In ancient Greek mythology mariners had to navigate their fragile vessels between a rock and a whirlpool named Scylla and Charybdis. Therapy advertising is just like that. Scylla, the rock, is Big Bold Claims, unrealistic or hyped up and likely to deceive people that life-healing is always quick and easy. Charybdis is advertising is completely honest, professional and only says the truth, but ends up being so circumspect as to be timid and hesitant. It won’t deceive anyone but which can mislead by the very hesitancy. Let’s look at an example.
No big, strong claims here. Every word is literally true: therapy does “provide a space to reflect”, and the results “can help you find your own voice.” Everything applies to everyone who reads it, both those with mild upsets and those with profound wounds. No-one reading it is going to be deceived that life change is always quick or easy, and there are no hyped-up claims of some magic super therapy “rapidly and completely … eliminating all manner of emotional problems for people all over the world.” [Actual quote.] For someone who has very severe problems, no false hopes will be raised. It’s all true, ethical, and honest.
But my question is: does the therapist who wrote this have any genuine, personal experience of transformation? Has he experienced radical change? Is his life joyful? Has he witnessed people really transforming their lives, shifting from misery to joy, from despair to trust, from depression to delight? Do his clients say their sessions with him are “inspirational” and “a revelation?” Because if he has experienced these things, why doesn’t he (or she) write about them? If she has this experience, why does she offer only such a flat, limited horizon of possibilities?
Overall, many counsellors and psychotherapists make very limited claims for what they offer. Another example:
True, honest, correct, professional; but no mention of change, healing, or transformation, no sense that life can be radically different, that the butterfly can emerge from the chrysalis. Also, no reference to action in real life; everything that’s offered in an internal state; I fear this particulat therapy may be all talk and no action.
So the Scylla and Charybdis of psychotherapy advertising comes down to this. On the one hand, personal development (in which I include one to one therapy, meditation and personal development workshops) can have an amazing galvanising effect on people’s lives and create a snowball of joyful positive change. Advertising which does not express this leaves me wondering whether the therapist has had that experience personally, let alone whether their clients have it.
On the other hand, for some people life can’t change quickly or indeed at all. Some people are in painful situations which can’t change, others come from wounded families and will take a lifetime to recover. And of course many people are in between the positive and negative extremes, and some aspects of everyone’s life change intrinsically slowly. So advertising which suggests that change is always easy or quick or complete or finished in one go is misleading, maybe cruelly so.
What I call “Big Bold Claims” advertising projects the potential of brief personal development, but:
- risks misleading the reader
- potentially puts the therapist in a false position of trying to deliver on the impossible
- risks short-changing those people for whom not so much is possible in the moment
“Hesitant Circumspect” advertising only makes claims which are true for all readers, even the most hurt, and so avoids all possibility of raising false hopes or unprofessional misrepresentation. But this
- fails to inform readers how much is possible
- risks short-changing those clients for whom major or rapid change is possible. That’s because assuming, reasonably, that what the therapist writes in their advertising reflects how they do their work, if their objective is that clients develop “understanding” or “find things aren’t as hopeless as they look”, then these limited goals are simply not enough to help people shift their lives.
This situation happens a lot. The single commonest question which potential clients ask me is, “I went to a psychotherapist previously, and I talked and talked and understand where my problems come from, but nothing changed. Will it be different with you?” [I assure them it will.] I can’t know, but my guess is that counsellors and therapists with the most highly Hesitant-Circumspect advertising are the same ones who do endless talking therapy.
RULE THREE FOR READING THERAPY ADVERTS
Look for a therapist who both has a vision of how much is possible, plus a sense of realism that some things take (a long) time, and some things aren’t possible. Look for a website that makes you feel both optimistic and realistic.