So, your healthy skepticism would be welcomed and valued in therapy.
Skepticism as the search for truth
I understand skepticism, in its best form, to be a search for truth, even if it limits what we can know for certain. Psychotherapy, in its best form, is the search for truth about who we are and how to live that truth.
This has also been true of the development of therapy: we’ve had to search for the truth about how best to practice it. We’ve been refining our ways for over a hundred years, thanks in part to folks who’ve helped us question our theories and techniques, chucking the stuff that doesn’t work and integrating the stuff that does. In fact I’d say that healthy skepticism has been an inherent part of the development of therapy, in addition to being an important part of its everyday practice.
The value and danger of skepticism
Thank God for skeptics. You’ve helped us to clean up our act, sharpen our focus, and avoid investing in such scams as bloodletting, leeches, snake oil, and those crazy, dangerous electronic devices called pacemakers that they put into people’s chest that couldn’t possibly help them.
Catch my drift? Skeptics offer a critical perspective that can be profoundly important to the world, but destructive if applied indiscriminately. You may miss the benefits of your rigorous thinking if you stay on the sidelines all the time.
Psychotherapy for the strong
You might also be skeptical about whether therapy could be helpful to you personally. The way we sometimes present it, it might sound to you as if therapy were only for people who have been abused, traumatized or largely disabled by mental illness. Yes, therapy can help those, but it also works for those who’ve developed emotional callouses from the routine and cruelty of everyday life, for those who struggle with trusting that anyone or anything could help them, and for those whose strength is driving them crazy.
It’s clear that therapy works for most people. Yes, there are outliers for whom it doesn’t work. My hope is that we can help many of these by explaining what it means to “work on it in therapy” (see my book), so they can become equal partners in the process, and so that they won’t wander aimlessly.
Skepticism, trust and the psychotherapist
One reason that some people are skeptical about therapy is that it’s hard to believe that they could walk into a room and spill their deepest and darkest secrets to someone that they’ve never met before. And how could you trust someone who’s making money doing this?
Once again, it’s wise to be cautious, but not so wise to be hopeless. While some people feel ready to dive in immediately, for many trust is developed gradually, and in all cases it must be earned by the therapist gradually. The process of developing confidence in a therapist can be beneficial in itself–if it’s done consciously.
It’s true that there are no guarantees that a particular therapist can be helpful to you, or that any therapist could be helpful to you. But since when is that a good reason not to try something? Certainty is a good standard for engineering, science, and criminal justice, but not for personal action.
Skeptics can benefit a great deal from therapy. Taken too far, skepticism can isolate and depress. And therapy is quite good at helping with those issues. But my greater concern is that skeptics can become cynics, and cynics are harder to help because once they turn the corner into persistent dismissiveness, it’s much more difficult for them to let anyone in.
Psychotherapy, compassion and responsibility
My friend Arlin Roy described psychotherapy as the search for truth with compassion. And that might make you uneasy.
Therapy is sometimes portrayed as a selfish and indulgent undertaking, letting people off the hook, and encouraging them to blame their parents and ditch responsibility. If that’s your concern, rest easy and find yourself a good therapist.
While we often start with understanding, personal responsibility is the final word.
There are many ways to help make the world a better place and therapy is one of them. It can help by helping those who have become burnt-out, those who would like to be a little more kind and compassionate and a little less critical and angry. Those who are helped by therapy are more effective at making the world a better place. Therapy ideally sends us off better prepared to do our personal part for the world, whatever that may be.
Including being skeptical.
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