I have heard it all. “Isn’t that what friends are for?”, “Why would I pay someone to listen to me complain?” “What good is it going to do to dig up the past? I’m fine.” And my personal favorite, “(insert coping skill here): it’s cheaper than therapy!” Yup. I am a therapist. And these are some of the common themes that I hear from friends, family, and the checkout person at my local grocery store when I am asked what I do for a living and I begrudgingly respond.
I used to lie and tell people I was an accountant to avoid these insults to my profession and the work I have chosen to dedicate my life to. However, my integrity and conscience caught up with me. An overbearing sense of integrity plus a sense of duty to mitigate the stigma against seeking and providing mental health treatment, I found to be too much to bear.
Therapy Hurts: What Holds Us Back From Diving In
I get it. Therapy is uncomfortable. It is not fun to dig up memories and examine them for their current relevance. Looking at the ways in which people were unkind to us, makes it harder to keep them in our lives. But, there is a cost if we chose not to acknowledge our own hurts. To see our own pain. To let someone else witness the wounded parts of us in real time and then to witness their reaction to those wounds. And if you’re working with the right therapist, maybe, just maybe creating a corrective experience.
And then, there is the whole bit around accessibility. To use insurance or not to use insurance? To receive a diagnosis or not to receive a diagnosis? To find a therapist that even takes your insurance, or that you can afford can prove challenging. Not to mention that therapy and social work, like many things, were invented by certain people (white men) for certain people (white women) to address incredibly misogynist things like “hysteria” and “neuroses” and other examples. So yeah, therapy has its issues for sure. We can and should put therapy and the field of mental health on the proverbial couch and view it critically. Does that mean we should write it off, altogether?
Therapists are Imperfect Humans
Confession: I am not a blank slate therapist. In school, I was taught to be as neutral as possible. To remain objective. And for some people, that might be great! Not me. I will never forget one of my first supervisors who was quick to point out that he could see every thought and feeling scroll across my face. He also shared with me that that vulnerability was simultaneously why I would be a great therapist and why I would be eaten alive by my clients. And he was right.
So, I decided to own it. I started to let my humanity in the room with my clients. Not by sharing with them every thought that came into my head but to re-conceptualize the idea of therapy as two ways. To think about us both occupying our humanity simultaneously. This means I drink water when I’m thirsty in session. I’m late and apologetic sometimes. I have to repair things with my clients when I mess up. I will shed some tears when appropriate. I am far from objective. Because what is “objective” anyway? A computer? A calculator? How are these machines going to be present enough, complicated enough to provide healing to someone?
In therapy circles, I see the constant debate about which methods of therapy work best. Which methods are “evidence-based” and would hold up in a courtroom if they ever needed to be justified. I have always wondered, how do you quantify a human soul? How do you boil down the individual nature, the nuance of a person’s perspective? How can you say with confidence that one method is better than another?
Humanity: The Unsolvable Question
Humans are such complex creatures. We all have our stories, our childhood hurts, the things we tell ourselves about ourselves over and over. How can we say that one thing will help more than another? We can’t.
I guess the point is, how do we solve an unsolvable problem? Some wine is, in fact, cheaper than therapy. Maybe there are times when it's best to focus on doing the dishes instead of going deep inside and dealing with the time you fell off your bike in a ditch and lay there for an hour waiting for someone to come to get you with a bloody knee (ouch). The short answer is that there is no answer. But there are things that help. And one of those is therapy.
The way I see therapy is two simultaneous humans, holding space, staying connected to themselves and each other, and having the courage to say hard things. It's a relationship. A back and forth. Maybe not a complete two-way street but definitely a mutual exchange between two souls who know how painful being a human on this planet can be. One of the hallmarks of therapy is that it gives us an opportunity to learn about the benefits of feeling our emotions fully. Something most of us don’t get taught while we are growing into adulthood.
This relationship is actually what does the healing. It can provide safety if we’ve been unprotected. It can show us what actual boundaries look like, and let us experience being loved in a contained and predictable way. It teaches us how to receive without consequence. It gives us the courage to try and fail and try again. If we let it, therapy can be the first place where we experience how lovable our least favorite versions of ourselves are.
10 Things I Wish People Knew About Therapy
1. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Doing your personal growth work is HARD. Therapy is definitely not the easy way out of a situation.
2. You will get out of it what you put in. The more you show up, think critically, and engage with the work, the better and faster you will see results.
3. I cannot read your mind. if you want me to push you harder, say so! If you need me to back off or if you don’t want to talk about something, that's cool. I will! Therapy is often a place to experiment with voicing preferences, use it! Chances are, telling me that you prefer we work at a different pace, or you need to switch the time of our appointment is a skill that can translate to the bigger players in your life.
4. I am so very proud of you. Every time you establish a healthy boundary, tell your boss how they impacted you, you don’t do the dishes for the 5th night in a row, you declare 6:30pm your “me time” and go for a walk, I want to throw you a parade! See next point.
5. Little things are big things. I cannot tell you how often you don’t see your progress. But any little shift is the foundation for a much bigger shift. You’re amazing! Keep going.
6. I am not for everyone, the right therapist is the best therapist. A large portion of your results is related to how connected you feel to your therapist. Search and keep searching until you find the right one. It will be worth it in the end.
7. I think about you in between sessions. Not in a creepy, obsessive kind of way. But I wonder how your dog's surgery went, if you sent your mom that letter, if you’re enjoying those sci-fi novels. You occupy a sweet place in my heart and I do genuinely care.
8. I learn from you just as much as you might learn from me. I am human too! Every person that comes onto my caseload teaches me so much about being in a relationship with another human and for that, I am so grateful.
9. It’s ok to take a break, focus elsewhere, explore other healing methods. Therapy isn’t the only way to heal. And you won’t hurt my feelings if you want to join the circus instead for a while.
10. You are the expert on you! I have a lot of experience but I’m not some saint sitting on a rock with all the answers. I am trying to human beside you, not from above you.
If you’ve ever considered going to therapy but felt apprehensive and maybe even a little scared, you are in the majority. The first time we do anything it usually feels scary. Let that fear be the indicator that you’re doing something brave.
Here are some resources that may assist you in finding a therapist if access is the issue:
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.