However, I do kind of worry that I've come off harsher than intended. It's hard to get all the perspectives into one single post, but I want to try.
Maybe I haven't emphasized enough that I don't automatically think badly of therapists or people who choose to invest in therapy.
I think most therapists and their clients are sincere and wish to help/be helped.
I also think we're basically talking about good people across the board (with some exceptions).
But I also see very real flaws in the whole system.
Having said that, of course, you can speak to someone.
You can speak to Hashem, but of course you can also speak to another person.
Lubavitcher women have a mashpia. Many people have rebbetzins or rebbis or good friends or mentors of some kind – someone who gives them chizuk & helps them better themselves.
In the book Words of Faith, the tzaddik Rav Levi Yitzchak Bender lays out recommendations on how to be a truly beneficial confidant.
For discussions of his ideas, please see:
- How to Listen & How to Speak
- Friendship & Encouraging Words
- The Honesty Deception
- A Tzaddik's Example: Listen, Empathize, Encourage
- Human Interaction and the Secret of Light
Your therapist or adviser can also fulfill that role; the question is whether they ARE actually fulfilling that role to your best interests.
Going Back in Time for Some Personal Anecdotes
For my generation (and I think everyone younger than me), therapy was & still is considered both the acceptable & the responsible thing to do. (And psychiatric treatment has now joined therapy in this respect.)
Two non-Jewish therapists did me no good whatsoever. Literally nothing came out of it, even though with one of them, I spent 6 months at the age of 16 going to weekly appointments because I felt very insecure and wished to become an emotionally healthy person, and thought that these weekly appointments would fix me. Total waste of time & money.
One high school guidance counselor (who are usually considered a joke) was a wonderfully empathetic listener and adored by the student body. A wide variety of students went to her, including those you'd think would never do so. While I'm grateful for the temporary relief she provided with her genuine caring, I made no progress whatsoever in self-improvement or any specific issues.
In fact, as I started looking into Torah Judaism and made plans for aliyah, she displayed sincere concern (she was a very sincere Liberal and a feminist), which included handing me the photocopied article from a magazine interview with a Palestinian terrorist who expressed the goal of moving to England and becoming a computer programmer after he was done terrorizing Jews. (Well, I considered him a terrorist anyway. The guidance counselor and the magazine clearly did not consider his actions as "terror.")
She also gave me another photocopied article of a secular Leftist Israeli who'd gone undercover as an Arab to see how it feels. Needless to say, it did not present a balanced picture.
Guess who were the poor sympathetic victims and who were the bad guys?
When I discussed this slanted hit-job with her later, addressing some of the more blatant and suspicious parts, she merely looked saddened at my inability to accept the facts as she saw them.
She also seemed confused by my opinion that the reporter's strong Leftist bias made him, well, biased.
Interestingly, despite the obvious middot work I needed to do, handing me these skillfully written propaganda pieces was the most proactive she'd ever been about changing my thought patterns.
And I'm still trying to remember if it was she who lent me a book written by a Reform rabbi, to influence me away from frumkeit...
Clearly, she only became concerned enough to leave aside the facilitative listening and influence me was when I looked toward become a more spiritual and moral person.
An Example of Truly Helpful Therapy for 1 Specific Issue
This frum therapist also offered first appointments for free, so even though she knew this would likely be a one-time meeting, she still offered that time free of charge.
After I explained my anxiety, she got straight to the core of the issue with the help of a few insightful questions, then she addressed my issue with conviction in a convincing & thoughtful manner.
She thoroughly answered every concern I had about the issue, completely reassuring me.
With this particular weight lifted from my heart, I went on with my life and did not need another visit.
Perhaps this is a good example of what has been mentioned in previous posts: Therapy can be helpful for certain issues, but not necessarily for overall self-improvement (although it can do that too to a point).
While this particular issue ended up completely resolved in 1 session of therapy, I did not leave her office a better person than when I'd entered it.
I felt better (about this issue, anyway), but I wasn't actually a better person overall.
