I walked into my therapist’s office in March 2015 with a mind to figure out what was wrong with my marriage and, thereby, me. I told him that I knew something was happening to me that was probably not good, but, seeing that I was in the center of it all, I could no longer discern what was true and false. I needed an objective point of view to understand the situation. I knew I needed help.
It is now mid-September 2017, and in two weeks my therapeutic relationship with my therapist will end. Two and half years of therapy. Wow. It only feels like a few months, but my life is completely different now.
When I started the therapeutic process I decided to record the process here on my blog. My blog was already well-established in terms of therapeutic topics, and I thought that it might be helpful to provide a look behind the curtain particularly for people who were suspicious of therapy or couldn’t find a therapist. What do people actually do “in therapy”? Why go? Does it actually work? People like to say, myself included, to “go to therapy” when life becomes a shitstorm, but does it really matter? For the love of baby owls, why won’t people stop suggesting it? It seems as if we all know someone who has been in therapy for at least a decade, and they are almost worse now than before they started. I’m not exaggerating on that point. I do know someone who has been seeing a therapist for over ten years, and this person is no better now than when they started. It’s…unsettling.
So, let’s get down to it then. Let’s be real about it. Why go to a therapist? Why pay for it? Why put in the time and effort when we all seem to know people who have done it and gotten nothing out of it?
I’ll start off by saying that you must find the right therapist for you if you expect success. There must be a good chemistry for the work to be meaningful otherwise you won’t build trust and take risks in your disclosure. Also, you won’t take their suggestions or comments seriously. They will lack credibility. You’ll stay entrenched in a defensive and suspicious posture. I’ve experienced this numerous times with my daughters’ therapists. There are myriad children’s and adolescent therapists in the world, and most of them seem to be mediocre. I have observed them talking down to kids or simply pushing their own worldview onto them. They start off sessions with their own agenda and expect the client, the kid, to adhere to their expectations. They can treat kids like pets who must obey commands rather than like people with rights and personalities of their own. It is a rarity to find a therapist who works with kids who treats a kid like an adult in the making. When you do, you’ll find that the waiting list to see them is long. A good therapist is recognized, and people want to work with him/her.
This process of finding the right therapist is the same for adults. You have to interview a potential therapist. Do your research. Look at their CV. Where were they educated? What is their certification? How long have they been working? I chose my current therapist because he had a PhD in neuroscience, and I thought that this PhD would pair very well with his therapy work particularly as it related to the profound trauma in my past. I was right. His knowledge was extensive, and I gained a far greater understanding of my brain and trauma than I ever had before. Additionally, he had a great therapy bedside manner. We worked really well together.
Once you’ve got the therapist, then you must have an idea of what you want out of the experience. This is one of the most important aspects of having a successful therapeutic experience. I’ve made a career out of going to therapy. If you have complex PTSD, then you have to get to know the therapeutic process. It is one of the primary highways out of the complexity of that diagnosis. In “therapy speak”, a therapist will ask what your treatment plan should be. This means, “Why are you here? What do you want? What do you want to accomplish when you’re working with a therapist?”
Even for me, a seasoned client, I find those questions daunting. So, to get to the answer, I imagine how I would like my life or my inner life to look at the end of therapy. If I’m coming into therapy an emotional mess completely incapable of handling conflict, then I might say, “I can’t tolerate distress. I would like to increase my distress tolerance particularly around _______________.” If I’m coming into therapy because I’m being abused by a partner or because I’m trying to put boundaries down with an emotionally abusive parent, then I might say, “I need help in figuring out what is happening with X person. I feel confused, scared, and helpless, and I don’t want to feel like that anymore. I want to get my personal power back and learn how to say ‘no’, learn how to put boundaries down, and then how to enforce them without feeling so afraid all the time. How do I do that? And, if this is abusive in nature, then what do I even do about that? Also, how did it get to this point? I need help figuring out how I didn’t see this happening until it got so bad.” Essentially, what you are doing is giving a therapist a map. You are starting at A and pointing to M on your personal map. Your therapist will then help you create a roadmap using their training to get you there. The condition is that you must show up on the scheduled dates and do everything that your therapist suggests. You must do the work.
