5 Lies People Learn from the Media about Therapy

Family sitting and watching televisionChances are most of what you think you know about therapy is misrepresented in the media. Why? Because pop culture’s idea of what goes on in the therapy room is largely based on fictional therapists. In short, good TV and movies depict bad therapy. The dramas—made famous by fictional therapists—that interest viewers portray the qualities that would be harmful to real-life people in therapy (and most likely would get those therapists in legal trouble).

Below are the top five lies that you may have learned about therapists on television and in movies, followed by a more realistic view of therapy:

Lie No. 1: Therapists can’t be trusted to keep your secrets or respect your privacy. Television and movie therapists are often portrayed as devious or self-serving. On Mad Men, Don Draper’s wife was seeing psychiatrist Dr. Arnold Wayne, who then reported the details of their sessions to Draper (this one tops the list).

The reality: Therapists are ethically bound to maintain confidentiality. What is said in a therapy session will never be shared with anyone else without your permission. The exception to this rule is when someone is in danger, as in the case of child abuse, for example. Legitimate therapists will explain the limitations of confidentiality at your first session.

 Lie No. 2: Therapists’ foibles, oddities, and mistakes are the norm. The media often portray therapists as incompetent, either because they are pompous or because they just aren’t effective in therapy. Sometimes they’re depicted simply as being off-the-wall. The most obvious example of an incompetent therapist is the delusional Tobias Fünke on Arrested Development—a failed psychiatrist with multiple phobias and a total blindness to the problems in his marriage and family. Mind you, Tobias is a hilarious character (and that is the point)—but there’s nothing therapist-like about him.

The reality: Therapists are highly educated, normal people. In general, therapists hold either a doctorate or a master’s degree in psychology or a subspecialty (such as marriage and family therapy), and they are required to take continuing education courses on a regular basis to keep their skills and licenses current—a license is required in most states. Therapists are bound by the ethical standards of their profession as well as by local and federal laws. While perfection might be desired by a person in therapy, therapists are human just like everyone else.

Lie No. 3: Your therapist will fix your problems. Fictional therapists on TV and in movies tell people in therapy what to do, taking for granted they “have the answer.” Even Dr. Phil (who is not fictional) primarily lectures and offers advice on his show.

The reality: A good therapist will assist you in finding your own answers. Your therapist might occasionally offer a suggestion about changing a behavior, or give you “homework” to try out between sessions (this isn’t advice, but a directive). It is much more likely that if you ask your therapist for advice, he or she will help you explore your own inner knowledge about what is best for you in a given situation. Each therapist has his or her own style. And there are different therapies that prescribe a more direct vs. indirect approach.

Lie No. 4: Your therapist will become very involved in your life as your on-call crisis manager. Many TV therapists are portrayed as being intimately involved in the day-to-day dramas of people’s lives, taking endless phone calls to help the client resolve a sticky situation. In the comedies Analyze This and What About Bob? this concept is taken to an extreme, as the therapists become overly involved and react defensively to people’s needy behaviors.

The reality: Therapists maintain therapeutic boundaries in order for therapy to be effective. The therapist will explain his/her policies at your first visit. Most likely, your interaction with your therapist will be limited to scheduled visits, which are typically just once a week, but short five- or 10-minute calls between sessions are usually not prohibited (this is an individual therapist courtesy). Therapists often do respond to crisis calls when deemed appropriate to do so. It is good practice to ask your therapist how he or she handles these issues if you are uncertain.

Lie No. 5: Your therapist might become romantically or sexually involved with you. It’s easy to think, from the examples we see on TV and in the movies, that most therapists end up in romantic entanglements with people in treatment. As an example, in the blockbuster romance The Prince of Tides, the psychiatrist played by Barbra Streisand begins therapy with her client’s brother and eventually has a sexual fling with him.

The reality: Therapists are ethically bound to avoid dual relationships or sexual contact with people in therapy. A dual relationship refers to a situation in which the therapist interacts with a person in therapy in a way that may be harmful to the person. In general, this is highly frowned upon by therapeutic ethics. No therapist should engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with you while you are in treatment with him/her.

