“You should try therapy.”

Pause.

What’s your instinctive response to that statement? Agreement? Disagreement? Scepticism? Laughter? Something else? (I’d like to hear what you chose!)

In my experience—and I’m sure, that of anyone who’s worked in mental healthcare—scepticism is super common. And I find that equal parts frustrating and fascinating, because a lot of people who respond with scepticism have never actually tried therapy.

(Speaking of which, have you? Tried therapy, I mean? Hit me up and let me know as well.)

Why is this, though? Why are so many sceptical about something they’ve never even tried?

We don’t get therapy

My take: many of us fundamentally misunderstand how therapy works.

To illustrate, consider a patient I once spoke with. She would show up to hospital in times of crisis, only to disappear as soon as she feel better. The next time you saw her would be the next crisis. (Any mental health professional will know patients like these.) Clearly, people like this recognise the value of healthcare when push comes to shove. In between, however, they seem much less convinced. Discussing with them about breaking that cycle can be a difficult conversation—and with good reason. It’s hard to be confident about your ability to move forward if all you remember is up-and-down cycles of trying and failing. 

Anyway, during our conversation I asked what she thought she could try doing differently, and she mentioned counselling. The rest of the conversation went something like this:

“Oh, interesting. Have you tried it, then? Counselling, I mean?” I asked.

“No, not really.”

“Okay…why have you held back?”

“I don’t know, I just don’t see the point, I suppose. I struggle to understand what’s going on in my head. How do I explain it to someone else for them to even help me?”

“That…is a really good question.” I replied. 

I said earlier I often encounter scepticism toward the idea of therapy. “How could simply talking to a stranger help me with my problems?” or “I don’t need someone telling me what to do, when they don’t even know me”. And and so on. This wasn’t that. For her the obstacle was she lacked the vocabulary to even describe her problems to her own self. How then to another?

So as I often do in my work, I drew on a metaphor I’d been thinking about (and worked out in writing and in conversations with friends):

“Would you consider thinking of therapy as a mirror?”

That’s what I want to try to explain in this essay.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

If you’re not blind, you can, if you like, look at your hands or tummy or feet right now. But however good your eyes, you can’t see your face with them—and you certainly can’t see your eyes.

Think about that: the only way you know what you look like is by looking into a reflective surface. That’s the only way you ever saw your face, your mouth, the colour of your eyes. You can’t look directly at them, only indirectly, through something else, whether that’s a car window or a still pond. You need something to serve as a mirror.

Or someone.

We’ve all had that terrible moment when someone points out a bit of vegetable in our teeth, a drop of blood on our chin. And sure, it’s embarrassing in the moment. But even in that moment of shame we’re glad someone noticed. If we lack reflective surfaces, other people can see what we don’t see about ourselves—and what we can’t directly look at.

And that’s just the physical stuff. But just like with our bodies, we can see only some parts of our minds by ourselves. But also just like with our bodies, there are bits we need a mirror for. For those impossible-to-see mental bits, our mirrors are other people. We’ve all experienced people seeing things about us we had never seen, even though they’d always been there. 

I know I have. I was well into my mid-twenties before I ever realised that one of my strengths was conceptualising. It took a friend telling me, “You know, Ayomide, you’re really good at capturing ideas and putting them into words”. This was something I’d done all my life, but I’d never thought of it as special. In both my work and friendships, I would often help people name things they had been barely able to articulate. She saw me and described me to myself, so I could see me too. Without those words, God knows how many more years I’d have gone, unwitting of what was so obvious to her. 

So, to return to the question that patient asked me, how do we see into our own minds? [1]

Through the eyes of others.

To really grasp the value of this view, let’s consider what’s wrong with a popular metaphor for therapy.

A new view of you

When I tell people I work in mental health, a common response is, “So you can analyse me, then?” They often say it as a joke, but they’re only half kidding. What’s interesting is, although the popularity of “analyse” goes back to Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis, to the average person it’s more suggestive of data and mathematics—and hence another popular phrasing, that therapists “figure” people out.

This mathematical metaphor is one reason why people are resistant to the idea of therapy, because of course we generally don’t think of ourselves as equations or data. We’d all like to understand themselves better, but we’re sceptical anyone can help—certainly not some stranger, certificate or no.

Except, therapy is so much more: it’s a specific kind of relationship. (I’m not just making that up: we actually call this the therapeutic relationship.)

Like all relationships it offers a reflective surface—a mirror—in which we might see ourselves more clearly. What makes the therapy relationship unique is the person on the other end is a trained professional, not just a friend (or a priest, as was the case for much of history—and to this day—of which more in my essay on therapists as the new priests.) And because it’s a relationship, it does matter that you don’t dislike your therapist—they might be great, yet not great for you.

In therapy, you get a special mirror, like fairytale queen, that talks back and shows you who you really are—and who you can become.

But it’s still up to you to actually look.

Mirrors don’t work for closed eyes

I said earlier that I find it both frustrating and fascinating when people assume that therapy is some sort of attempt to figure people out, like they’re math equations. But it’s not just the suggestion that people are like data that’s wrong with that metaphor. There’s another, and perhaps more serious one: the analyse metaphor lowkey frames the person getting therapy as passive. 

For instance, I hear people proudly announce that therapy wouldn’t work for them, because they’re beyond figuring out. (The latter part would be correct.) Or that they have actually tried it and the therapist didn’t really solve anything. (Again, unsurprising, since human problems are resolved, not solved.)

In both cases, you can see the same underlying problem at work. The idea that it’s all about what the therapist does.

Framing it as a relationship, on the other hand, instantly puts front and center that it’s a two-way reality. But seeing that relationship as a mirror adds two extra layers. Not only do you need to actually look at it for it to be of help, but also what you do with what you see when you look is up to you.

A mirror doesn’t work—you work it. The Apostle James is on record as writing to an ancient community of Christ followers:

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.” (‭‭James‬ ‭1:22-24‬ MSG) [2]

Same with therapy.

And yes, like with physical mirrors, it can be downright embarrassing to really see ourselves. But you’d rather embarrassment in front of your friend-mirror, than go around with spinach in your teeth. Similarly, your therapist mirror shows you the unpleasant parts of yourself, the shame can be a motivation to actually act on them, rather than a reason to hide and make up your mind never to look again.

But it’s, you know—up to you.


Acknowledgements: My thanks to Adam Tank for feedback on an early draft of this essay, and to Alex Lopez (via Unsplash) for the image.

Footnotes:  [1] Our Own Minds was the first name of my website back when I created it in 2013 to talk about mental health. [2] These words by the Apostle James were actually where I got this idea for this metaphor for therapy.

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

Join the conversation

2 Comments

  1. Hey Doc,

    Your point as to how people view therapy or react when you tell them you work in the mental health space is apt. I also believe that it is important that people understand that therapy is a relationship and not a form of mathematical or statistical calculation.

    Thank you for this piece

    1. Indeed! I think most people instinctively get that. Like, no one would say they thought it was not a relationship if we directly asked them. The problem is if we fully grasp the implications of that, you know?

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Scroll down to content