“I don’t know if I need therapy, really. I’m just in here to check in on a few things.” That was how I started my very first therapy appointment.
At the end of the session, the therapist relayed what course of treatment she’d start with me, “at least for a few sessions,” she said. “That is if you want to come back?” she asked, referring to my hesitancy in my introduction.
I nodded to her as I continued to wipe tears from my face, “I guess I’m more upset than I realized,” I said. I’d cried nearly the entire session.
I went back, and I’ve kept going back nearly weekly for close to five years now.
If someone had told me at the beginning of my therapy journey that I might still be there in five years, I’m not sure how I would have felt about it. In fact, there have been several times over the past five years that I’ve wondered if I was supposed to be in therapy for this long.
Have I become too attached to my therapist? Is my continued exploration of how I felt in therapy becoming a project of vanity? My therapy sessions are no longer fraught with tears (in fact, I rarely cry in sessions now), so I’m healed now, right?
These are the questions that ran through my mind a few years ago as I wrestled with the fact I was still going to therapy.
It’s only in the last year or so that I’ve come to appreciate how committing to therapy for the long haul has allowed me to truly overcome the insecurities and uncertainties that had me in tears that first session. I’ve also come to realize that while it was sadness and a lot of pain that brought me into therapy, it has been the ways that therapy has helped me love others and myself better that have kept me there.
I’m not a therapist. I can’t tell you that every person who goes to therapy could benefit from a long-term therapeutic relationship. But, because I have benefitted so deeply from my long-term therapy, I want to share my experience and what I’ve learned, in case it might help others.
Therapy isn’t over when you stop crying
Sometime in that first year of therapy, my tears slowed down. It’s not that I didn’t cry, but I only cried in session every once in a while, or I would report to my therapist about something that had made me cry earlier in the week.
While in many senses, this was a sign that therapy was working and I was indeed learning to better manage some of the initial troubles that drew me in, crying less in therapy was also an invitation to dig deeper.
I remember a difficult session early in my therapy—my therapist was asking probing questions, and I was trying to answer them but failing. I can remember my therapist more than once saying to me, “I just asked you how you felt when that happened, and you just told me what you did.”
As we dug deeper, I realized that what I had thought was a better ability to handle my emotions was actually emotional numbing. Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb, author of the book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, describes numbing as “a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings.” As I reflected on why I wasn’t crying in therapy, I discovered that I was afraid to share some of the more shameful and scary parts of myself with my therapist.
In another session, I kept trying to tell her about something and she kept asking questions or making statements that weren’t landing right. At some point in the session she said, “This is difficult for me. Is it feeling difficult for you, too?” She was referring to our ability to connect in conversation, and I nodded, relieved I wasn’t alone in the struggle.
It made sense that I was afraid to be vulnerable with the deeper issues—after all, I barely knew my therapist. Trust needed to be established—and trust can take time to build. Not to mention not every therapist is right for every client, and the strength of the therapeutic alliance makes all the difference in healing. I needed to assess if this therapist was the right therapist for me.
So I made a decision, which I didn’t tell my therapist about at first—at the end of every session I needed to leave with a new way of thinking about something, a feeling of being cared for, or some other indication this new relationship was moving in the right direction.
One session led to another until one day I realized I was no longer “testing” my therapist as much—I started expecting she’d have good insight into the questions I was asking in my life.
Tears had returned more freely in sessions as we unpacked the anxieties, shame, and sadness I was carrying. But I also stopped focusing on my crying in therapy as a marker of whether I was healing or not.
Sometimes, we have meaningful conversations that make us both laugh. Sometimes we have serious conversations that provoke tears, and sometimes they don’t.
But regularly, I am finding myself learning more about who I am and what is driving my anxiety, depression, and shame, and consistently, I’m feeling more freedom to be who I’m meant to be.
Pay attention when the therapeutic relationship is difficult
If I ended my article there it wouldn’t be fair or accurate. It was difficult for me to enter therapy, and while I did eventually trust my therapist before that trust was established and even after it was established, therapy was very challenging.
In particular, I found myself feeling annoyed and even complaining to close friends about my therapist. She’d challenge me to reframe my way of thinking, or she’d invite me to consider whether a particular person or situation I was (unhealthily) clinging to was actually helping me flourish and I’d recoil. I’d find myself explaining to her why I thought her insight was off, or I’d simply keep returning to a situation that was emotionally and relationally destructive to me.
In the therapeutic world this is known as resistance. The simplest definition I’ve found for resistance is “anything that stops therapeutic change. It has traditionally been thought of as an unwillingness (either consciously or unconsciously) of the client to grow.”
Going into therapy, I knew that certain things weren’t working in my life. I wanted things to change. But unsurprisingly, when it became clear what needed to change, I resisted.
My resistance was so strong at times that I’d think about leaving therapy. I thought perhaps my therapist was wrong or just didn’t understand the world in the same ways that I did. My desire to leave and my skepticism of my therapist was really a sign I was struggling to change. This is where it is important to understand how change actually happens.
In the field of psychology there is a theory called the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, developed by psychologist James Prochaska. The stages of change include: pre-contemplation (thinking about the change you want to make), preparation (making a plan or securing resources to help you make a change), action (taking steps to change), and maintenance (maintaining change for six months and longer).
While those stages sound fairly intuitive, I learned in my years in therapy that transformative change is anything but straightforward. When we are making changes in our life, especially big ones like I was attempting, we might cycle through the stages in a seemingly sporadic order.