“My therapist told me the way to achieve true inner peace is to finish what I start. So far today, I have finished two bags of M&M’s and a chocolate cake. I feel better already.”
—Dave Barry

So, how are you supposed to feel safe and keep pace with all these potential issues? First of all, it’s your therapist’s responsibility to handle sticky situations correctly and within the laws that govern them. Mental health professionals are required, ethically and legally, to explain these issues to you before the process of therapy begins. Typically, you will be asked to read and sign a detailed document (usually called an “informed consent” or “disclosure”) that describes the therapist’s way of practicing and his/her ethical and legal obligations. If you have questions, you can also contact your state licensing board, as it is set up to protect your rights.


Squiddo (2013), Retrieved May 5, 2013, http://www.squidoo.com/psyquotes by Jaktraks.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Douglas Mitchell, LMFT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Brittany

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:01 PM

    Honestly I think that there are so many lies that are told in the media today, there is a whole generation of people who just don’t believe anything that we see anymore until we have experienced it for ourselves.

    I used to be so trusting, I guess naive would be the better word for it. If someone that I deeemed to be in a position of power told me something, then I naturally believed it was true.

    I am so glad that I have done some reading on my own that has allowed me to start thinking for myself, so that I have not ended up one of the mindless of the masses who takes everything that we hear and believe it just because someone tells us it is.

    I think that it is much better to keep an open mind and experience things for yourself before rushing to judgement.


    May 8th, 2013 at 12:28 PM

    I tell you who gives therapy a bad name: DR. PHIL!!!!!!!!!

  • Pamela T

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:31 PM

    It certainly is difficult to get my husband to go to therapy with me thanks to what we see on TV and in the movies and even on the news. He’s afraid someone will automatically side with me and not even give him a fair chance. The reality is that there are so many different types of therapists out there that it may take one or two (or five) missteps before we find someone that works for us, but it is totally worth the investment in our future lives together and those of our children.

  • r gary

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:34 PM

    well i’ve never been to a therpist and i guess it all cuz of what i seen on the tv and all i dont really go to the movies so i don’t reckon i can blame it on that really.
    it’s good to read that some of the things i thought would happen really wouldn’t i guess you can’t really trust everything you see on tv which of course i know but still it helps to know what parts are right and what parts aren’t.

  • Yolanda Whitworth

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:36 PM

    I so wish #1 were true. If it were, maybe I wouldn’t be divorced right now.

  • Christie

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    Well. I am glad to know that therapists have to do continuing education. Just like the rest of us.
    I mean I’m a hairstylist and I’m always having to take classes. And stuff.
    That would be bad if the therapists who can mess with your mind didn’t have to take classes. And I did!
    I mean, I can mess your hair up, but they can mess your head up!


    May 8th, 2013 at 12:42 PM








  • Janie

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    One TV therapy thing not mentioned: Go On. Talk about getting enmeshed with your clients. Oh, my!

  • elsa

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    Just thinking about being “romantic” with my therapist makes me one to hurl i mean he’s like my dads age which is so gross who in there right mind would want to date there therapists anyway they know all the bad stuff about you if you’ve told them the truth and what in the heck would be the point in going if you weren’t going to be honest and tell them everything my therapist has helped me soooooooo much but to think about even kissing him i mean barf

  • truman

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    so like what’s the rule if you want your therapist to contact your doctor to tell them something
    my therapist asked to tell my doctor something i said about my medicine
    but i wasn’t sure if that was good or not
    does anybody know the answer to that

  • Maggie

    May 8th, 2013 at 12:52 PM

    So wishing #5 weren’t true right about now. I have a MAJOR crush on my therapist and I don’t know what to do about it. According to this, she couldn’t do anything about it anyway. I sure don’t want to say something and not be able to see her anymore. At least now I get to see her once a week.

  • Michael Rohde

    May 8th, 2013 at 1:58 PM

    I have been treated by the VA for years, attempted suicide while in Prolonged Exposure 4 years ago. I live on 1150 a month, would give an arm and a leg to get treatment outside of VA, can’t find it. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I’m afraid of my psychologist at the VA, she was in charge when I attempted suicide in therapy with a 4th year psyche student. When I asked for a referral, she told me I’d have to wait 3-4 months for a new one. Hobson’s choice.

