Notes for the Therapist Who Did Not Make Me Feel Understood
As I sat before her, my mind was swirling with thoughts. Overwhelmingly, I needed help. My brain was screaming through the fog of my depression that I desperately needed her to connect with me. I needed her to understand the different chasms my anxiety and depression had opened before me.
“You understand that if you devoted all the time you do to worrying to something else, you could get so much done.”
I felt sucker-punched. Here I was in therapy, having dragged myself here through sheer will, and I was being told not to worry so much, to just let things go. Other hurtful comments followed. I shut down. She probably thought she was being encouraging, but for someone in the midst of a mental storm, those little offhand comments make it worse.
We’ve probably heard them a million times from random people in our lives. The last place we need them repeated is in the (hopefully) safe space of therapy. I picked up the pieces myself afterward, but here is what I wish she had said instead.
1. “Don’t worry so much.”
If I could stop worrying, then I wouldn’t be in therapy needing help. Instead of saying I should worry less, I wish she’d actually imagined what I was feeling. I wish she would have said, “I can imagine that being overwhelmed by those panicky thoughts must be draining every day.” This would have helped me feel understood far better.
2. “You’re wasting time worrying about things you can’t control.”
True. Of course it’s wasting time, but I cannot change the way my brain processes daily life. Giving me one more thing to feel I’m failing at is not going to help my currently shaky mental state. Instead, I have another hook for my anxiety and hopelessness, “My therapists said I’m wasting time. Oh my word, I’m failing therapy. Yet another thing I haven’t achieved this week.” If my therapist had said instead, “Losing time to panic attacks and worrying thoughts must make you feel even less in control, and that makes you feel powerless,” then I would have given her a smile and nodded.
3. “Are you doing anything to help yourself feel happier or calmer?”
Yes, I’m here in therapy right now, having left the house for the first time in days to get understanding. This took all my energy and a dollop of courage too because I don’t know you, and I would appreciate you acknowledging that. I do many other things to survive on a day-to-day basis, probably more than you know. At this point, it’s clear you probably don’t struggle with anxiety or depression because you don’t understand.
If my new therapist had said any one of these things or the sea of other options, then I could have felt understood. I could have known that dragging myself to therapy was worth it. That I had succeeded. Instead, I walked out smiling at her like the polite person I am, internally seething. I left feeling like I was on my own. It’s hard enough to get help when you have one or more mental illnesses. The last thing needed is a therapist who contributes to the harmful dialogue around anxiety and depression.
What I needed and want from a therapist is not advice but support. I wish all incompetent therapists could spend a day in the mind of their clients to know exactly how unhelpful ignorant statements can be. We probably have answers in our own heads, or we don’t and we need someone to sit with us while we deal with that. When we don’t receive this, we end up feeling more alone and more isolated than we do already.
So I want to end this as a love letter to the people out there who endure days with mental illness and incompetent mental health professionals. I salute all of you for having the courage to go in the first place and to continue on your journey regardless of bad therapy, as well as those who get through another day without choosing to go to therapy. Going is a choice and there is no right or wrong choice here. There is right and wrong therapy, however.
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