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The Top Ten Lessons I Learned in Therapy

The Top Ten Lessons I Learned in Therapy
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As I climbed up the stairs, I wanted to turn around and go home. I did not want to face another hour of spewing words and emotions that were unpredictable, that came from foreign parts of me and made little sense. It made me feel vulnerable to live in unchartered emotional territory. It didn’t feel like it was helping. It felt like things were getting worse, like the more I spoke, the more painful it got. I didn’t like the mess. I didn’t like that it was just me talking to a stranger who seemed to have it all together. I didn’t like that the 50 minutes ended abruptly. It was at the beginning of a confusing process that took time to get used to.

A voice told me to keep climbing those stairs. To trust that it would get better. That it would eventually make sense. That I would eventually feel better. That facing this scary beast was the only way to move forward. Was that voice God? Was it an angel? Or was it my inner knowing? It was a hopeful voice, so I listened.

Therapy was not something I told everybody I was doing. I had a lot of assumptions about it, like that if I mentioned it, people would judge me. I told close friends but it took years before it was something I could drop into casual conversations. Now, years later, I know that asking for help is the healthiest choice I made. That therapy was worth every penny and was the best gift I gave myself. That therapy, with the right person, and choosing mental health, is the best investment. Here are the top ten things I learned.

1. Give other people the benefit of the doubt. When you are going through something in your life that is big, dramatic, and scary, it can feel like everyone is a potential enemy. I remember being at a party and someone looking at me funny after I said something. I immediately thought I had done something wrong, but I didn’t know what. I told my therapist about it and she said these words that stuck with me. “Maybe it had nothing to do with you. Maybe it struck something in them that you don’t know about or understand. Give that person the benefit of the doubt.” I use this often. Just because someone looks at you a certain way, doesn’t mean that it has anything to do with you. Give them a break.  

2. Give yourself a break. It took years to get to the point that I could really hear, understand and apply this one. When you are having a hard time, from being sick, to not achieving what you want, to feeling weak, those are not the moments to try to whip yourself into mental shape. Those are the moments to back off, be kind to yourself and talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love and care for. Do what you have to do to treat yourself to some TLC every day. Your mind should feel like home, like a safe space.

3. Ask yourself who is doing the talking. When you have a negative thought, ask yourself whose voice it is. Is it really you or is it someone from the past that was unkind, that left a mark. Being able to identify the voices in your mind is really helpful to know which ones to listen to, and which ones to let go of. 

4. Trust the process. This is true in therapy, and in life. I wanted to control therapy. I remember at the beginning asking my psychologist if I had homework. Was this like school? Could we make a flow chart so that we could track my progress? When would I be “better”? “It could take years” she told me. That was discouraging. It took time to understand that every session was different. Sometimes it felt like nothing was happening. Eventually it got to point that huge epiphanies were popping in my head like popcorn and I really started to get it. It was so exciting! Now, when I start something new, I know to trust that it will eventually make sense. To have patience, and to not try to control everything.  It all makes sense when you look back, even if doesn’t in the moment. 

5. Chaotic thoughts are nothing to be afraid of. The greatest gift that therapy gave me was the transition from feeling out of control because of thoughts and emotions that I didn’t understand and didn’t think I could cope with. I started therapy when I was going through a difficult life change. It brought up old emotions. Learning to separate my thoughts, identifying triggers and learning to ask for support to understand and sort out my reactions, changed my life. I no longer felt like a passenger. It put me in the driver’s seat of my own life. Now when I get overwhelmed, I have a map to get back to a place of understanding. It has allowed me to try new and scary things and know that I’ll figure it out as I go along, regardless of any fears I face.  

6. Trust yourself. Listen to yourself. I think a big part of why I felt so powerless when I started therapy was that I needed to feel listened to. At first, I thought that the therapist was the person saving me. The very act of someone listening when I felt so alone, without them interjecting with their own experiences, was so novel and life saving for me. I am so thankful to have met her. But the person that saved me, that listened, whose attention I really needed, was my own. How did I not know that no one can give you the attention, love and support you need better than yourself? I do now. I am always listening for what I need, and when needs arise, I grant them, unconditionally. 

7. It’s all in how you ask. When you feel powerless and emotional, asking for what you need can be scary. It can feel like a battle that you have to ante up for. You feel that you may have to yell to feel powerful. But what I learned as I started to listen to myself, is that when you know you deserve to get what you need, you won’t have to yell. You will just ask, and it doesn’t have to be a battle.  

8. Where’s the evidence? I remember this moment so well. I was sharing a fear with my therapist. She asked me “What evidence do you have to support that fear? Has it happened recently?” Her question startled me. Evidence? I had…none. OK, well that solved that one. Now I ask this question if I get scared. The evidence usually leads me to the opposite conclusion and I feel relief.

9. You are only responsible for yourself. In those moments when I want to control the fate of others, or change others, this is particularly powerful. I am not god. I do not control the fate of others and I can’t change who they are. My ability to help others is limited, and that’s ok. Everyone is responsible for them self.

10. Do what you want. For a long time, I gave myself a hard time for not wanting what I thought was ‘normal’, what others wanted. This applies to any decision in life. Therapy taught me to sort out what I wanted from what I thought I should want. There is a spectrum of desire. Things aren’t black and white. You may be somewhere in the middle or at either end of desire and that’s ok. That’s you. I remember being particularly rough on myself one session and asking “Why don’t I want that?” My therapist looked at me and said “I never wanted to be a neurosurgeon, so why would I give myself a hard time for not being one?” That was a good moment. A moment that set me free to chart the course of my own life.

I’m glad I climbed the stairs that day and I’m glad I listened to that voice.

I remember telling someone that I needed help, and they directed me to this website, where they had received the help they needed. What struck me was how she said it, easy breezy, like it was no big deal. Now I get it, and I’m passing it on. No biggie.

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