#1 — Going to a therapist: how to break mental patterns and get better
If you’re feeling bad all the time, there are daily exercises you can do to get better. That’s where a therapist comes in play.
This article is part of a series of articles called ‘About Mental Health’ that gives some indication on how to take care of your own mind.
Going to see a therapist might be scary. It was for me. But it’s the first step towards getting better.
In the introduction of this series, I told you briefly that I had a lot of topics in mind that I’ll write about. Before I started writing, I knew this one would be the first. Because books, videos and friends are good when you’re feeling down, but getting to the root of your problems and fixing them is best.
This article is about my personal experience with going to see a professional, and I’ll try to give you some key information on what we’ve worked on.
If you haven’t already, you should read the introduction to this series before starting, right here:
About Mental Health: on the path to happiness and fulfilment
This is an introduction to a series of articles called ‘About Mental Health’ that gives some indication on how to take…
Let’s dive in.
How to decide if you want to go and see a therapist
One of the first principles I learnt in psychology is that you can’t help people if they don’t think they have a problem. If you want to get better, the first step is to assess that you’re feeling bad, and that you want to change this situation.
It can be because of depression, because of an anxiety crisis, fear of doing what you want or little things you want to alter in order to elevate your mental health.
As told in the previous article, it took me a while to decide to go and see a therapist. When I decided to finally go, the reactions around me were mixed: some of my friends and family were really supportive about the idea, some others were telling me I “didn’t need it”, that I could “just be happy again” or that I “asked myself too many questions”.
Let’s get something straight: the day I’ll be asking myself too many questions will never come, and there’s no such thing as “intelligent people have to be sad, you must be dumb in order to be happy”.
It’s up to you and no one else to decide if you want to see a therapist. Your health, your call.
But once the call is made, go for it. It’s the bravest thing to do: accepting you’re feeling bad. That’s one of the first sentences my therapist told me : ‘The bravest move is to get through the door and sitting on the other side of the table’.
But once you’ve decided you need to see a professional, where do you find one?
How to find your ideal therapist
Finding a good therapist can be really hard. Lately, I’ve talked to a lot of people who tried it with different professionals with whom the relationship went really bad.
That’s the first thing everyone told me: you have to match with your therapist. If on your first encounter, you’re not feeling comfortable talking to him or her, they’re not the right one, and you should go see someone else.
The most important thing with your therapist is trusting them, because nothing will function without trust between the two of you.
If you don’t know where to start, ask around: friends you trust who have gone through the healing process can recommend you to their therapist. I do it all the time now. If you live in Paris and need a recommendation, just ask me. :)
That’s another problem with the taboo around mental health: therapists are not that visible, and you have to unveil yourself to some people around you when feeling the most vulnerable.
But it’s worth it. I found mine by asking a friend if he knew someone I could fit with, and he gave me her number. I texted her, she called me back.
I was about to discover what it’s like to work on my own mental health.
How the first time was like
Tuesday. 8pm. Paris.
I enter the entrance code the therapist sent me via text message, enter the building, ring at the doorbell with her name on it, get up to the second floor, and knock on her door.
At that point, I’m feeling really bad, and seeing her feels like one of the last hopes I have in order to be happy again. She takes 1 minute to open the door, which feels like 1 hour. My mouth is dry, my stomach hurts from the stress, and I don’t know what to expect at all.
She opens the door, and I meet a really nice woman who greets me with a huge smile, kisses me on the cheeks and tells me to sit down in her living room while she finishes with another patient.
I sit down on the sofa — the most comfortable one I’ve ever sat in — and wait for her while looking at all the books and objects in the room: art pieces, books about how to get a better sex life, general psychology books, and a lot of other things spread across a huge table placed in the center of the room.
My stomach aches more and more from the stress and I really need to drink some water as my mouth is getting drier.
She finally opens the door and tells me to come in. I get off my coat, and she starts talking to me while I sit. Right in front of her, on the other end of her desk. We’re facing each other and making casual conversation.
The first thing she said was surprising: she asked if we could get on a first name basis (in French we translate “You” by “Tu” when we’re familiar with the person, and “Vous” when you want to keep a distance).
It was surprising, but it made me comfortable. I don’t really like to talk to people formally, I always approach everybody as a friend. And that’s how we start. She breaks the ice by saying:
“Alright, we’re here to move fast. The world moves fast, you want to move fast, and I don’t like to sit in a sofa for 6 years without doing anything. It’s gonna be about action.”
Instantly, I knew we were gonna get along. I trusted her already. Everything was set up for me to feel at home, with a good friend, just talking and exchanging.
