Counselling, therapy, and mental health help are seriously stigmatised services in Hong Kong. This is in part due to a lack of understanding and awareness, and also a series of misconceptions surrounding the practices. We catch up with Tim Hoffman, who runs his own psychotherapy practice in Hong Kong, to help bust some popular myths and get some helpful tips on how to find the right therapist for you.
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
Every industry has its super conference – the one where everyone who is anyone turns up, gives a speech, or has a booth. Psychology’s version is called the Evolution of Psychotherapy. I was there in California in December 2017 and saw the great, the good, and some of the not-so-good of the Helping Profession. And psychotherapists, like everyone else, are susceptible to hero-worship. The line outside the auditorium for autographs from the keynote speaker snaked out of sight, even while he was still speaking. It seems that many therapists valued his signature more than his words.
Just because someone is well known and gets to speak at a conference like this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily right. The best and the brightest of their age have, at times, believed the world is flat; that illness is best cured by draining the body of blood; that the sun circles the earth, and that mental illness should be treated by sticking an ice pick above the eye to destroy brain tissue. That, by the way, is called a frontal lobotomy, and the inventor, Egas Moniz, received a Nobel Prize in 1949 for his work, before being shot and paralysed by a dissatisfied patient!
The conference also taught me how hard it is for bad ideas, once rooted in common ‘wisdom’, to be discarded. While some presenters spoke of decades of research on psychotherapy that show no school of therapy outperforms any other school when it comes to making clients feel better, others happily promoted their own school as ‘The Answer’.
And then there are bad ideas that permeate the world of psychology and beyond that, western culture; the belief that somewhere out there is a treatment, a school of therapy, a set of techniques, that is the magic bullet for what ails us.
Finding the Right Therapist For You
The truth is that what makes therapy work is the same across all different kinds of therapy. These are called the common factors. So, what are those common factors that are found in all therapies? There’s some debate, but psychologists who study this tend to agree on the following four:
1. Relationship with the therapist
In the presence of someone we trust, respect, and like, and who accepts us for who we are, we are often able to change ourselves. This is the single most important factor in therapy.
2. The flame of hope
If you have lived with anxiety, depression, and poor relationships for many years, the flame of hope can flicker. A therapist who is undeterred by our problems, who remains optimistic that you can be happier and has seen it happen before, can make that flame burn steady and bright. The belief that you can do something is the first and most important step to actually doing it.
3. An explanation for our troubles that makes sense to us
If you think you are too negative, then positive psychology might seem sensible. If you believe you’re still caught up in childhood trauma, on the other hand, then you are more likely to want to explore the past to understand and deal with the effect on your life. The explanation can only be ‘true’ if it fits with your view of yourself and your world.
4. A treatment plan that makes sense to us
Regardless of whether a therapist is asking you to write down your thoughts, or talk about your past, or approach a situation that makes you fearful, those treatments need to make sense and to fit with the explanation of your troubles.
In summary, if you are considering therapy, don’t be swayed by news reports of the latest fad, or a new, shiny school of therapy. It won’t work any better than any of the other therapies that have been around for decades. Instead, find a therapist who you like, trust, and respect, who makes you hopeful, who has a sensible explanation for why you’re suffering, and a reasonable plan for making you feel better.
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