(And this says nothing bad about the therapist because the only goal of the session was to focus on this one issue, and not to work on myself overall.)
Lots of Money & Time with Very Little Benefit
Stunned by the realization, I quickly got to work on it.
That was an actual aspect of middot work. But just one and the main issue I'd come for wasn't helped even one bit (as far as I can remember).
Then I decided to continue with her regarding another issue, that of my fear of being the victim of a terror attack. (This was around the time suicide bombers were blowing up buses and kiosks, I knew people who almost victims of these attacks, so it wasn't an irrational fear.)
After cheerfully explaining how she personally did not relate to this fear, and cheerfully including a personal anecdote to show just how much she could not personally empathize, she agreed to work with me on it anyway.
Needless to say, this did not last long. Maybe I met with her once or twice more.
I think there is a tremendous pull in being listened to and also being liked. Because she listened to me & indicated that she liked me, I remember her fondly despite the fact that she was only of little help practically.
Should you pay hundreds (or even thousands of the course of months or years) for that?
I suppose that if you can easily afford to and you really crave being listened to and liked...well, I honestly don't know.
But you should at least know what you're paying for – and I think that the enjoyment of the therapist's caring and validation masks the reality that many people are not getting as much practical help from therapy as they feel they are.
The truth is, plain old therapy cannot really remedy a rational fear.
Hashem is really the only answer to fear.
Had she decided to learn Gate of Bitachon from Chovot Halevavot with me, or any other relevant chapters from other mussar books, it would've been much more helpful.
However, she herself would need to be on that level and in that frame of mind in order to give over such concepts.
(Although it could also be that just learning them together and speaking them out loud would've still been very helpful, even without her being able to project it. After all, the message of these great Sages comes through no matter what.)
Happier People aren't Necessarily Better People
This is actually not so surprising as she was raised by a very self-righteous & distant mother (who was occasionally abusive) and hung out with other obnoxiously wealthy & decadent "friends" who held few morals and little meaning in their lives...which consisted of achieving good grades, while indulging in hard drugs and hefker behavior outside of school.
So she went to a very expensive & highly regarded secular doctor-psychologist.
Indeed, he helped her get out of her depression. She no longer wished to kill herself, and she not only rose out of her depression, but she charmed others with her funny & bubbly persona.
She also felt like therapy really helped her. She felt like her therapist saved her life (and he did).
Yet however much she felt better and happier, she was not a better person.
She continued to dabble in "soft" drugs, engage in appallingly hefker behavior (including becoming the mistress of a man she KNEW FROM THE FIRST was married with a child, then tried to wreck his marriage when he decided to stop the affair to return to his wife), and so on with behaviors that were either self-destructive or other-destructive.
Again, despite therapy saving her life and making her a happier person, therapy certainly did not make her a better person.
Physical Abuse? Cured! Emotional Neglect? Well...
She thinks this is why the physical abuse she'd been experiencing until then stopped.
So though her parents both stopped whacking the kids, and she stopped living in fear of being hit, her parents never became loving or nurturing parents.
Her father still had a temper and her mother was still heartbreakingly uninterested.
She said she's grateful that the therapy somehow stopped the physical abuse (which she thinks wasn't really inner change, but perhaps just the threat of being reported), but at the same time, she felt it showed just how much her parents really did not care about her.
Who is the Focus?
Many advisers tend to talk about themselves under the guise of helping you.
Although this is neither so logical or helpful (unless your personality or situation happen to be so similar to the adviser's that this actually gives you helpful direction or validation), it's understandable because good listening calls for tremendous focus & self-restraint.
So it's understandable that people who spend so much of their time listening to others might get overwhelmed with the required self-discipline and start going on about themselves when they either should be listening or be talking about you and your situation.
So even when it's not helpful, it's still understandable.
However, therapists can do this too.
And while it's still understandable for the reasons above, this kind of self-indulgence is especially inappropriate when you are paying them so much for the time.
I think this is a problem, whether you're asking for aitzah or therapy.
