I wonder if Barry was nervous about couples therapy because he'd been to therapy as a kid, and they said he was crazy and didn't believe him
Nailed it, nonnie. Barry has a really telling moment back in Season 1 – “Everyone, the cops, the shrinks – they all told me what I saw was impossible.” You don’t call a therapist a “shrink” fondly. Barry’s early experiences with therapy were frustrating and furthered his feelings of isolation and misunderstanding. It added pain to his experience, because instead of coming to terms with what happened, he learned to bottle everything up and quietly pour his energies into finding out and proving the truth. (Remember that board of notes he kept hidden at the CCPD?)
Therapy taught him that he didn’t have an ally and he couldn’t share his true feelings without being judged and corrected. Who would want to return to that environment? Who, especially, would want to return to that environment in front of someone you love? At least when he was alone, only the therapist could condemn him. With Iris, he has much more at stake, and subsequently has to deal with the added awkwardness of trying to play the emotions off and keep everything as light and far from his chest as he can.
But Barry is a heart-on-his-sleeve kind of guy and tends to share his feelings rather than conceal them: hence, the dissonance between what he’s saying (“Oh, yeah, my family’s dead”) and his reactions (nervous laughter, petting his neck, closed off body language, etc.). He’s basically trying to be anywhere but in that room, confronting the feelings like real things, because this is not how he has learned to talk about stuff. He can talk about stuff in safe spaces – in private, among family – but sharing it with a therapist is mortifying.
He’s actually pretty shocked when Iris reveals genuine emotion, bursting out of the stilted conversation with a devastating, “How could you leave me?” They’re both pretty stiff up until this moment, attempting to be polite, keeping everything at arm’s length, their attitude resoundingly “Let’s get through this,” but thats the moment when things shift. And Barry responds in kind as if the therapist isn’t there. He’s so moved by what Iris is saying in that moment that his concern overrides his frustration and humiliation at having a third party present.
The therapist doesn’t facilitate much more than a few hilarious moments; she mostly adds to Barry’s existing fears about therapy and stokes his embarrassment (just look at his protests about her writing down everything, like what he’s saying makes him strange, different, crazy). It’s funny, we have a good laugh, and we know that Barry and Iris both exhale in relief the second they’re out of the room. The experience is something to get through. It’s not something to help them, and the “help” they received was mostly stumbled upon by accident.
Here’s the one thing that catches in my teeth: therapy isn’t like that. It certainly shouldn’t be like that. I can appreciate the comedic value of the episode because it plays so easily into the ridiculous stereotypes (and it genuinely made me laugh and I enjoyed it), but I also, in the back of my mind, know that there are still a lot of people whose only experience with therapy is secondhand, and the prevalence of myths only reinforces the idea that therapy is evil.
Therapy isn’t evil. It’s an opportunity to talk, to grow in a positive way. It’s a resource, a support system. It is literally a friend in a time of need.
The appeal of therapy is simple: this is a human being who wants to help you help yourself and has absolutely no prior commitments with you. You’re not in your therapist’s will, they won’t be attending your Thanksgiving dinner, and they’re not going to bring up that thing you don’t really want to talk about at a social event. A therapist is not your parent, your sibling, your coach, or your best friend – they’re a good stranger. When it comes to the tough stuff, that lack of prior commitment can take a lot of pressure off your shoulders.
And your therapist is a pro at this: you’re not the first person they’ve ever talked to, and they’ve helped others help themselves. They do know what they’re doing, even if everybody’s different, so every response is different. They want to help you, help yourself. They can’t force you out of bed every morning, or stand in your shoes and smile at the mirror for you, but they can help you find the things you need – be it mental or physical – to get you to a place where you can do that. You have to do the walking, but your therapist is there to be your running buddy. They’re already in good shape – not ideal, nobody’s perfect, but they enjoy running alongside people, mentoring people – and they want you to succeed. It’s a win-win for the team. You and your therapist are a team, and it can be one of the most powerful relationships you ever have.