A word from my therapist when she read this article:
“You were ready to ring at that door, ready to be exposed, to surrender yourself, which is not true with everybody. There are people who prefer to stay with their unhappiness, because they feel comfort by being the victim, or are used to deal with their dissatisfaction through complaints.
Your psychological openness was present and I felt it. If I got on a first name basis, it’s because I felt a lot of anxiety in your eyes, it was a way for me to break the barrier between us. I don’t do it with everyone.”
She started to ask me questions about my family, if I had sisters and brothers, what was my relationship with my parents, what I did at work, and we covered most of my life superficially during an hour. She wanted to see what we could work on.
At the end of the first session, we booked another appointment and I was convinced: everything started to make sense in my mind already, and my thoughts were restless from there on. I was ready to start working on the subjects that mattered.
Behavioural therapy or how to break your mental patterns
The thing to know about my therapist is that she practices a special type of therapy. We call it behavioural therapy. So it’s not about talking about yourself all the time, it’s about doing things that break the patterns you believe in.
At the end of every session, I had “missions” to achieve: tell someone everything I thought about our relationship, making a choice for me instead of making it for other people…
And we worked like that for 6 weeks.
Before telling you what concepts we worked on so I would feel better, I need to explain something about the Human species. Yes, right.
What makes us human: our ability to create and share fiction
Let’s get back 70.000 years ago. At that time, there were several human species on earth. Homo Neanderthalis, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens were the most common ones.
They all shared a common ancestor: monkeys. They had kind of the same abilities, they regrouped in small tribes (~50 individuals max), and lived (kind of) happily.
Until the cognitive revolution.
At some point, something in the Homo Sapiens’ brain changed, enabling them to generate ideas that weren’t real. To create fiction.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, an awesome book written by Yuval Noah Harari, he gives this example:
If you take a tribe of monkeys, and bring a lion to their tree-homes, they will shout and climb up the trees to flee.
If an eagle passes by, they will shout too and look at the sky to scan for danger.
Now, if you record their screams when the lion and the eagle come, and play those recordings to a whole different tribe of monkeys, the second tribe will climb up the trees when listening to the screams about the lion, and look at the sky when hearing the screams about the eagle, even if there’s no danger at all in real life.
That means monkeys can communicate: they can scream if a lion or an eagle is approaching, and tell each other to be careful.
It’s all good as long as they’re talking about things that actually exist. But if you come to a monkey, and tell him to give you his banana because it will be given back to him 12 times as much in heaven, the chances are he’s not gonna believe you.
That’s what changed with the cognitive revolution. Homo Sapiens started to tell stories, and the best stories were believed by all the other Sapiens.
It enabled our species to take tribes to a whole other level: from groups comprised of 50-individual lead by a single alpha-male, we started creating huge organizations lead by common beliefs: religions, nations, moral values… All things that actually don’t exist except in our minds.
This allowed Sapiens to attack all the other Homo species and decimate them with armies of 5,000 individuals.
In addition to that, the babies in the human species are born way too early. If you take a horse, when a baby is born, it can run and go as it pleases. A human baby is way more dependant on adult humans to survive. A side-effect to this is that underdeveloped brains can be molded in any way you want by inserting ideas from birth.
Evolution pushed the human brain to create rewarding mechanisms when you’re accepted in a tribe: at the time, not being accepted by others meant being dead, most likely, at a time when living outside a tribe wasn’t as friendly as it is now. So everyone who was chemically happy when being validated by others had a bigger chance to live.
If you don’t know where I’m heading with all this (pre)history thing, no worries: I’m getting to my point. Our brain rewards us when we do things we were brought up to believe are right. We create behavioural patterns that feel momentarily gratifying. But we can always break these patterns, especially by seeing a therapist
My point is: as humans, we are wired to rely on ideas, and your brain tricks you into believing in what others believe too in order to survive.
How your brain gets you stuck in the same situation all the time
The whole thing about ideas is that they’re profoundly human. And those ideas, when repeated enough, for a long period of time, can become core beliefs.
What you’re trying to do when you want to change is to change the core beliefs about yourself.
Here’s how it works:
You have a core belief about yourself. Oftentimes, the problem is that that core belief isn’t aligned with the person you want to be.
But your brain believes in it so much, it looks for evidence everywhere to validate it.
Every time your brain finds something that validates this core belief, it rewards you with momentary happy hormones, and the belief passes from your subconscious to your consciousness, making you feel even worse. It’s an infinite loop, until you break the pattern.
How to break the patterns and reverse the process
Here’s the whole point of psychology: learning to understand these processes and influencing them.
Patience is key. With enough work and patience you can make your core belief change, and in the process make your brain reward you for things that are actually good for you and the person you want to become.
