I once came across a movie that opened with the villain, an evil therapist.
A stereotypically anxious, spindly young man comes into his office and gives an explanation of his claustrophobia. In the next scene, the evil therapist ushers him into a false elevator, closes the doors, and laughs as the young man’s muffled screams fill the clinic.
“Don’t let him out until he stops screaming,” he tells his secretary.
And that was the point where I switched the movie off.
As someone who has personally had OCD and who helps other people work through it, I’m sensitive to seeing inaccurate media depictions about anxiety disorders and treatment.
The evil therapist was implementing Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy, also known as ERP. It’s one of the most effective interventions for OCD, phobias, and some other kinds of anxiety disorders. But a forced exposure, as the evil therapist in the sitcom demonstrated, is neither ethical nor standard procedure. Unfortunately, the vision of an “evil therapist” lies behind some of the most self-sabotaging behaviors in OCD-dom.
In this article, I want to give you 4 reasons to let go of faulty beliefs about your therapist so you can stop sabotaging your scrupulosity treatment.
The Vision of the Evil Therapist
How do you view therapists?
- Are they “out to get your money?”
- Do they “not know how to help you?”
- Do they “make you feel triggered?”
I get it — your therapist isn’t always available, she may ask you to do things that feel very uncomfortable, and she may occasionally have issues with booking or billing. You don’t always feel good when you leave her practice, so it must mean that she’s an evil therapist, right?
Well, hold on — not so fast.
Although I recognize there are some toxic, unethical, and downright rude therapists in our crazy world, they are the minority. The “evil therapist” myth, however, is so pervasive that it represents a significant roadblock to recovery.
I’m sure you’ll remember how the Bible speaks about the Holy Spirit as a “Helper.” The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the Spirit is parakletos, literally “one who comes alongside.” As a follower of Christ, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is in you and with you. But you can also look around you to see evidences of the Spirit’s work to “come alongside you” in the presence of others.
- Does your mother come alongside you with a bowl of chicken soup when you’re sick?
- Does a colleague come alongside you to help you figure out a tough work assignment?
- Does your therapist come alongside you to guide you to better mental health?
God’s providence in our lives is not like Disney magic. There is no fairy dust and no magic wand. He generally works through normal people and events to give support and answers to prayer. Sometimes God comforts us with warm, tingly feelings — but not always, and often our tingly feelings can be misleading, anyways.
God may be seeking to guide and help you through your therapist, but your vision of the “evil therapist” could be keeping you from receiving the blessings of Providence. Here are 4 reasons to let go of your trepidation about therapists.
1. Your therapist doesn’t want to compromise your personal ethics.
Every therapist has his or her own set of beliefs and values. He may be Jewish, Catholic, or Pentecostal. He may be democratic or republican or fed up with both. But when he comes into the therapy session, he does his best to leave his personal beliefs at the door.
His goal is to help you become the best version of yourself. He isn’t interested in making you a reflection of himself.
And did you know that when therapists are studying in college, their professors teach them all kinds of things that will help them avoid ethical compromises? It’s actually a pretty big deal, especially in something as messy as scrupulosity.
If you’re working with a therapist who understands OCD, he’s probably well aware of the ethical landmines involved in treatment. Remember that old game, “Operation?” You had to carefully insert the metallic surgical tool without touching the “body,” which would cause a loud buzz. Your therapist is playing “Operation” when he tries to extricate the disorder — scrupulosity — without touching your personal ethics.
But with that said, it’s important to remember that your therapist is an expert in mental health, not religion and ethics. It’s impossible for him to become well-versed in the belief systems of every person who walks through his door.
As somebody with scrupulosity, it’s possible that 30% or 50% or 80% of your religious thoughts and behaviors are unnecessary maladaptations of your relationship with God. You’ll be tempted to feel that every single obsession and compulsion are valid, but your therapist will try to gently show you otherwise.
In the process, it’s entirely possible that he may touch his surgical tool on something that is valid to you and your entire faith community.
This doesn’t make him an evil therapist. It simply means that he has professional limitations, just like anybody else. So be willing to speak up, be grateful for the area of expertise that he has, and be realistic about the areas that aren’t his speciality.
2. Your therapist cannot force you to do exposures.
Like the evil therapist in the movie I started watching, some people are afraid their therapist will do a forced exposure. They fear being pushed too fast into things that are too scary.
It’s vital to remember that if you are voluntarily going to your therapist’s office, the entire process of what happens there is completely based on your cooperation. It isn’t like Hollywood depicts mental health, with straightjackets, padded rooms, and leather wrist restraints. You are there of your own free will, and your therapist cannot force you to do anything.
