Is Tough Love Therapy Right For You? We Asked the Real-Life Psychotherapist Behind TV's 'Necessary Roughness'

Dr. Donna Dannenfelser talks about the show she inspired and some of the biggest misconceptions about therapy

When Long Island psychotherapist Donna Dannenfelser, Ed.D., started counseling high-profile athletes in the 1990s -- and later actors, musicians and even CEOs -- she never imagined her career would take her all the way to Hollywood and the small screen. Dannenfelser is the real-life inspiration for the main character on USA's series Necessary Roughness. Season two begins tonight at 10 p.m. ET. On the show, Dr. Donna is renamed Dr. Dani Santino (played by Callie Thorne) with a few details changed, like Dannenfelser is still married to her husband of 34 years. iVillage sat down with Dannenfelser, also a co-executive producer for Necessary Roughness, to get her take on her style of tough love therapy and whether it could help you.

iVillage: Why did you create a show about your life as therapist?

Donna Dannenfelser: One of the reasons I wanted to get the show on the air is to break the sense that perception is reality. The show talks about how we watch these sports figures play their games versus how people have basic needs. These are high-profile people, but they want to be loved and respected for who they are, not what they do.

iVillage: What is similar about how Dr. Dani practices therapy and how you practice?

DD: The type of therapy she practices is actually very similar. Like Dr. Dani, I had high-profile athletes and personalities who didn’t have the luxury of coming back each week. We had no time for coddling. We had to focus and change thoughts to change behavior.

iVillage: What’s the biggest misconception about therapy?

DD: People think a therapist has all the answers to your problems. But you’re not going to get suggestions; you already know the answers to your problems. Therapists are skilled at asking questions to get you to think clearly so you can solve your own problems.

iVillage: Why should someone consider therapy?

DD: Life shouldn’t hurt. If it does, we can help you fix it through therapy. My mantra is that if you change your thoughts, you can change your life. But you may need help with figuring out how to do that.

iVillage: What are the goals of therapy?

DD: The goal of any therapist should be to have an objective conversation with a client and get them to think through his or her concerns. We’re here to separate the drama from the reality and focus on what you want in life.

iVillage: How do you find the right therapist?

DD: Ask your friends for recommendations. We have friends who are similar to us, so if it works for them, it could work for you. Ask them what they like about a therapist. Is it that she’s soft-spoken? Or that he doesn’t let your friend get away with anything? Some therapists are more about coddling; some are more about tough love.

iVillage: How do you know if “tough love” is for you?

DD: You know what appeals to you. It’s like dating. It’s the right fit if you want to go on a second date. I’m an eclectic counselor and use anything that works. Typically, my style is that we’re going to cry, which is good and cleansing for the soul. But how much time do you want to cry? It’s helpful, but how long do you want to stay there? We have to move beyond that.

iVillage: How do you know if therapy is working?

DD: It’s working if you can’t wait to go back. You should walk out feeling better. You should have discovered something you didn’t know about yourself. You should feel layers peeling away. If nothing is changing or if you aren’t having “ah-ha” moments, this may not be the right therapist for you.

iVillage: How long do you typically need to go to therapy?

DD: When you don’t have anything to talk about that’s troubling you, it may be time to take a longer break between visits. That is, instead of coming weekly, maybe you come every other week or once a month. My job as a therapist should be to help you discover why life is hurting you and then kick you out of the nest. I want you to be able to go fly by yourself. I want you to go live your life and be happy.

iVillage: Is there ever a time when therapy isn’t helpful?

DD: It’s not beneficial if you’re not going to be honest with your therapist. If you want things to move and change in your life, you have to be open and vulnerable. I would love to say therapy always works. But if you have been to eight therapists and don’t feel as if they’ve helped you, I’d say, “Are you open to helping yourself?”

Season two of Necessary Roughness premieres tonight. The show airs Wednesdays on USA Network (10-11 p.m. ET).

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