In my several years of practice as a psychologist I have come across the question "so what do you actually do?" a gazillion times. While some find our line of work fascinating, most have no idea at all. The little that people know is often clouded by misconceptions such as 'psychologists can read minds' and 'they work with the crazy lot.' Well, nobody can be blamed, we just don't talk about mental health in the open and popular culture either diminishes mental health or pushes it under the rug to prevent the discomfort brought on to us by the realities of life. The thing here is that it is easy to talk about physical discomforts or diseases because we have an external entity to blame, for instance - "oh! its the virus", but what about the discomforts of the minds? The stigma around mental health is so deeply entrenched in our society that it has led to collective denial.
This denial has led to shutting out the much needed dialogues on mental health, and therefore the lack of knowledge about what really goes on in a psychotherapy session. I have had clients who come with the pre-conceived notion that as their psychotherapist I will talk 'a lot' with them and give them advice on whatever issues they are facing in their life, and just like that things will be fine. Now, this happens a lot especially in a country like ours where mental health practice is hardly regulated and licensing is not the norm (barring clinical psychologists, but that's a separate topic altogether). A qualified therapist's aim is to offer you a non-judgmental and unbiased space for you to explore the deepest confines of your mind. A typical therapy session doesn't involve your therapist dishing out advices, on the contrary, it is a collaborative effort where you work with your therapist as a team to work on your presenting problems. Therapist's role is to actively listen to your concerns, help you to reflect, ponder, express, engage in meaning making of your experiences, build skills, encourage you to move out of your comfort zone, and help you to look at things from a different lens. A good therapist will always adhere to the professional code of ethics, respect your being and maintain boundaries. And therefore, as you can see, therapy is not just a lot of talking, it is a lot of hard work, done by you and guided by the therapist.
Some of the red flags that you should watch out for are -
your therapist doesn't engage in trust/rapport building
your therapist is not compassionate and lacks empathy
is critical or judgmental
doesn't adhere to boundaries - e.g. asks you for favours, makes sexual comments or advances, touches you inappropriately, asks you to meet outside their office for reasons that don't relate to your mental health
gives you unsolicited advice
doesn't maintain confidentiality
appears bored or uninterested - e.g. yawning, drawing on notepad, easily distracted etc.
avoids admitting mistakes or accepting feedback
makes promises or guarantees
answers phone calls in the middle of the sessions
is insensitive towards your religion, culture, orientation etc.
Apart from a professional relationship, we build a therapeutic relationship with our clients with the goal of helping our clients to heal from whatever issues they are facing in their life. Key in these factors, and then assess whether you need therapy and if yes, then at least this will help you to gain some perspective of what actually psychotherapists do! :-)