  • Douglas

    May 8th, 2013 at 2:17 PM

    Dear Pamela
    I so understand your blight. A good therapist is trained not to take sides in therapy with couples – just like any other training. It is important for him to speak about his fear with the therapist before beginning therapy. This may ease some tensions around it. What I usually tell my client wanting couples therapy, is to take responsibility by saying to their partner, “I need this not only for us, but for me, will you support me in coming to therapy so I can talk about things that are important to me?” This can take the pressure off your partner. I hope this helps!

  • Douglas

    May 8th, 2013 at 2:20 PM

    Dear Davie,

    I completely understand your wanting to pay a therapist for some expert advice. You most certainly can ask for it. Some therapist may not approach therapy by giving advice and some may – it really depends on the questions being asked and what the therapist deems appropriate to do with your best interest at heart.

  • Douglas

    May 8th, 2013 at 2:27 PM

    Dear Truman,

    The rules depend much on what your state requires. In most cases you could call the licensing board for your state or call another licensed therapist for an opinion. Your information with your doctor and your therapist is confidential. You must sign a release for them to talk to each another. I believe I understood your correctly, if this didn’t answer your question, please let me know.

  • Douglas

    May 8th, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    Dear Maggie,
    Having an attraction to your therapist is actually pretty normal,yet I do understand how uncomfortable that can make you feel if you should tell them. Most therapist are trained and aware of this possibility and welcome the conversation in therapy. If you are unsure of how to approach it, you may want to get the advice of another therapist. You are never obligated to say anything.

  • Douglas

    May 8th, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    Dear Michael,

    I’m sorry to hear that you are afraid of your psychologist. I can imagine how that must feel. I’m not sure why it has been difficult for you to find someone outside of the VA? If you could expand on that, it would be helpful. If you are able, I would suggest that you either call me or email me (you can find this in my profile) or contact a local counseling center that is affordable for you. You even might try looking for a therapist online in your area and enter words like EMDR or Trauma therapy for organizations or individuals that may meet your needs. Thanks for your post, as I’m sure others may have similar feelings and can relate to your situation.

  • Bruce Adams

    May 8th, 2013 at 9:59 PM

    Is there anything that is portrayed right in the movies?I don’t think so.But they ought to be careful with things such as therapy. Because if people do take what is portrayed as being true,which many will,they will always have a wrong view of therapy and may even avoid it even when in need!

  • Sally High

    May 15th, 2013 at 4:11 AM

    I agree that media has portrayed the wrong image of therapist. By doing your own research about therapy and the different styles and methods of therapy, you can better understand the benefits of counseling and therapy and see for yourself that therapy can help individuals, couples, teens and families learn new skills and develop a better outlook for themselves in order to enhance their lives.

  • callie

    May 9th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    But it isn’t like you can block your clients off from the media. And you might have to address what they have already learned at another time. But if they are there that at least shows a willingness in the patient to not take what they have already heard so seriously and that they could be willing to discount all of the misinformation that they have been given in the past if you as the therapist work hard enough with them to make a total impact.

  • miranda

    July 5th, 2013 at 4:29 PM

    I have tried a multitude of therapist and they are usually helpful at the beginning and they do give you a free and open place to vent. But I haven’t found that they offer many solutions. I feel like a whiner after a while. I am going to try a LSW because I think they are more solution based.

  • Douglas

    July 6th, 2013 at 11:30 AM


    I respect your wanting to see a LSW. It very well may be a good choice for you. You might also try looking for a solutions-oriented therapists. They will focus on strengths and the positive. I would also suggest working with a coach who is also a therapist.

    Good luck on your search,

  • Timm

    July 7th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    I have tried at least 12 therapists in 8 years but it did not work at all. Absolutely all therapists tend to give you homework which makes the experience worse. The only advantage of therapy is that you can talk to somebody for one hour and feel the satisfaction that somebody is sympathetic to you. Medicine are also useless and have several side-effects including making you gain weight and feel sleepy all day; it is just a stunt of doctors and medicine-companies to make money.

