After six months of living and studying in Lima, Peru, my return to the U.S. was marked by an abrupt shock back into cultural norms (most of which, I had not yet named). As a student of Psychology, many of my classes while abroad were centered around therapeutic approaches ranging from the beloved Freud to more modern (and slightly gentler) techniques.
Of course, therapy is easy to talk about when it is not your own. My first week of class, the professor explained each of the techniques we planned to cover. All seemed normal until the professor said, “Students, I want you to raise your hand if you have ever been to therapy and explain which techniques were used.” My internal reaction went a little something like “WOW! Law suite law suite! This is not appropriate!”
As would any confident and secure student sitting in the second row, I immediately twisted my head toward the back of the classroom to see if anyone had raised their hand. To my surprise, more than half the class had their hands raised and were willing to share. Confession: I have been to therapy. Confession number two: I enjoyed it.
My sophomore year, I had a Spanish professor at the University of Denver who was from Argentina. Forgive my haziness to conjure any context to this conversation, but she once explained to our class that she didn’t understand why American culture gives therapy/counseling such a negative connotation. “In the United States,” she said, “people say they are in therapy and others ask ‘what’s wrong?’. In my country, people say they are NOT in the therapy and others ask ‘what’s wrong?’” I can attest to this truth; once I began to make Peruvian friends, they would mention regular appointments with a psychologist. When I asked further, they explained with great vulnerability why they were in therapy.
The deeper problem here (I am a psychology student – you could have expected this) is not just that we are all so opposed to seeing a therapist, but rather, that we avoid vulnerability at all costs. Perhaps it is for the sake of maintaining a carefully-crafted image or the fast-paced lifestyle where the occurrence of asking someone how they are doing is most likely in a crowded hallway or a preface for favors. Perhaps a society focused on individualism and independence rather than family or relationships strips us of selflessness. And perhaps even that loss has caused us to believe that no one cares enough to define strength as holding in our emotions and vulnerability as weakness.I chose to challenge these definitions when I raised my hand in that Psychology class. There is no mandate or instruction from this post urging you to seek therapy, but rather, to be a friend who begins to break down barriers. For some, it may mean actually showing concern for how someone is doing and for others, it may mean answering honestly. Keeping struggles to ourselves will leave us in an isolation from community and far away from our greatest strength: vulnerability. To be known is among the most freeing of human experiences.