Understanding what your patterns are is the first step into changing them. Then, you can start working towards a change.
Those patterns can come from anywhere: childhood is the home of many core beliefs. Hard moments in your life such as losing your job or having someone you’re close to dying can also hide core beliefs.
Those beliefs hide in little details, conversations, events that happened years ago, and the first part of the work with Marie-Christine, my therapist, was finding them.
Here are some of the beliefs we uncovered about me
The first one was obvious: I didn’t think I was good enough. For anything. I thought I was ugly, not smart enough, scared of everything, and a procrastinator to add to the list.
My brain was always looking for validation about those beliefs, and I had to make them change. I had to go and talk to people, openly, about how I felt. I talked to my parents, my friends, my former business associates and told them what I was going through.
Because ‘things need to be said’. My therapist told me that a thousand times. ‘They don’t need to be understood or heard by the other side, you just need to tell them. Do what you think is right’.
That’s where the trust with her became important. I trusted her enough to act on what she asked me to do, even if it was scary or seemingly impossible.
A word from my therapist:
I’m unlike most of the other therapists who don’t talk and leave the patient alone with themselves — i.e. with their suffering.
The first step is renarcissisation, making them aware of the fact they’re unique. Aware that comparing yourself to others is vain and negative.
One of the exercises she made me do was to talk to my former business associate. I had left the company sad and angry. On paper, we were on good terms, but every time I saw him I wanted to punch him. I felt angry and sad at the same time: seeing him made me feel like I was worth nothing. I thought I wasn’t good enough compared to him.
I had a core belief about our relationship and my brain was looking to validate this all the time, so I had to talk to him and break that pattern. The only problem was that he was in Brussels, Belgium, and I was in Paris, France. 300km away.
One morning, in Paris, I was walking to work, asking myself when I’d find the time to talk to him, when someone tapped on my shoulder.
It was him.
I have no religious believes whatsoever but it felt like a miracle. I asked him to get coffee with me, and we had the most honest and wonderful conversation. We talked about everything, without a mask, without hiding anything.
Now we’re friends again. Even doing business together again.
After that, my brain felt 100kg lighter. I had broken a pattern.
I’m not going to go into detail of every pattern I’ve broken during those 6 weeks, but I’m gonna end this article with one more: the pattern about what I wanted to do in life.
The dichotomy between pleasure and reality
One of the things that were really difficult for me was finding what I wanted to do in life.
With my previous company, we had a specific rhythm of work. 7am-10pm everyday for 2 years. It’s the way to build startups, they said. 🙄
During that period, I developed a core belief about what was necessary for success: loads and loads of work hours.
Right after I left the company, I went to see my childhood friends, the ones who never let me down, even when I let them down.
We spent a year and a half together pretty much doing nothing. Just pleasurable things, such as laying on the beach, drinking beers and singing rap music.
I did try to launch 2 companies, but every time I gave up on them because I didn’t want to spend my entire time on the same routine again.
Even when I was launching Koudetat, I had to deal with that: how many hours do I work? Can I build a successful company without working 12h a day?
I was lost in a cornelian choice: do I want to succeed, or do I want to enjoy life?
It took a long time and a lot of discussion with my therapist to figure out a way out of that problem. The answer is that you can have both.
You have enough time to do so many things in your life, as long as you choose correctly what you really want to do, and don’t spend too much time thinking of what could go wrong.
It totally changed my relationship with time. It’s one of the things that made me truly happy with my life. Because time is the most precious asset we have, in my opinion. It’s shaping the way we experience life.
And we can influence time, with the right techniques. That’s what we’ll talk about in another article of this series, a bit later. Time, the way you can experience it, and what you can do to improve your relationship with it.
A word from my therapist:
After being aware that you’re worthy, the second step is becoming aware of your assets and your limits.
The third step is being conscious of the principle of pleasure and reality, like you said.
Lastly, you have to accept your own history so you’re not stuck in a repetition scheme.
A final note
There’s a lot to say about going to the therapist, but let’s recap the main ideas I covered in this article:
- A therapist will help you get better only if you assess you’re not feeling good
- A therapist is here to make you conscious of your own suffering, so you can start healing it
- A good therapist is one you personally match with
- You have core beliefs about yourself and the world, and your brain is encouraging you to keep thinking that way
- You can break those patterns by acting differently, working and being patient
In the next article, we’ll talk about emotions. What they are, how they’re expressed through your body, and how you can learn to use them to shape the life you want to live.
Until then, don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and invite your friends and relatives to read the series. We have to talk about mental health for it not to be taboo anymore.
We have to take care of our own minds.
Thanks Irina for the help with all the English stuff 😘