One woman shares what therapy is really like from the inside out.
Anyone ever told you to go to therapy? It shouldn't be an insult. As a former therapist and a longtime therapy-goer, I tend to believe most of us could benefit from a stretch on a therapist's couch. But I should make one thing clear: Don't go to therapy because you should. As a general rule, we rarely follow through with things because we should. We do something because we want to or we can see the ways we'll gain from it.
I can personally attest to the rewards of therapy, both from a patient's point of view and a counselor's. As with most things in life, if you make a commitment, you'll see results. We take pride in working hard to keep our bodies healthy. We eat right, exercise daily, take vitamins, and happily share our before and after selfies with the world (hello, Instagram). But, generally, we're not taught to see our mental health as something that needs similar care and attention.
The difference between our views on mental and physical health has a lot to do with stigma. When you go to the doctor for your annual wellness visit or because you've broken a toe, no one passes silent judgment or assumes you're weak. But the emotional problems we confront are just as real as fractured bones, so there's nothing crazy about the idea of seeking the expertise of a trained professional who can help you grow, learn, and be stronger. Whether you're challenged by a serious mental illness or facing a career rut that has you stumped, therapy is a tool for people with the guts and gumption to ask, "What can I do to live a healthier, happier life?"
In the spirit of debunking stereotypes about therapy, here are a few things you can expect if you decide to take your turn on the therapist's couch.
You take one step at a time.
There's a quick solution to most things in our modern world. When you're hungry, your next meal is just a click away (thank you, Seamless). Uber usually has you covered if you need to get somewhere fast. Alas, therapy isn't one of these quick fixes. Your therapist isn't a magical, all-knowing creature who can whip out a wand, utter a fancy Latin spell, and make you insta-better. Real change happens gradually. It's a marathon, not a sprint, and having realistic expectations about the therapeutic process can save you a whole lot of frustration. Just think: If you focus on mile 13 when you're at the starting line, the journey is always more painful. In therapy, you learn to settle into the present moment and be more patient with yourself—one foot in front of the other, slow and steady.
You may sweat.
You have an amazing best friend who's a great listener. You have a mom who's a master of pep talks. A support system of people you trust is important to overall happiness and well-being, but these personal relationships are not to be confused with the role a therapist plays. "One of the advantages of talking to a therapist is that he or she might feel freer to offer alternative perspectives on a situation as compared to a friend who might be more inclined to agree with you or comfort you," says New York City–based psychotherapist Andrew Blatter. Of course, therapists will offer a sympathetic ear when that's what you need, but their job is also to challenge you at times, pointing out unhealthy thoughts and behaviors. Acknowledging the part you play in your own problems isn't an easy pill to swallow. You might squirm with discomfort and feel the impulse to bail, but change is hard work. Therapists won't fix you or tell you what to do. Instead, they respect your autonomy to make difficult choices for yourself and will help you sort out which are best for you.
You repeat patterns in therapy that you do in everyday life.
Humans are creatures of habit. Most of us stick to daily routines to keep our lives on track. These habits influence everything from what we eat for breakfast to the kind of person we choose to date. The problem? Not all habits are good for us. When it comes to relationships, we tend to repeat unhealthy patterns again and again—maybe you keep choosing emotionally unavailable partners or sabotage relationships once they've reached a level of intimacy that's uncomfortable for you. Often in therapy, these patterns crop up, especially once you've settled into the therapeutic relationship. The difference is that in therapy, you have the opportunity to take a closer look at why you repeat the things you do. According to Blatter, when a person's patterns emerge in the therapeutic relationship, the therapy space provides a safe arena in which to understand them: "I had a patient who had trouble sustaining intimacy in her relationships," he says. "As she and I got closer, her anxieties about our intimacy started to reveal themselves. By being able to explore them in the safe space of therapy, she was able to open up about her fears and consequently open up to greater intimacy with other people in her life." When you address the issues that underlie unhealthy patterns within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, you'll have the tools to apply what you've learned outside the therapy room.
You have the freedom to experiment.
You might not think of therapy as a big kid's playroom, but in some ways it is. By adulthood, we've often forgotten how to playfully explore ourselves. We tend to be more rigid, self-conscious, and less willing to experiment. Therapy is a judgment-free zone where you can try new things in a low-stakes environment. You can say whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly or weird you may think it sounds. In your therapist's office, you are also free to safely explore feelings and practice behaviors that trigger anxiety in your everyday life. Are you passive and find it difficult to speak your mind? Practice assertiveness with your therapist. Do you have difficulty managing your anger? Try relaxation techniques. Once you've rehearsed these skills in session, you might feel more confident about handling issues outside the therapist's office as well.
You can surprise yourself.
You may have something you need to get off your chest. You can't wait for your weekly therapy session where you can vent all about it, and, then, when the time comes, something completely unexpected happens—you veer off topic and the words pouring out of your mouth are new and surprising. "There have been so many times that patients have prefaced a comment with 'I've never told this to anyone before' or 'I didn't expect to bring this up,'" says Blatter, who attributes some of this spontaneity to the trust built between therapist and client. As the intimacy in the therapeutic relationship deepens over time, you might be more open to talk about things that you've been avoiding or access memories that were once too painful. Exploring your own uncharted territory can be scary and anxiety-provoking. You might find comfort knowing that many therapists have been in their own counseling (in fact, for psychoanalysts in training, being in therapy is a requirement), so they can understand what it feels like to be on your end and better guide you through the process.
You see others in a more empathetic light.
By being in therapy, you not only start to consider your own actions in a deeper, more thoughtful way, but those of others as well. As your self-awareness grows, you'll be more sensitive to the fact that every person has a unique, complex inner world, and that it could vary greatly from your own. Blatter recalls his experience working with a man who tended to interpret other people's behavior as critical and malicious as a result of his abusive childhood: "In our therapy sessions, I would toss out alternative ways of viewing the situation. Maybe the romantic partner was insecure and not intending to be critical. Maybe the boss was under a lot of pressure so her 'short' responses were more indicative of that than criticism of the patient. Over time, my patient began to see that there were other lenses through which to view the world than those of his earliest parental experiences." Making a better effort to see the world through the eyes of others will go a long way in improving and deepening your relationships.
You may stumble.
You might think you've resolved a particular issue, and when you least expect it, the problem resurfaces. When something like this happens, because it always does, don't be discouraged. Progress isn't linear. The path is winding, to say the least. Prepare yourself for lots of ups and downs, plenty of forward and backward, and maybe even some circles. If you have the self-awareness to notice the reemergence of your unhealthy pattern and what triggered it, you're already taking a step in the right direction. So, the next time you trip, get back on your feet, take a breath, and tell your therapist all about it.