She may probe. She may suggest. She may strongly recommend.
But she won’t use force.
(Unless, of course, you have the bad luck to be in a very small minority of people who get abusive therapists. This woman’s therapist used the power dynamics of the clinical relationship to sexually abuse her during their weekly sessions. If you are ever in a situation where you are being forced, pressured, or manipulated into something against your will, seek help immediately.)
Most therapists work to gain your trust before guiding you through difficult interventions, because they know therapy will never work unless it’s you in the driver’s seat making the decisions. Yes, toxic and abusive situations may happen in clinical settings, but statistically you are about as likely to be abused by your therapist (4.4%) as you are by your religious leader (4%), which is still less likely than being abused by a teacher or sports coach (5-7%).
So drop your defenses. Tell your therapist what makes you feel uncomfortable about exposure therapy. Know that you’re ultimately the gatekeeper for whether the exposures happen or not. Let that feeling of empowerment give you the confidence to start with a nibble instead of feeling like saying “yes” means you’ll get the whole waterfall at once.
3. Your therapist can’t help you unless you trust him.
Your therapist knows how to help you.
But he has to blindfold you and guide you over a rickety rope bridge and through a jungle full of wild animals. Then you’ve got to cross the slippery stepping stones of a piranha-infested river and creep past a village of cannibals before reaching safety.
That’s literally how therapy for OCD can feel.
Do you trust your therapist?
Sure, it doesn’t feel good in the moment. In fact, when you start working through your obsessions and compulsions, your anxiety levels may actually go up. But if there’s any truth to the old adage, “the darkest hour is just before dawn,” you’re heading in the right direction.
And to make it to safety, you’ve got to trust your therapist.
Trust can be one of the biggest keys to unlocking your recovery. After all, you’ve been spinning your wheels in the same old mud pit, not going anywhere, doing what feels comfortable. You already know what doesn’t work. Just because the way out of your mud pit is a bit of a tough climb doesn’t mean it’s bad.
In the Bible, God frequently asked people to trust Him even when the way was very dark. It is no virtue to only trust in times of balmy weather.
You’ve prayed and asked for God’s help to get over your scrupulosity. He’s answered by giving you an appointment with a therapist who knows how to treat OCD. Trust in the process of God’s Providence by trusting your therapist.
It doesn’t mean you have to uncritically swallow everything he says. But give him a chance.
4. Your therapist is doing her best to help you.
At times it may feel like your therapist is your enemy. She brings up all kinds of anxiety-inducing topics and asks you to do hard things. You are almost convinced that she is truly an evil therapist.
But most people who work in mental health are really, honestly on your side.
Again, not everybody is. I always leave a bit of gray area for exceptions. I’ve been fortunate to have overwhelmingly positive mental health experts who came alongside in my times of need. I’ll never forget the inpatient program I attended for my depression. One day during the afternoon group lecture, the doctor was so touched that he started crying with us.
It’s not easy for therapists and doctors to be emotionally invested in the people they try to help. But many mental health providers wake up every day because it’s their passion to help people like me and you.
They’re on your side. They are excited for your progress. They feel good about themselves when they see you improving.
The myth of the evil therapist is just that: a myth. Toxic therapists are a minority, the healthcare system’s dust bunnies under the bed. If you believe that your therapist is on your side, you’ll be able to trust her. Then you’ll be able to let her guide you through the necessary interventions. Then you’ll be open enough to co-navigate the post-scrupulous reconstruction of your moral and spiritual life.
Believing in and trusting your therapist is where it all begins.
So next time you have an appointment, give your therapist some appreciation. Let her know you’re committed to the process of getting better, and you’re grateful that she’s willing to come alongside you. Start to conceptualize of her as your cheerleader, not some dark-dungeoned torture overseer. She’s on your side!
One of the biggest ways we self-sabotage in the treatment of scrupulosity is to set ourselves at odds with our therapists. This doesn’t have to happen.
I’m not a therapist; I’m a spiritual coach. Fairly often, my clients tell me they don’t like their therapist, they don’t feel comfortable doing ERP, and they feel like therapy makes them compromise their faith.
I understand that there are some challenges with treating scrupulosity because it involves faith and mental health. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Your therapist is there to help you. He may not get it perfect every time, but who does?
Don’t sabotage your recovery by dropping out of therapy. Stick with it. Trust God by trusting the process, and you’ll make it to safety.
What about you — what’s been your experience in therapy? Did you ever drop out because you felt like it was too hard? Would you be willing to try again?
Best wishes on the journey!