10 things Catholics (and others) should know about therapy

For World Mental Health Day, I’ve updated a thing I wrote a few years ago. It’s all still true! And since then, other members of my family have started seeing therapists, too. We’re so dang mentally healthy around here, I don’t even recognize us.  

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I’ve been seeing a therapist for several years now. I make a point of mentioning it because a lot of Catholics (and others!) are resistant to the idea of therapy. I understand much of that resistance, so I thought I’d share my experience. Here are some basic observations:

1. Therapy is not a replacement for confession or spiritual direction. You may end up addressing the same behaviors in both therapy and confession or spiritual direction, but you’ll learn different things about where they come from and how to deal with them. If you go to therapy, it doesn’t mean you think you’re not responsible for your actions. It means you’re serious about trying to change them.

2. At the same time, therapy is not incompatible with Catholicism – or it shouldn’t be. Ideally, they should dovetail. In my case, I’d made no progress trying to conquer certain behaviors through prayer and confession, so I turned to therapy to help me learn practical ways to do it.

3. It’s far better to see a good therapist who doesn’t know much about your Faith than it is to see a faithful Catholic who’s a second-rate therapist. I went in with the idea that I’d listen with an open mind to whatever my therapist could offer, and I’d do the job of filtering out whatever was incompatible with my faith, and I’d integrate whatever was compatible. Once I got to know and trust the fellow, I let him know that I felt defensive about my Faith, and that I was afraid that he’d see my religion as something to be cured – that he’d see my big family and my spiritual obligations as the things that were dragging me down.

He said that it’s true that some therapists see religion as an unhealthy thing, and they may or may not be aware that they have this prejudice; but he said that most of the good therapists he knows will want to treat the whole person, and that includes their spiritual life; so he encouraged me to be more open about matters touching on religion. I have done this, and it’s worked out well.

This makes sense, because I have made a deliberate effort to integrate my faith into every aspect of my life, so it’s not as if I can compartmentalize it anyway.

At the same time, occasionally bringing up matters of faith with someone who doesn’t share my religion has made me examine pretty closely what I really believe and why. It’s all been to the good, even if it was an uncomfortable and somewhat frightening experience. 

4. Therapy is not for losers. Knowing there’s a problem and not going for help is stupid. Knowing there’s a problem and going for help is what adults do, for their own sakes, and for the sakes of the people they live with. 

5. Of course it’s hard to get started. Important things usually are. It is hard to make the first phone call, especially if you have to make lots and lots of phone calls, and explain over and over again that you need help, until you find someone who is taking new patients and accepts your insurance. Just keep calling. Set a goal per day – say, six phone calls – and just keep plowing through. If possible, if you need it, ask someone to make the phone calls for you. Just get the ball rolling.

6. Don’t assume you can’t possibly afford it. Therapy might be covered by your insurance, or they might offer a sliding scale fee structure, so at least make some calls and find out. If you call an office that does not take your insurance, ask them if they can recommend someone who does. Also ask at your parish. There may possibly be some grant money available. 

7. You might not find the right therapist at first. Give it several sessions, and if things seem really off, it’s completely normal and useful to say so and try someone else. The whole point of this is to help you, and if it’s not helping, then what are you doing?

I was set to see a therapist for an introductory visit, and she didn’t return my phone calls, and then left a message saying she would call back, and then didn’t. So I fired her before I even met with her. If I want to get treated like crap, I can just hang out with my four-year-old at home for free.

8. Therapy isn’t magic. You have to actually do the things throughout the rest of the week. Just showing up for your appointments isn’t going to help anything.

9. Even when it’s working, it takes a while. Things often get harder before they get easier. It’s normal to have ups and downs, and it’s normal to regress at a certain point. You should be seeing some progress at some point, but don’t expect to be on a dazzling upward trajectory from day one.

10. Therapy is smarter than you think, smarty.  So give it a chance, even if your therapist uses words or ideas that sound goofy at first. If you have a decent therapist who seems intelligent, responsive, and respectful, then keep an open mind.

I had a hard time, for instance, getting over the word “mindfulness.” I was like, “But I do not balance crystals on my forehead when I get overwhelmed by yoga pants shopping, so get away from me with your mindfulness nonsense!” Well, it happens that I went in for help changing some behavior that I do out of habit, that I do without thinking, and that I do when I feel like I’m not in control of my responses. So guess what I’m working on? Mindfulness. La di dah.

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If you’ve had a good (or a bad) experience with therapy, what would you add? What would you like your fellow Catholics to know?

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11 thoughts on “10 things Catholics (and others) should know about therapy”

  1. You are so right on! While being afraid that therapy can make us question our beliefs is normal a good therapist will be sensitive and never press us away from faith. I do know there are good Christian therapists out there. Yet whether you go to a Christian or not, a good test to see if your therapist is good is to see if they are looking to truth, i.e. “is this really making you angry? Why?” Truth is the foundation of therapy and God is a fan. Also be aware there are multiple kinds of therapy. Two I am familiar with are; freudian/”how are you feeling” therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)/mental exercises based therapy, which gives you tools to repent (return) to good habits. Sadly our friends, spouses, neighbors haven’t studied the reasearch or had the training to know how to do this. But luckily there are good people who have. Just look to truth.

  2. Treating confession and/or spiritual direction like therapy places a very heavy, undue burden on priests & religious. Most of them do not have much training in psychology and well-being. There’s definitely blurring of lines- our minds, bodies, spirit are all integrated, so they may offer good advice. It’s similar to this: you may get anointing of the sick of you have cancer, but you should obviously still go see an oncologist.

  3. And this is why I look forward to your writing….agree, God gave us the ability to learn and use the science of therapy. Nothing wrong with it. In fact, I would say the tough part is, as you mentioned Simcha, finding a therapist who “gets you”. I believe as Catholics that relying on prayer and your own mind alone, without addressing the issues, can lead to scruples which is itself very unhealthy and even dangerous for those struggling with their mental health. In fact many a time our mind plays tricks on us and it’s important to get a logical and professional sounding board to filter out the mental “noise”. The greatest difficulty is time. We are time poor and relegate our mental health as the least of our priorities. Sad really.

    1. Rather than relying solely on your spouse to help you solve the tough issues, the therapist is meant to be a trained professional, an outsider, who is meant to give unbiased advice. Find a therapist who understand the complexities of marriages and relationships. You bring the advice to the discussions with your spouse within your marriage. It’s a good thing.

    2. In my case, therapy has made it much easier for me to talk to my husband in a constructive way, without getting tangled up with the garbage that builds up over a long marriage. Healthier people communicate better.

  4. Thank you for bravely posting this! So many Christians fear “secular” therapy, not to mention medication. In fact, most if not all of what you wrote applies to medication and what it can, and can’t, do.

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