhappiness” (to generously paraphrase Freud) is the goal here, folks. Which is another way of saying that if you stay inside your own head too long you run the risk of thinking that your problems are worse than they are. Conversely, by talking to someone else about your problems you come to see that a.) you aren’t insane b.) lots of other people share your issues and c.) all of these things are fixable. This does not mean that you’ll necessarily end up “happy” (whatever that is). But in converting your demons into ordinary problems, you’ll be happi-er, which is probably enough for most of us mere mortals.

4. You change your life. Or at least you have the tools to do so. In my own case, I can point to several major life changes that wouldn’t have happened without therapy, ranging from the profound (career change) to the seemingly-trivial-but-in-fact-hugely-consequential (yoga). Provided that you do it the right way, therapy offers you a chance to take abstract  insights about yourself and apply those towards concrete changes in your life.

5. It offers hope. See 1, 2, 3 and 4. And in an era where suicide rates are up among middle-aged Americans, that’s nothing to sneeze at.


I’m over on Politics Daily today talking about the new trend towards early puberty in girls and what it might mean for everyone else.

Image: Week Five – Face of Depression by Jessica Hime via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Reply BigLittleWolf

    August 11, 2010, 5:38 pm

    I also agree that therapy can be incredibly helpful. While there is less stigma to it than there once was, it remains extremely expensive, and as you point out – challenging to find a good fit when it comes to a therapist.

    When you weight the “talk therapy” pros and cons versus medication (so prevalent here, for everything), it becomes an even more interesting discussion, if without resolution. To my mind, only a qualified professional can determine if medication is required or preferred over talk therapy, yet qualified health care to make that determination isn’t available to many in the US.

    There are a host of interesting topics tangled in this hornet’s nest of mental health.

  • Reply delialloyd

    August 12, 2010, 2:40 pm

    I couldn’t agree more re: pricing and meds. And the health care system makes it even harder to get good and lasting talk therapy. Fortunately the NHS still does provide mental health services over here, tho I’m not sure for how much longer…

  • Reply Matt

    August 12, 2010, 9:21 pm

    I have found that over the years by far the most rewarding expenditures are those that relate to my own peace of mind. I have found that expenditures related to: 1) my mental health (including psychotherapy (various forms), meditation and anxiety reduction (in many ways and forms) and 2) my physical heath – at least as far as it relates to the many forms of aerobic exercise including (but not limited to): running, swimming, biking, yoga – do much more for my pleasure in and enjoyment of life than any of the other forms of financial expenditure. In fact, I find them both to be essential to fully enjoy the most basic human needs: eating, sleeping, sexual activity, etc. And, without them, other forms of consumer expenditure become empty (and often stressful) exercises that I often would rather avoid. –

  • Reply Daryl Boylan

    August 24, 2010, 8:33 pm

    Hope is surely the name of the game — certainly not to be equated with easy answers to all life problems. In the US, unhappily, good talk therapy by qualified practicioners has become a luxury available to only a very small percentage of people, while far too many waste far too much time & money on the dubiously trained & credentialed. Let us hope that they at least occasionally do.

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