How to know when you should go to therapy

Going to therapy can seem like a mysterious process. The only references many of us have are from movies like Good Will Hunting and TV shows like Mad Men.

These representations are not only inaccurate, but they also leave us with understandable questions about what therapy is actually like. Like, how do I know I should see therapist?

The answer is a sort of a cop out: You know when you know. One day, it might just hit you that you need help—that the ways you’ve been trying to fix your problems aren’t and maybe haven’t been working for a long time.

But let me clear up a common misconception about therapy. Most depictions in movies and TV shows make it seem like only people with serious mental health issues seek therapy. Yet, everyone feels stuck at times in a relationship, at work, or in some other part of their life.

Maybe you’ve been having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than you’d like.

Maybe you’re struggling through a painful breakup or navigating dating apps for the first time.

Maybe you’re stressed about work or want to make a career change.

Maybe you’re feeling isolated and lonely or overwhelmed by family responsibilities.

Maybe you’re trying to stop a harmful habit or start a healthy routine.

Maybe you’re going through a difficult time or looking to deepen your self-awareness or spiritual practice.

There are many reasons to get help from a therapist, from navigating mental health issues to changing patterns and behaviors that get in the way of the life that you want.

You might be thinking, why can’t I handle this stuff on my own? Which makes sense. We live in a capitalist society that values individual accomplishments and hard work. We’ve been socialized to grit our teeth, deal with things, and move on.

But therapy is handling your own problems. You’re taking responsibility for the reality of your life and committing to making changes for the better. You’re willing to ask for help because each and every one of us needs support in challenging times.

It actually takes strength to ask for help—because asking for help means being vulnerable, which is a scary thing to do. Vulnerability, the social worker and researcher Brené Brown writes, is “having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.”

Your therapist’s primary goal will be to give you the chance to be vulnerable, to process your thoughts and emotions in a safe space without judgment. This can feel uncomfortable, but it’s not all doom and gloom. As Brown writes: “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear, but it is also the birthplace of joy, happiness, creativity, belonging and love.”

It’s so much easier to stick to our way of doing things, try to forget about our feelings, and stay in our comfort zone. But that’s why we stay stuck feeling the way we do, or why we’re not making any progress on those big changes we want to make, or things aren’t getting any better at work or home.

You may have overcome these issues in the past by changing your lifestyle, reading books, or talking with friends and family. But therapists are professionally trained to point out the things you aren’t seeing, teach you new skills, and help you prepare for the next challenge that life throws your way.

Keep this in mind: You can always try it out and walk away if it doesn’t feel like it’s helping. Your therapist won’t force you to keep showing up—it’s ultimately up to you to decide how long to go.

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, therapist-in-training, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.

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