6 Truths of Starting Psychotherapy
The most pivotal and liberating experience of my life was attending weekly psychotherapy for three years. Each session, I sat down with a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, using a variety of techniques, to process and work through traumatic experiences from throughout my life. I also worked with a psychiatrist in the same practice to find the right combination of medications to treat my insomnia and mood imbalances. It was grueling — I won’t downplay that. There were days when I came home so spent that all I could do was lie on the couch for the rest of the night. But of all the challenges I faced, the biggest one was getting myself to the therapist’s couch in the first place.
Post-therapy, it is my firm belief that absolutely everyone could benefit from professional counseling at some point in his or her lives. Psychotherapy is a big universe — there are a myriad of techniques, types of practitioners and conditions that fall under this umbrella. But one thing they seem to have in common is that they are vastly misunderstood. I have known many people who missed out on precious years of living their fullest lives because something — a societal stigma or a personal misconception or fear — was keeping them out of that therapist’s office. What I seek to do here is to dispel some of the most common myths I have encountered regarding therapy, and to share the insights I have gleaned to replace them.
1. Truth: Your pain is important.
When I first sat down in my therapist’s office to work through the emotional abuse I had experienced growing up, I confessed that I felt ashamed for being there because so many people had been through so much worse. I cited the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. She explained that being the victim of an act of terrorism is one type of trauma, and being manipulated by someone (in my case, a parent) whose role in your life should be to protect and care for you is trauma, too. There is no issue too large or too small to seek help for.
2. Truth: It’s OK to go shrink-shopping.
You will be doing very difficult work — telling your therapist about the most painful things that have ever happened to you. The vulnerability can feel like an open wound. It is essential that you trust the person who is in that room with you, so that you will feel comfortable with the solutions they offer. Going back session after session is an accomplishment all on its own, sometimes a feat that requires willpower. So you must feel a rapport with your therapist in order to do it. You deserve that. If the first practitioner you visit doesn’t feel right to you, try another. Needing guidance in processing a difficult life event, or even suffering from a psychiatric condition, does not mean that your instincts are untrustworthy. On the contrary, seeking help is in itself a sign of wisdom.
3. Truth: They’ve heard it all before.
Try to take comfort in the fact that therapists have been educated and trained to assist people in exactly your situation, no matter what that situation may be. You are not “weird,” you are not “making it up” — you are not even unusual. Everyone I know who has sought therapy has felt an immense sense of validation and relief from the simple knowledge, imparted by their therapist, that their condition or issue is, in fact, common, that their feelings and reactions are normal, that so many others are in the same boat. And they will ask questions to help you delve beneath the surface of what you may be feeling that particular day, so that you can address the core issues and create fundamental change. They can help you, and you deserve to be helped.
4. Truth: No one is going to shove medication down your throat.
Among anyone I know who has been “on the fence” about therapy, this is one of the most common fears. Many people who seek therapy are simply looking for a professional perspective and have no diagnosable condition, and many diagnosable conditions are not automatically treated with medication. That said there is no shame whatsoever in taking medication when a mental health professional you trust says that you need it. In that case, you are acting responsibly by following their advice. In some cases, you may not even be on the medication long-term — just until the immediate crisis passes and you feel more stable. If you had an ear infection, you’d take antibiotics without a second thought. Psychiatric conditions are no different — they cannot be willed away, and medication can be an essential part of improving your quality of life. But decisions about your mental health care are ultimately up to you.
5. Truth: There may be financial assistance to pay for it.
Seeking therapy doesn’t mean you have to go broke. Many health insurance plans cover it, but you can also check with your local government to see if counseling can be fully or partially paid for based on your income. Many colleges offer reduced-cost counseling with therapists-in-training. For members of the military, there is, of course, the Veterans’ Administration, but outside of that, there are organizations such as The Headstrong Project, which are completely free and confidential. This is far from a comprehensive list, but it is a starting point if cost is one of the barriers between you and the help you deserve.
6. Truth: What you learn there is a life practice.
Therapy, for however long you go, will help you process that “first wave” of hurt –the worst of it, the part that is keeping you from living your life the way you want to. It won’t erase bad memories or keep them from ever coming back. This does not mean you have done something wrong or that therapy “didn’t work.” Therapy will give you a toolkit so that when those memories do return, you will be better equipped to handle them. And each time they do, their power will diminish.
Saying “I need help” and reaching out to get it are not easy things to do. But along with the previous thoughts, I offer the following: absolutely everyone I know, including myself, who has undergone psychotherapy has looked back on the moment they made that first phone call, to set up that first appointment, as one of the best decisions they ever made. As a watershed moment in their lives — for many, the first time they said to themselves, “I matter.”
This world is a difficult place.
Give yourself the tools to navigate it.
Give yourself that gift.
Pick up the phone.
You won’t regret it.
Special thanks to Robin O. Anderson, LCSW, and Megan Lucas, MA, NCC, Provisionally Licensed Counselor, for their professional input.
You can follow along with this journey on Seeing and Speaking
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