Therapists treat you like a human being and have a conversation with you. It is not an interrogation: it’s an opportunity to talk. You have a huge say in what you talk about. If you wanna keep it light, you can keep it light. If you wanna get something heavy off your chest, you can get it off your chest. You have a lot more say in the conversation than TV leads you to believe: you don’t have to bring up stuff you don’t want to or lay your soul bare from day one. You can just say, “I’m struggling with this thing” and address a single, specific issue. And then the two of you work together to help you, help yourself. You may eventually decide to tackle another issue, or a group of issues, but there’s no pressure. Your therapist isn’t here to force a confession from you. They’re here to help you get to a happier, healthier place.
The public misconception looks like this: therapy is something you do as a last resort; it’s something you’re forced into; it’s a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of failure; it’s a step backward; it means you’re broken and can’t be fixed; it’s only for people who have experienced x, y, and z.
The reality looks more like this: therapy is used by everyday people, all the time, to cope with things, be it the stress of college, the tribulations of divorce, the death of a friend, the fallout of a job, the aftermath of a physical trauma, or the dysfunctions of a mental illness. It’s for people who can’t find their way and people who thought they found it until something interrupted that plan; for people who feel fine but for that one thing and people who are desperate to feel one iota of okay amid a world of hurt; for kids and people in their nineties; for people who need long-term support and people who just need a temporary boost.
Therapists specialize in different issues, and some are young while others are older, making them closer to “peer” or “mentor,” depending on your age. Therapists are like life coaches: they’re trained to deal with different problems and enjoy uplifting you. Your win is their win, too. They’re not superheroes – plenty of therapists know how difficult what they’re talking about is from personal experience, and they have bad days, too – but they are people who want to see you get to a better place. They want you to succeed.
Going to therapy is a sign of growth, of perseverance, of courage; it’s a step forward, the first of many. Your first session won’t mark the end of any future setbacks, but it will be the point when you realize you don’t have to confront those setbacks alone. As people, we’re islands, and when we’re among others we feel like we can’t relate to, we feel trapped and frustrated by the negative things we experience. Hence, why we have “support systems:” people to help us get back to a better place after something hurts us. People to listen, people to make us feel like our feelings matter. Like we matter.
One can see, then, how a desperate, traumatized eleven-year-old needed a friend and found another judge in the court and forsook therapy as an option because of it. That’s a shame, because therapy can be one of the best things that ever happens to you. It certainly would have helped Barry to cope had it been carried out in a manner that was beneficial to him rather than demoralizing. That’s what therapy ultimately is: a collaboration to find ways to cope with life.
You know, things we rarely talk about are the joys of therapy. I’ve gone to therapists for years, and I share the stuff that eats me and the stuff that I absolutely love. I would talk about the red pandas I loved to photograph at the zoo and knew I was speaking to someone who was not only listening (and listening intently, and that alone is an incredibly valuable aspect of therapy), but someone who thought that simple act was amazing, as I did, because it was never just about pandas: it was about progress, about finding joy in dark times.
I lied when I said a therapist isn’t your best friend. They won’t attend your graduation, but they will try to help you get to that graduation. They’re going to try to help you breathe again. They’re going to try to help you experience the best life you possibly can, one step at a time. And it’s not always going to be easy, and I include “try” for a reason – there’s never just one quick solution, one immediate objectively correct answer for a problem – but therapy is a light in the dark. And we need to see it as a sign of hope rather than hopelessness.
The point is: You’re gonna be okay, and therapy is gonna help you get there. You might get there on your own, and that’s awesome – that’s coping. Whether you cope on your own or with a therapist is up to you and your means, but having a team mate who knows how difficult the obstacle course is and respects you as a person, doesn’t make you weak. It just helps make you stronger.
I wish Barry Allen could have a genuinely therapeutic experience, because he’s seen the bad side of therapy, and all of us – truly, all of us, at some point, and maybe even right now – could use a little therapy.