  • Elizabeth

    January 20th, 2014 at 4:16 PM

    Nice article. I have just one thing to add. Seeing as LCSW’s comprise a very large percentage of psychotherapists in the U.S., I think this article should reflect that. Great job dispelling some of the myths of therapy propagated by the media!!

  • Lissa

    November 24th, 2014 at 2:58 PM

    Many years ago I went into therapy to overcome shyness, I needed to be assertive more often and other things self esteem related. Never had a real diagnosis as they knew early on that it looked like there weren’t heavy issues. I went back to therapy years later as things got tougher. I never thought about it till it became sadly obvious that many therapists don’t have it together and some are out there in their since of reality. Should I pay for you to work on your codependent issues and pay you?? Really?? Yes, I didn’t want to see the forest from the trees. Many folks are scamming whether or not they mean to scam. The degree means they got through college. So did millions of us- college isn’t what it takes to help others.

  • Carla

    November 14th, 2015 at 5:39 PM

    I would have to see agreed for most points. I would not agree that therapists are like everyone else. Many therapists have gone into therapy to help themselves. Two therapists told me this , it is written in credible sources too. It is obvious if you pay attn. Some of these therapists are defensive bc of their issues not to help you or me.
    Most therapists are OK as far as their issues go. You just need to watch what you say, kinda walking on eggshells.
    For the minority that is messed up : Be ready to explain when you never meant anything by what you said. Doesnt’ matter if your opinion isn’t to their liking. You will explain on yur dime what is happening. It wasn’t a major issue for me as I got used to them wasting my time. Don’t take it to seriously I was told. If you are serious often, therapy will not work at some point.

  • Red

    May 19th, 2016 at 2:06 AM

    In my experience, no. 2 is not really a myth at all. I have met so many therapists who were incredibly nuts–some of them concealing pretty dark secrets, such as illegal activity that was inearthed later–and so wrapped up in intense countertransference that they were just plain unhealthy for anyone to associate with. The sad reality is that there are too many people who get into the helping professions because they have hardcore control issues and/or narcissistic personalities. Alas.

  • Red

    May 19th, 2016 at 2:08 AM

    I meant “unearthed.” Drat.

  • BCL

    July 4th, 2016 at 5:15 AM

    What happened to talking about problems and processing them in order to get on with your life? Talking about things that need to be seen differently in ones life. I asked potential therapists about processing. Therapists appeared not to know about or understand what processing means. I need to see my life differently. It
    looks/sounds to me that therapists are no longer trained to process. Is therapy mostly mariage issues, substance abuse, relationship issues and other issues outside of processing what you think and do?.

  • Cathy

    October 14th, 2017 at 7:36 AM

    I have seen 2 therapists and the first one moved to a different office after 1 visit and the second was to busy to listen. What’s the use of therapy when you have to go home to the same treatment I’ve gotten for 41 yrs stonewalling and emotional abuse I’m told by him I’m not allowed to cry. I can’t complain if I’m sick. If I get a job don’t come back home. I would have left a long time ago but no where to go and he knows it. He knows what to do that irritates me by just a look. I could write a book on the abuse I have been through. I have to take care of all his illnesses without question I can’t discuss anything or he gets angry and never says another word. I used to be so happy and felt well being. I forgot what either of those felt like. When I talk to people they probably think I’m weird because there the only ones I’ve talked to in some time. You tell people they don’t believe you because he has two faces it goes on and on and there’s no way I would attend therapy with him it wouldn’t work. I don’t have a car so I asked for a bike for exercise in the summer and he said no.I said why no reason the answer was always no. If I got one on my own I would feel guilty. I have no idea what to do next. Attemped suicide 3 times just to get away from him not because i had a mental condition just to get away from his abuse. Its so tiring and I use to think he might change no way that’s going to happen. So when he’s here I sit in my room. I’m in this. Condo day and night 365 days a year and he thinks that’s just fine. Seriously just talking about it gives me a headache and makes me tired. Thanks for listening!!

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