When I first entered therapy, the changes my therapist and I discovered I needed to make were in a sense easier for me. For example, when I started therapy I was in a relationship that was causing a lot of anxiety, stress, and drama in my life. When my therapist and I discussed my leaving that relationship, I was open to the change—after all, it was the reason I entered therapy. I had pre-contemplated that change, and seeking therapy was part of my preparation for the change. But as we got deeper into therapy, changes I hadn’t pre-contemplated came up, and as you would expect, that’s where resistance entered in.
But two things brought me back to her office, week after week. The first was that my therapist gave me the space to be open and honest about my resistance and my feelings toward her. The second was the fact that somewhere in my subconscious I understood and committed to therapy precisely because it would force me to change—so I couldn’t let myself give up when it got hard.
Creating space to see the past with grace and love others better
“There is a conflict raging inside of you,” my therapist explained to me, as we discussed my struggle to talk about the parenting moments my parents are surely least proud of or the ways my loved ones had hurt my feelings in words or actions. On the one hand, my brain was reminding me, “They were doing what they thought was best for me,” or, “They didn’t mean it, they were struggling during that time.” On the other hand, my brain wondered if that cruel thing they said or did revealed a truth about me.
I’ve had friends and family members talk about not going to therapy or leaving a therapist because they don’t see the point of examining things in the past. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” some might say—it happened, it’s over, we don’t need to dwell in our struggles. It’s certainly an understandable perspective. It can be deeply uncomfortable to talk about how people you know love you—like your parents, siblings, or spouse—have hurt you or contributed to beliefs that are limiting your flourishing.
It’s important to note here that in many senses, I was raised in an ideal home. I have two parents, married to each other still, who fiercely loved their children and were deeply dedicated to each other. I could point to specific things that happened in my childhood that I knew people would say were traumatic or hurtful to me, but I had little to be hurt by in comparison to others.
Because I knew my parents and close loved ones to be sacrificial, well-meaning people, I worked hard to understand the motivation behind those who had hurt me—so much so that I came to focus more on their pain instead of mine. While empathy is certainly part of the path to healing, denying my feelings was preventing me from experiencing true empathy toward my loved ones.
I would vacillate between resentment and acceptance, but I never really let myself feel the pain of the dismissal of my feelings as a young child, the fear certain moments instilled, or the ways I adapted my behavior to keep conflict to a minimum. I kept holding on to the pain. It was buried deep inside and rarely recalled or discussed, but it kept holding me back from trusting others and myself more fully.
Discovering the moments that shaped my fear and anxiety looked a lot like peeling an onion. We’d talk about one moment and another memory would come to mind. Because of the trust built between my therapist and me, I’d feel comforted by her presence and words when I cried as I recalled the things that were said or done that produced doubt in my goodness. It still feels like a mystery to me how one conversation and a good cry can lift a weight off my soul, but it does.
I remember a particularly painful session years ago. We were talking about the ways I’d learned to hide my true feelings from my family and friends. How my people-pleasing was actually a fear that if I said I wanted something different I’d be rejected. I recalled the nights as a young girl when I’d sit in my bedroom with melancholic music on my headphones, searching for my feelings that no one was really aware of.
“You must have felt lonely,” my therapist said. In response to her statement, fat tears rolled down my cheeks, my chest started to tighten, as the knot in my stomach got tighter, too.
“Stay with it,” my therapist gently said, as she noticed my move to try to pull away from the pain.
So I kept crying, and then I told her about the loneliness I felt as a young girl, what I wanted to tell others, and why I didn’t. We talked about how I wished my mom or dad would have come into my room and searched with me for my feelings by asking me about how I was feeling about my friends, my school, or any other part of my life. We talked about times when I felt my feelings were minimized and dismissed as being too sensitive and too stubborn and how it made me believe I was difficult—and how it made me want to change myself so I’d be more lovable.
“You seem lighter,” a friend commented to me that night at dinner, completely unaware I’d attended therapy that day, let alone wrestled with some of my darkest thoughts and feelings about myself. My friend was right, though. I’d noticed I’d felt lighter and more upbeat that night, too—all thanks to a tough but healing therapy session.
My feeling of emotional freedom was not just the result of crying and feeling my pain; it was also the result of being cared for in that pain. At the end of that session, I felt like my therapist saw me and cared for me as a pre-teen and teenager, alone in my room with my feelings. And because my pain was less, I also noticed my disappointment with my parents was less, too—I forgave them for not seeing my regular retreat to my room as a cry for them to come seek me out. I didn’t have to tell them about the hurt or my forgiveness, but I suspect that they’ve seen it in my actions as I’ve let them deeper into my life and how I’m feeling now.
Oftentimes, people think it’s time to leave therapy when you’ve reached the initial goals that led you into therapy. Sometimes that might be true. In my case, however, I found my initial goals were a good start, but there were things below the surface I wasn’t expecting initially.
In the past year, I’ve realized that I approach my therapy sessions differently. I’m no longer preparing for sessions by only reflecting on problems that have occurred in the past week. I’m often thinking about what is going on in my life, both the good and the challenging, and asking my therapist for an outside view of how I can be more fully myself—what tweaks to my mindset or behavior will take me from existing to flourishing in life?
I’ve begun to experience what one woman described about her nearly decade-long time in therapy, in an essay for the New York Times: “Therapy was no longer a refuge for my unmet needs and long-buried rage. Now it was where I deepened my capacity to love and attach in all my relationships.”
My therapist and I talk more often these days about the fact I will one day “leave her.” I’m excited about the potential of moving out of therapy and navigating life on my own with the wisdom I’ve gained from working with her. But for right now, I’m also enjoying the lightness I feel knowing that my therapist and I have developed a trusting relationship that is helping me continue to remain authentic, share who I am with others, and develop into the woman I was meant to be.