Who Tells the World What Therapy Is (and with What Consequences)?

Television studio with crewIt is of the greatest concern to me that therapy is being presented on television in a way that definitely does not represent the best of psychotherapy as I know it. This by itself interferes with people finding out what help is truly possible when they need therapy, want therapy, or are called to therapy as a means of healing and growing, building their capacity to feel, live in truth, and reach their full potential.

Not only is therapy being presented in a compromised way, it is being presented by people, for example, who either aren’t really therapists, but rather medical doctors, or who once practiced as therapists but don’t anymore.

It is being presented by people who have turned into media personalities, and thus their commitment is no longer to their clients, but to producers and ratings. It means there has to be a visible, audible process and outcome, which precludes silence, time, space, and a rhythm in the evolution of the therapeutic process which is the client’s own rhythm. It means the path of the therapy is likely to be more about holding the audience’s attention than it is about the client’s healing to the root. It means the entertainment value likely will require far more drama than depth, more conflict than exploration and opening up, more intensity than true feeling, and more feigned connection than true contact and trust.

Speaking of trust, real healing takes authentic trust. And real trust takes time to establish and grow. What kind of trust can be created on television, when millions and millions of people are watching you try to go into your deepest wounds and through them to the other side? It’s more likely the TV personality will be interacting with a TV client … either because both want the spotlight or because the TV client is desperate for help and willing to be intimidated into whatever the TV therapist offers.

All this “TV therapy” hides from the public the real possibilities of healing to the root with therapists who have integrity—including the integrity to do their own healing to the root. This conceals from people a true image of the best of therapy—the noblest, the most trustworthy, the safest, the most reliable, the most truly helpful. This is therapy at its essence—a healing of the soul.

And all this “TV therapy” perpetuates a false image of therapy. It spreads an image of the worst of therapy in the public eye, an image that people believe is therapy. An image that likely causes many people to stay away from real therapy. An image that can cause people to settle for therapy that is less than it can truly be. An image of therapy that is damaging, even dangerous … if not in the short run, certainly in the long run. For example, if television therapists are abusive, as some are—even if the abuse is the kind of abuse that’s been normalized in our world—and if these TV therapists are celebrities, people will likely believe that’s what they have to expose themselves to in therapy. If television therapists give their “patients” quick fixes, as many do, and if this is presented as the norm, the public will come to settle for quick fixes in therapy … just as they do in other aspects of their lives. Quick fixes such as medication without real therapy; controlling behavior, thoughts, and feelings without doing the therapy to heal what causes those behaviors, thoughts, and feelings at the root; distracting from the suffering rather than following the suffering to its source for true healing; and on and on.

What I am saying in essence is that “TV therapy” is an abuse of the process of therapy, the possibilities of therapy, the clients in therapy, and the reputation of therapy. The process can be damaging, the outcomes can be damaging … and both often are.

It is not helpful for these TV personalities to become the faces of therapy. It distorts the portrayal of what therapy can really be and who a therapist can be—at his or her best. When you bring millions of people into the therapy room (or even just one person with a camera), you break the confidentiality and change the dynamic of the therapy. When you move into the role of TV personality, you change the dynamic of therapy. And you change the goal, for the TV personality, the producer, and the financial backers want the televised session or series to come out well, as judged by the public’s gauge.

A well-trained therapist in the privacy of a therapy room, on the other hand, would want the truth to come out, and for the client to be able to feel what is inside that is driving his or her outer life awry. When you bring therapy to television—no matter how popular reality TV is becoming—you turn therapy into entertainment. But therapy is not entertainment; it is a sacred journey to help someone reconnect with his or her mind, body, heart, and soul.

As for me, I would not want people to ever imagine the therapy I would do with them would be anything like what they’re seeing on television. I would want them to learn about the therapy I do firsthand, person to person, in the sanctity of the therapy room and the healing process. Wouldn’t you want to learn about therapy firsthand, person to person, in a safe, integritous way that is personal to you, to who you are, to what your suffering is, and to what you truly need?

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Judith Barr, MS, LPC, Power: Healing to the Root Topic Expert Contributor

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
  • Ava

    March 6th, 2013 at 9:26 AM

    Okay, Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew-this means you!!!!!

  • donald

    March 6th, 2013 at 9:29 AM

    this is really true. when my wife said she wanted to go to therapy i was like there ain’t no kind of way your going to dr phil me and she got pretty mad but can you blame me. that show makes me totally sick but if it was so important to her i figured i’d better go so we went.
    it ended up being so much better than that stupid tv show. in the end i really learned a lot and so did my wife. we are much better off for it. but if dummies like those on tv don’t quit misrepresenting therapy there will be a lot of people who don’t get the help they need.

  • Becky

    March 6th, 2013 at 9:31 AM

    People on television are there for one reason and one reason only-to entertain. If people would just understand that the old saying, “I’m not a doctor I just play one on tv” applies to all tv personalities’ “professions,” it would be a great and wonderful thing.
    Therapists on tv are only claiming to be therapists b/c that is the way they have figured out to make the most money. They have the same qualities any other starts have, namely a ton of charisma. They get paid to do what they do best: entertain.

  • Fancy

    March 6th, 2013 at 9:33 AM

    What is so wrong with people on tv? I really like them and think I have learned a lot from them so. What is wrong with that???

  • simon z

    March 6th, 2013 at 9:35 AM

    Trust is a major deal in therapy and u can’t get anywhere without it.

    I didn’t trust one of my therapists and it was the end of the rd. for us.