Just to clarify: IF their own sharing is MEANT to be helpful and IS helpful, then that's fine. It can be really good.
But if it's just an emotional indulgence of theirs, that's not what you're there for.
Uh-Oh...I'm Even Worse Than I Thought!
I had never considered myself to have a problem with that particular middah (other middot, yes; this one, no), yet here it was in all its shocking starkness.
Interestingly, this issue never came up in any therapy session, it was never noticed by my parents or friends or my husband, and it never even came up with my mentor-rebbetzin who'd helped me so much with real middot work and self-improvement.
I don't want to say what it was, but let's use another example:
Let's say that I have problems with anger & spreading rumors, I enjoy making nasty barbs at others, and struggle a lot with giving the benefit of the doubt. (Ew, what a nasty person!)
(BTW, conventional therapy would diagnose me as suffering from low self-esteem and work on making me feel better about myself to stop the negative behaviors – which, as discussed above, doesn't ultimately help.)
So maybe I think my core problematic middot are anger, a sadistic streak (i.e. the middah of achzariyut/cruelty), and cynicism. And people who know me well might agree.
But when I do a raw cheshbon hanefesh in hitbodedut, I discover that I have a serious problem with envy. (Again, NOT the problem I discovered. This is a decoy.)
But wait – I never considered myself an envious person before! In fact, I always thought that envy was the LEAST of my problems!
And now, I am faced with the realization that not only is envy a problem for me, it is actually a HUGE problem and the root cause of my other bad middot.
(Meaning, most of the time rage boiled over, it had to do with envy. The nasty barbs and rumor-mongering emanated from envy, etc. Again, all theoretical.)
Again, these weren't my exact issues, but looking back, I don't blame anyone (including professionals) for not having cottoned on to one of the main middot I needed to fix.
It's was disguised by several other bad middot.
And in hindsight, I honestly don't see that it would've been picked up on in therapy.
Also, when you first stumble across a bad middah, you can be plunged into terrible shame, which might be a barrier when you're working via another person.
But it's okay because Hashem already knew this about you and anyway, HE was the One who planted it within you (so it's not really your fault that you have it, although you still have a responsibility to fix it).
So you can deal with the shame that way.
In fact, once you've discovered the middah and felt ashamed, you can now be really happy with this evidence that you are such a wonderful person who works on yourself so sincerely, and that Hashem loves you so much for doing so, and you've also sweetened dinim just by doing this.
Anyway, I don't blame anyone for never catching it.
It merely proved to me the importance of doing your own work on yourself in private with Hashem.
Like I've said before, I think that therapy can be helpful for spot-cleaning specific issues.
After all, it helped me with a couple of specific issues and I've seen others helped too.
However, I've seen time and again that fixing a specific issue often does not lead to overall self-improvement.
Even feeling better or feeling happier does not automatically lead to overall better behavior.
(Along these lines, I could tell you a couple of stories of the hurtful behavior of cheerful people on antidepressants. Not the homicidal behavior of a minority, but the routine verbal behavior of many on antidepressants who indeed feel happier, but really should tape up their mouths. So they feel really good, but sometimes behave very badly WHILE feeling really good!)
If it addresses an actual middah, then yes, it can lead to self-improvement (although there are other middot that need to be addressed; rare is the person who only has one problematic middah).
And as has been mentioned in previous posts, statistics show that, for example, most divorced couples invested in marital therapy prior to divorce (i.e., the therapy did not help the marriage).
The same issues apply when going to any adviser for help.
Whether they realize it or not, many people invest in therapy to feel better, whether they actually become better people or not.
If you're in a situation in which you crave the relief gained from pouring out your heart to a sympathetic listener AND you can afford to pay someone for this...well, okay. I honestly don't know.
Ultimately, I think it's good to be aware of:
- what you're really in therapy for
- what the therapist can honestly do for you
- what you can get out of it
- how to deal the difference between feeling better & truly being a better person
- Stories of People who Overcome Pain & Trauma with Help from Regular People (and Not Professionals)
- Is Psychology Ever Truly Helpful?