Therapy homework. This can be the hardest part. Talking to a therapist can be unpleasant, but it is the homework that matters more. Whatever work you are told to do you must do because this is what creates momentum. This is what actually progresses you along your roadmap. Every single person I’ve ever met who has succeeded in therapy does the homework. They suspend their egos and submit to that process. If they have to do a workbook, then they do it. If they have to write “dead letters” to people who hurt them in the past, then they do it. And they do it with 100% effort. You will get out of therapy what you put into it. This is why trusting your therapist is vital. You have to believe that the work you’re being given matters particularly if it feels aversive to you.
Does it work? What are the results? I can speak for myself. Almost fifteen years ago, I set out to do a deep and meaningful work with a therapist. I thought that I had addressed past trauma and abuse involving both my parents, but, as it turns out, my past efforts had not been sufficient. I was still stuck on the All-Good/All-Bad Child rollercoaster with my mother who has a Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) diagnosis, and I couldn’t get off. I didn’t know what was healthy in terms of a mother/daughter relationship. I worked with him for three years. That work was one of the most significant therapeutic experiences of my life. I am a changed person because of those years and no longer victimized by either of my parents.
Today, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago. I believed that I had hit a dead end. I believed that I had invested the best years of my life in a marriage that had become abusive, empty, and miserable. What’s more, I believed what my then husband had told me about myself: I was a liability and no one would ever want me. So why bother even attempting to build a better life? I was useless and worthless. Knowing me was like walking through a minefield. Truly. I believed this, but I didn’t want to believe this. I fostered hope that he was wrong. That is what motivated me to find a therapist. I had a kernel of hope inside myself that he was, in fact, lying to me.
Hope. This is probably the most important factor in terms of why you find and stay in therapy.
Lastly, you finally get to grow up again and expand your emotional education–properly–when you go to therapy:
Therapy is our gateway to growing up. When we find a therapist who we like and trust, we can actually do the work of maturing and growing into the adults who we have always wanted to be. How?
- A good therapist walks with you through those memories that are holding you back in order to help you resolve them so that you no longer carry them, and they no longer define you.
- A good therapist helps you learn to talk about your feelings so that you can communicate effectively within your relationships.
- A good therapist validates you and your life experiences. This is key because we need validation to feel safe and sane.
- A good therapist teaches you how to self-validate so that you are no longer beholden to others for your validation and sense of self.
- A good therapist models empathy which, hopefully, will teach us how to do the same.
- A good therapist teaches us how to be empowered in our relationships forsaking victim thinking, codependency, and caretaking.
- A good therapist provides a reality check and tough love when necessary so that we learn what true accountability in relationships looks like.
- A good therapist guides us into learning distress tolerance so that we can give up maladaptive coping strategies that harm us and our relationships.
- A good therapist provides insights into what motivates us so that we learn to become curious about ourselves and why we make certain choices.
- A good therapist legitimizes separation, individuation, and differentiation from our parents which is so often the root of our suffering.
- A good therapist teaches us a better way to think and shows us where we are believing negative things and, thusly, how those negative beliefs manifest in negative behaviors.
Therapy is the environment in which we continue developing as humans except that we have the opportunity to develop into better humans. Therapy is meant to teach us so that we are equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.
Who do you suppose does better in a crisis? The person who trusts themselves or the person who is rootless, anxious, and doesn’t trust anyone? Part of becoming an educated person is receiving an emotional education as well. One of my favorite college professors once told a group of women that her goal in teaching us was to create educated women. When asked what that meant, she replied, “To be truly educated means that you are critical thinkers. It means that if you don’t know the answer to a question, then you know how to go about finding it.”
This is what it means to be emotionally educated. It means that you are a critical thinker when it comes to yourself. You are self-aware. You understand your motives. You know what you need. You can self-advocate. You can trust others. You trust yourself. You know how to ask for what you want, and you are not beholden to others for your sense of worth or sense of calm. If you find yourself in difficult situations for which you are not equipped, then you know how to go about equipping yourself. You know the skills you have, and you know the ones you need. Lastly, you take responsibility for yourself–your actions, your feelings, your desires, and your needs.
This is what therapy can do for us. All of those inadequacies that we see today? Those deficits in our personalities that we try to hide out of shame? Reframe them. They are just opportunities when you put them in a therapeutic environment. What if you simply need to learn a new skill? We will all be developing and maturing until the day we die, picking up more wisdom as we go. Engaging in your own emotional education is not something to be ashamed of. It should be celebrated.
Remaining emotionally illiterate because someone somewhere once said that only weak people see shrinks? I think that’s the least educated view of all. (Empowered Grace)