    How could you ever trust anyone who is letting the whole world see ur problems?!

  • Jeanine

    March 6th, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    hahaha Ava I was thinking the exact same thing!

  • Trina

    March 6th, 2013 at 11:33 PM

    reality television has portrayed many a thing in a way it truly is not. that they are doing the same to therapy is no surprise. they will go to any level and break any ethical code for money.

  • celia J

    March 7th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    I see where there could be some concerns with this, but I kind of feel that way about pretty much anything that you see on tv and online.
    You have to be willing to take it all with a grain of salt, and I would hope that most people realze that generally what we see on tv is for entertainment and should not be for your general education.
    But maybe there are more people out there who still think that reality tv is “reality”. . . ok so you have a valid point

  • Maggie

    March 9th, 2013 at 5:22 AM

    I am so thankful that we are finally talking about this issue. You know that there are people out there watching to Dr Phil right now and surmising that what he is saying is the therapy gospel- they know little more about it than that. That scares me. I am sure that Dr Phil is educated in his own way, but enough to be offering this “sage” wisdom to anyone who happens to run across his show?

  • Judith Barr

    March 10th, 2013 at 1:53 PM

    Thank you all for your comments on this article.

    The problem with T.V. therapists is that what they portray as therapy is not true therapy…certainly not good therapy. People with little or no experience of therapy may believe that what they see on T.V. is actually therapy, when nothing could be further from the truth. An uneducated consumer (including a “consumer of therapy”) could be taken in by this erroneous image of therapy…either being “turned off” to therapy, or, perhaps even worse, accepting substandard and even destructive therapy in place of true healing.

    Unfortunately, many of us are quick to believe what we see on T.V. if we have no prior knowledge or experience of the topic. This is why we have regulations in place that try to enforce “truth in advertising.” Unfortunately, there are no such regulations governing entertainment, so T.V. therapists can get away with “advertising” therapy that is not truly healing, sometimes with no disclaimer or a very weak, small disclaimer saying that the show is “for entertainment purposes only” . . . a disclaimer that’s so small and goes by so fast that most of us miss it.

    I know this example may seem exaggerated, but to make and even expand upon the point: imagine if a supposed “medical expert” on a morning show were to report tomorrow that moderate exercise caused cancer…how many people would suddenly give up exercising out of fear? And how many would actually look into it for themselves to see if there’s an actual basis for this idea? I’ve had many clients tell me things their teenage and college age children have said to them. When the parents asked their children where they heard that, the response was — “on T.V..” Some have even said, “on the internet.”

    It is an expression of our times, our lack of discernment, and that we are not being taught how to discern the truth. So what if someone doesn’t know about therapy, watches one of these shows, and believes what the T.V. “therapist” says? Or what if the viewer believes the seed of truth in what the T.V. “therapist” says, and accepts its presentation in abusive demeanor . . . either because it’s presented by a supposed authority or because the viewer has grown up in a family where abuse has been normalized?

    The above are just some of the reasons T.V. “therapy” can be destructive.

    Before I close today . . .

    Donald, your experience is probably unfortunately not unique…I can imagine many people get turned off by T.V. therapists (particularly by the abusive ones)….and I’m so glad that in the end, you decided to go to therapy with your wife…and that you found the real-life experience of therapy to be enlightening and enriching for you.

    Again thanks for your comments.


  • Eric

    April 23rd, 2013 at 11:40 PM

    I have the opposite opinion. I have had 100 sessions of therapy with 5 different therapists, and found it to be very underwhelming and disappointing. To me it seems that therapy is an emperor who has no clothes. In other words, people only get better in therapy if they are someone who was about to get better regardless of therapy.

    In contrast I have watched a variety of therapy-themed TV shows the past few years, and had several profound experiences. I have cried many many times while witnessing someone else’s pain, joy, or transformation. And reflected on how their experience does or does not apply to my life.

    I’ve never cried or even come close in my 100 sessions of therapy. Real therapy is a lot less than what they portray on TV. Mostly it’s paying someone $150 for less than 1 hour of them largely listening to you talk about how your life has sucked and all the terrible things that happened to you. But unlike on TV, healing emotional hugs are never allowed not is any other type of physical contact. And you’d be lucky to find a therapist who truly, personally cared about you, that you respected and trusted, that you felt comfortable crying in front of on and off like a light switch when the timer is up and you’re coldly escorted out of the room whether you are put together or not.

    My experience with therapy is that there isn’t really any healing at all – you’re just told its all your fault and that you’re the only one who can change anything (yet if it were that simple, why would one seek therapy to begin with?), and WORST of all, FAR more damaging than any benefit you get, you’ll be labeled and judged to be a specific type of defective person (the so called “diagnosis” which is nothing more than a social judgment of disapproval, rather than some scientific fact). And those labels stick like glue and will haunt you for the rest of your life.

  • Judith Barr

    April 27th, 2013 at 5:46 AM

    Thank you, Eric, for your response to my blog post.

    It always breaks my heart to hear of someone who has had a bad experience in therapy, or even more, a number of bad experiences in therapy. I’m so sorry you’ve had that experience.

    Although painful to know, as in any group of people or in any profession, there are, amongst therapists, all degrees of kindness, caring, ability to connect deeply, skill, wisdom, integrity, trustworthiness, and ability to help someone truly heal to the root. I wish you had found a therapist with the best of all those qualities. And I encourage you to take a deep breath, and keep looking until you find a therapist who is truly a right match for you.

    Many blessings to you, Eric.

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