I started going to therapy when I was in graduate school. I always made sure to sprinkle hard classes with easy classes in undergrad, but there was no escaping a semester full of difficult classes in graduate school. More and more as the semesters went on, I became a victim of imposter syndrome. Add in the on-again-off-again, not-really-boyfriend I was seeing at the time, and my breaking point was inevitable. Thankfully, I had two friends who mentioned a few times that they went to therapy. So I finally picked up the phone and made an appointment for myself.
Now, I had never actually asked me friends about their experiences with therapy. I just knew they went. So I went into my first session with the assumptions that TV show therapists gave me. This meant I fully expected to launch right into my family background and to realize I was deeply disturbed in the first fifteen minutes. Right off the bat, I was surprised that those fears weren’t true. Although these misconceptions didn’t stop me from seeking therapy, they do hold others back. And since therapy has made such a huge impact on my life, I’d like to bust the myths that keep people who actually need help from finding it.
Myth #1: Something needs to be wrong for you to go to therapy.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I didn’t know many people. I knew starting over in a new city and with a new job had the potential to cause significant stress in my life. So, I took a precautionary step and found a therapist for the sole purpose of talking through the transition. It was helpful to work through my overactive mind with another person rather than just in my own head like I normally did. The added benefit of meeting regularly with this person was that it forced me to fully develop my feelings on my transitions, instead of letting them fester.
I may have blamed the insomnia I had at that time on my love of frequent coffee breaks, but by having an appointment on my calendar I was able to pay more attention to the trend in my sleeping habits. I asked myself, “Could stress be keeping me awake, even though I’m not having stress-induced anxiety attacks or anything?” When I mentioned it to my therapist, she was able to ask me specific questions, questions that I wouldn’t ask myself. She helped me realize that yes, it’s stress, and gave me some helpful exercises to manage it.
We all have stressful times—whether they’re what we would consider “big” or “small” stressors. Our tendency is to ignore what’s going on inside of us during those times, assuming the feelings associated with the stress will just go away when the stress does. And maybe they will. But I think therapy is a must for everyone because it allows you to dig deeper into the thoughts and feelings that come up during stressful times, so that we can better manage all that life throws at us.
Myth #2: Finding a therapist you “click” with can take time.
I’ve had four therapists, but only one has been phenomenal for me. While the other three did help me to think deeper or change my framework on certain problems, the best one just clicked with who I am as a person. Her personality and way of approaching our sessions never left me questioning if she was psycho-analyzing my deep dive into religion, or whether she was filling in silences just because she wasn’t comfortable with sitting quietly.
The relationship between you and the therapist is critical to success in therapy; so this point is not a small matter. I ended it with my last therapist only because she was moving, even though I had been feeling like I needed to find a new person for a few months already. So, the advice I’m about to give you is something I need to take as well!
If you’re currently in therapy and unsure if your therapist is right for you, before you find another one, you should talk about it with him or her. The vast majority of therapists are very comfortable with these conversations. Start the conversation by asking, “I’ve been wondering a lot if this relationship is the right one for me?” Be prepared to explain why you’re unsure, but a good therapist will also know the right questions to ask to guide the conversation.
If you’re starting over with a new therapist, be sure to tell them about past experiences in therapy and what worked and didn’t work for you. In my first session with my second therapist, I mentioned something that I didn’t particularly like about my last therapist—and he gently reminded me that therapists are not mind readers. Touche! I immediately recognized that this was great practice at speaking up for my own needs, something I had been working on up to that point anyway. Having that conversation early on in that relationship with that therapist helped me know that this new person was right for me.
If you have to find a different therapist, try not to get defeated. This is not a reflection of you or them, it’s simply a fact of life—we don’t connect with everyone we meet, and connection really matters in therapy. You can’t be expected to share your deepest fears, uncertainties, or wounds if you don’t respect and trust the person you’re talking with. Remember, this is about your healing, first and foremost.
Myth #3: You can’t overcome the judgement surrounding therapy.
We’ve come a long way in destigmatizing therapy, but there is still some judgement surrounding therapy. I’ve had friends say that they wish they could go to therapy, but that they’re not sure how their spouse/family/friends would react. This is an understandable fear. But the fact is, how we act in relationships, at work, and in life is driven a lot more than we realize by our subconscious. And because our subconscious is so mysterious that we’re not always aware of it ourselves, it’s likely that many well-intentioned friends and family aren’t seeing how it’s impacting us either. This is why it’s really important to know why you’re going to therapy.
Knowing your why can help you to have confidence in your decision if and when people question your choice. Do you want to understand why it’s hard to get out of bed and stay happy throughout the day? Are you frequently in dramatic situations with friends and men, to the point you think you may attract drama? Or, did you recently undergo a huge life transition and just want some support as you learn your new rhythm and routine? No reason is a wrong reason, and you may find more reasons as you start the process. The important thing is to have certainty about your goals, so that you’re not easily dismayed by skepticism or judgement.
Myth #4: Seeking therapy does not mean you’re blaming family or loved ones.
When I first started therapy, my family wanted to know “What did we do wrong?” The fact is, I wasn’t seeking therapy to blame them for anything. I was seeking therapy because I was hurting and in need of healing.
True, we did talk about my family of origin. True, we did identify some things that happened in childhood that manifested in unhealthy coping or behaviors as an adult. But by working through all of these moments and struggles, I was able to be closer to my family.
For example, one of the biggest problems I had to work through was staying calm whenever I felt like I was disappointing one of my family members. I love them so much, and it causes me literal physical discomfort when one of them isn’t happy. My heart rate climbs, my skin flushes, my breathing quickens. This makes it difficult to stay focused on how I can actually do something about the problem—or even if I can do something about the problem.
Sometimes, a problem is someone else’s to deal with, and all I can do is be there in support. And even if I can do something to support them, getting overwhelmed by my fight or flight response is not the best way to make sure my family member has what they need. Now that I’ve been going to therapy for a few years, more often than not I am able to remove myself from my emotions in order to address the situation in a way that encourages collaboration with my family rather than defensiveness.
Therapy is an incredibly useful tool that helps with a range of issues. First and foremost, therapy is for you to gain greater insight into your life. Once you do that, you’re able to gain greater awareness in all areas of life, so that you can be a better friend, wife, daughter, girlfriend, and woman. If you have any inclination that you might need to speak with someone, do it. Therapy is a perfectly normal―and valuable―experience that works to many people’s benefit.