science of us

Here’s What Text Therapy Is Really Like

Photo: Justin J. Wee

Timothy Goodman, Akilah Hughes, and Robyn Kanner want to talk about their feelings with you. Well, they’ve talked about their feelings and now they’d like you to read them. And then, ideally, talk about them, too. The trio — Goodman is a visual artist and illustrator; Hughes is a writer, comedian, and YouTuber; and Kanner is a writer and designer — released a project on Monday entitled Friends With Secrets, which documents four months this year they each spent working with an online text therapist. Each day this week, Friends With Secrets will post five new transcripts from Goodman, Hughes, and Kanner’s individual sessions, talking about everything from working through a tough breakup to processing major trauma. Each is honest and revealing and, fair warning, potentially triggering; in Kanner’s first session, she opens by telling her therapist about an assault.

Text therapy is having something of a moment, culturally, but if you’ve never tried it or known anybody who has tried it, chances are pretty good your understanding on how it works is limited to what you see in Instagram ads. The Cut had Goodman, Hughes, and Kanner break down what online text therapy is actually like. (The trio is not disclosing which online service they used, so our conversation centered around text therapy in a broad sense.)

If you’ve been in IRL therapy before, you might need to temper your expectations.

Goodman, Kanner, and Hughes all said they’d seen IRL therapists in the past, but hadn’t kept up with it of late, due to circumstances including relocations and cost. “One of the things I realized doing this is there’s a [maximum] level to the amount of intensity you can get to in the online format,” Kanner explained. “And we definitely pushed that.” Goodman described his experiences as a mixed bag. “There were times with my therapist I remember being like ‘You’re not really giving me anything I need. You don’t understand physical nuances or expressions … how can you help me if we’re never going to meet each other. What’s the point? Feeling skeptical and hopeless,” he said. “But other times I felt a real kinship with my therapist, that she was challenging and really helping me. There is nothing is like the real thing at the end of the day, to me at least.”

Having a written record of your sessions can be helpful.

Kanner said one of the best parts about doing online text therapy is that unlike in a traditional session, where you’d have to rely on your memory to reprocess what you and your therapist talked about, with texting you have an easily accessible transcript. “I often understood there was a breakthrough more clearly when I read the session afterward,” she said.

You get to pick your therapist, but that’s not a guarantee you two will be a good fit.

“I feel like there was a bit of miscommunication because culturally we [Hughes and her therapist] were so different,” Hughes said of trying to form a relationship with her therapist. The three selected their therapists from the service, reading bios and résumés — all the therapists were credentialed medical professionals — to help inform their choices. Both Goodman and Kanner changed therapists during the project. Hughes stuck it out with hers. “To be blunt, my therapist was a kind of older white lady who doesn’t use the internet … often she doesn’t relate to what I was talking about … didn’t get the stress of racism,” Hughes added. “There were points it was like, ‘Oh no, I’m paying to educate a white person.’ But I didn’t have any ill feelings toward her by the end.”

Your therapist might not be there for you immediately when you need them.

While you can text at any time, there’s no guarantee they’ll respond right away. “There were times in the months doing this where something would be happening in the moment, where I’d be in an emergency and need to talk to somebody and I’d get back an automated note, ‘A therapist will get back to you,’” Hughes said. While responses during business hours were fairly consistent, off hours — often the times where help was most necessary — were less so. She noted that a physical therapist’s office would likely be better equipped to help in those situations.

Text therapy is definitely cheaper than IRL therapy.

The service costs about $125 per month. Which, if you’ve spent any time in conventional therapy, you’ll know is markedly cheaper than what a similar number of sessions would cost you in a doctor’s office. Goodman, Hughes, and Kanner all noted that while the cost certainly isn’t nothing, it’s more accessible than paying for traditional therapy.

It’s not for everyone.

When I asked the trio if they’d kept up with the text therapy after the four months were up, there was a silence on the other end of the line and some muffled laughter. Goodman said that even months later, he’s still been wrestling with whether or not he’s pro text-therapy. He did say the project motivated him to get back into an IRL therapist’s office. Hughes and Kanner said they have not continued with it, post-Friends With Secrets. “I use Twitter,” Hughes joked.

Any therapy is better than no therapy.

“I believe having someone you can text at any point in the day and they will get back to you and talk about your problems is a good thing,” Hughes said, noting that while it’s a net good, there are just some circumstances where a text therapist can’t match up to the real thing. “End of story … therapy is a tool, it is not a thing that will save you,” she said. “I wanted to put the entire weight of my world on her shoulders and a few months after I realized nobody could handle that weight,” Kanner said. “If you wanted to process something small, like a job change or an argument, online therapy is so good. It’s maybe not the best home for doing intense trauma work.”

Here’s What Text Therapy Is Really Like