Why Seeing a Therapist Isn't Always the Right Choice
Therapy is a strategy for solving a problem, not an end goal in itself.
Posted Nov 14, 2019
People are more open today about going to therapy than they used to be. Back in the day, therapy was something to keep hidden from view. It suggested pathology—that you need someone else's help to get through what the rest of us deal with on our own.
Today, we feel differently. Seeking the help of a therapist doesn’t mean that there’s something unusual about you, but that you've simply acknowledged that it’s often helpful to get a second set of eyes on a given problem. This is progress—but as with any area of progress, it’s also possible to go too far. Sometimes we forget to ask: do you actually need to see someone?
It’s become a commonplace piece of advice: “You know, you should see someone about that.” And often, it is the right thing to do. If you have a question about your bodily health, you should see a doctor. The same tactic applies to our emotional health, whether you’ve experienced an acute trauma or something more run-of-the-mill, like being burnt out at work or feeling uneasy about an intimate relationship. In many cases, there’s no doubt that the right thing to do is to seek the help of a professional.
But here’s what people have started to overlook. The point of all this isn’t to see someone. The point is to solve the problem. And seeing someone is only as valuable as how much closer it gets you to that goal. Therapy can sometimes miss the point if you go there without the right problem in mind. It's often difficult to know what the real issue is.
In this respect, it’s helpful to think about what a counselor does in terms of what a designer does. In his famous book, The Design of Everyday Things, the cognitive scientist Donald Norman gave a road map for designing things that other humans will find useful as they go about their daily business.
The starting point? Find the right problem. Norman says that, as a designer, you will often be contracted to solve a particular issue that a company has identified as a roadblock in their progress. For example, you might be a landscaping firm that is looking to grow your business. You contact a designer, like Norman, and ask them to create a new website. But if Norman is really doing his job, he won’t go straight to the website. He’ll figure out what you’re really after, and whether a better-designed website is the way to reach it.
You could imagine, for instance, that setting up an Instagram account might actually attract more business for a highly visual service like landscaping than a website that will simply sit there in the vast loneliness of the web. Norman’s first job as a designer isn’t to sketch out the website. It’s to identify the problem, whether or not you’re able to articulate it to him directly.
And the fact of the matter is that we’re not always able to identify our own problems when we have a personal stake in our situation. This is why that second set of eyes is so important—not just because they have specialized knowledge, but because theirs is an outside perspective. When we’re tied up in something, our emotional involvement clouds our ability to see things clearly. Going to your therapist with a particular problem in mind is like a company going to a designer. Sometimes the first step should be to take a step back and figure out what question we should really be asking here.
This is actually a pretty difficult thing to do. It’s why books like Norman’s Design of Everyday Things, first published in 1988, still resonate today. Finding that core problem that gives rise to more easily observed symptoms is not easy—in design, medicine, or therapy. And just as a designer might take on the problem as stated at face value, so can the therapist.
For example, I had a friend who, after breaking up with her boyfriend of many years, was told by all her friends to go talk to someone about it. She was fine, she insisted. But she did it anyway. As it turned out, she spent all her time talking about the things currently happening in her life and how she felt about them—which, in fact, was fine. They never actually got to exploring the real problem. Why was it that she felt so at ease in a situation which would be an appropriate occasion to feel a deep sense of anguish and hurt?
People talk about “seeing someone” as if it’s an unmitigated good. But that’s not the case. What is good here is to admit there’s a problem, identify what it is, and go after solving it in the best way you know how. Seeking professional help often indicates that a person is taking steps in this direction. But we must be careful to remember that those steps are only worthwhile if they’re headed toward the larger goal.
There are quite a few ways to take an active role in working through the kinds of difficulties that we all at one point or another will face. Therapy is one of them. Reading books is another, especially if you can find books that have helped people you know get through similar situations. Meditation has also gained prominence as a useful exercise for strong mental health.
But none of these activities is simply valuable in themselves. They are instruments, and it’s important that we not elevate them to the same status as what actually matters here—the well-being of ourselves and those around us.
Norman, D. A. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. Basic books.