What Is Therapy and How Can It Help Me?

So often I find that when I tell people what I do, that I'm a therapist, their reaction is to ask me what kind. Usually they're waiting for me to say whether I'm an occupational therapist or massage therapist or physical therapist, etc. So when I say I work in mental health they often seem surprised, and also a bit confused. They give me this look like "OHH OK, yeah I don't really get what that means, but good for you!" 

Whenever this happens I am reminded that although I might feel like information about mental health and the benefits of therapy are out there, and are growing in terms of how much we know and talk about it, it's never reaching everyone that it could. There is still so much stigma around getting mental health treatment. There seems to be this idea that it is only for people who are "a mess" or for people who are "crazy." And let's be honest, we probably have all been guilty of thinking or talking about therapy this way. We might see someone having a hard time and say "oh wow, she needs a therapist." And honestly, that's probably true. If someone is having a hard time I believe they genuinely could benefit from having a therapist. But its the WAY we say it. Like there's something negative about needing a little help now and then. Which, by the way, is just nonsensical to me. Who do you know that acts all ashamed about going someone to get their car fixed? Or doesn't want to admit to getting their oil changed? Or is embarrassed they might need a surgeon to remove a gall bladder?! HELLO, of COURSE we don't know how to do everything! We aren't meant to be able to do everything. 

Truth be told, I have even been guilty of this thought process before. In graduate school the advice we got over and over and over again was to get a therapist. As social workers we have some of the most high stress, low pay jobs available, and we see some stuff you couldn't  or wouldn't want to believe. It makes sense we would need an outlet for all this pain and suffering and struggle we see on a daily basis. It makes sense that some of this suffering we see, touches on some of our own sore spots from our own experiences. It brings to light the things we thought we were "over" but haven't really resolved within us. Even learning and knowing all that, I still didn't think I needed therapy. It wasn't until I was in a high stress job with foster care youth living in a residential facility that I figured out I was wrong. These were some of the coolest, funniest, most creative and resilient individuals I have ever had the honor of meeting in my life. These were also some of the most difficult situations I have ever encountered in my life. It touched on some of my own issues that I hadn't ever really addressed, and I was feeling that I was in over my head. I couldn't stop thinking about work, about my young people, about the way the system was failing so many of them, the amount of paperwork I had, how far I was behind on everything. After a day of work, doing anything else just felt too draining. I had so much worrying to do, there wasn't any time for me. 

I left that job after just a year- I was moving from the city to the suburbs and wouldn't be able to survive the commute everyday, but if I'm being honest, I was also struggling to be in this role where I was feeling like my own stuff was coming up- a lot. The thing about getting "triggered" is that once it comes up, it doesn't just go back down to where it came from all on its own. So the things that were coming up for me were just coming up and staying there, and whirling around in my mind, and in my heart. It became overwhelming. Especially in my new role managing my own program, by myself, at my brand new job. Did I mention I moved, changed jobs, got married and met my birth mother all in a matter of months? It was a stressful time to say the least. 

It was there at my new job, once the dust from moving and the wedding had settled, that I had the courage to reach out to a co-worker and let her know I wasn't feeling so hot. She let me know about a woman she had been seeing, and I decided that if it worked for her, it would work for me. After a few sessions I was already feeling a little better. It felt SO good to just get some of that stuff out. Things I had never talked about seriously and deeply with anyone, like about getting bullied in grade school or being an adopted person trying to reconnect with my birth mother, I was sitting here telling this stranger (albeit a very warm, compassionate, understanding and non-judgemental stranger) and suddenly it was like these problems weren't just my own anymore. It was like someone else heard me, and listened, and cared and agreed to carry that stuff with me for a while until I was ready to put it down. I also learned a lot of my own mind-body connection and how I could leverage that to soothe myself in times of distress or inform myself as to what was going on when I was feeling like things were starting to get overwhelming again. 

When I look back at it now I wonder why I didn't go to a therapist earlier. I think because I was trained to BE a therapist I didn't think I had anything to gain from seeing my own. So often I think we believe we should have everything it takes to just be "fine" or "deal with it." I already had all the tools and education I thought to myself, I already know what to do. The thing about it is though, we don't always have ALL the tools we need. One of the greatest benefits of therapy is the objective third party that sits across from us. The person who isn't in our stuff, so she or he can accurately see our stuff, and let us know what he or she might see that we don't. My therapist helped me pick out patterns that I didn't see and helped me to see dynamics in my relationships that were causing me to feel negatively. Just recognizing the problem that I could never quite put words to myself helped give me the motivation to change. It also motivated me to start taking better care of myself. I signed up for Weight Watchers shortly after going to therapy and have lost 55 pounds. I think losing a lot of my emotional and mental baggage made it easier to drop those pounds I have been carrying with me all. my. life. 

It's also having someone who has spent many years of their life dedicated to learning the things that we haven't. There are so many different approaches and theories, even for us therapists, we never know it ALL. There are always things we can learn, skills we can refine. For example, do you know what role the amygdala plays in our brain and in our life? Therapists do! And they want to teach you so you understand too! You're busy being a parent/friend/accountant/student/person looking for meaning in your life. You don't have the time or the motivation to figure out how this stuff works, but don't worry- we do! 

Therapy creates a safe space for us to put it all out there. Feel guilty about wanting to say something bad about a coworker, a family member or a friend? Don't have to in therapy! I don't know those people, and even if I did, I'm bound by the law to keep that to myself (unless you disclose a plan to harm them, in which case I'm bound by the law to warn them and the police. BUT rest assured I know the difference between blowing off some steam and an actual plan, so really, feel free to say your true feelings...).

As a therapist I have zero judgement for you. Partly because I'm a human being and know what it is like to have human emotions, but it is also because judgement doesn't work in therapy. The therapy room allows us to step outside of the "right and wrong" and "black and white" that is so forced upon us in the outside world, and allows us to embrace the grey area. It allows us to figure out the "whys" and the "hows" of how we got to where we are and allows us to make a plan for how leave that place and go somewhere else if we want to. There are so many stereotypes and so much stigma around mental health and therapy and I don't think the dictionary definition really gives up any more insight to what it really it. I think it can best be summed up by saying therapy is an experience, and a relationship that helps us learn what our needs our, helps us learn how to get them met, and gives us hope for a different tomorrow. I mean that's how I see it anyway- give it a try and let me know what you think! 


If you've got a few minutes I think Guy Winch does a real nice job in this TED Talk summing up the benefits of learning to take care of our emotional and mental health.