I started going to therapy in my last semester of college. I was in a rough place.
For starters, I was heavily addicted to porn/lust. (Some people look at porn casually — it was anything but casual for me. I needed it.) I had terrible family issues, stuff I was too afraid to even address. I had zero self-worth, and I distinctly felt like I would ruin all my relationships if I didn’t get “professional” help. I was scared.
It’s been over 7 years, but it feels like I’ve matured decades. I’ve been part of a 12-step addiction program for nearly 7 years. I’ve been happily married for 5 years. In short — everything is better now.
Here are the 7 most important lessons I learned from the past 7+ years of therapy.
1. Upgrade Your Relationships 10x By Just SAYING It
“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.” -Harriet Beecher Stowe
When my wife and I were in premarital counseling, our counselor gave us a piece of advice that would end up changing our lives:
Always make the first move.
The meaning is simple: if you can help the relationship, then do it. Don’t wait for the other person to act (even if you don’t want to).
Most people have strained and superficial relationships with family and even with friends. This is because most people always wait for the other person to “make the first move;” say hello, organize a hangout, or apologize.
This is a pride thing. It’s one of the main killers of marriages, friendships, and even families.
If you want to have deep, meaningful relationships with your friends, family, and even just the people in your day-to-day life, make the first move — even if it should be them. Be the first to:
- Initiate the conversation
- Send the first text
- Say you miss them
- Say you love them
- Apologize and ask for forgiveness
- Organize a hangout
- Compliment them
- Thank them
- Tell them you appreciate what they did
For a long time, I felt awkward and uncomfortable telling my brothers and sister “I love you.” Three of the people whom I loved most in the entire world, and I couldn’t say it!
Now, I tell them I love them all the time. I say it over text, over casual phone calls, at crises, celebrations, and over the holidays. I tell my friends, too.Every single important person in my life — mentors, family, friends, even coworkers, know how special they are to me.
It feels silly to be afraid to say this to a loved one. Yet, so many people can’t say a few simple words that would galvanize the entire relationship and deeply touch their soul.
Once you can do this, you can begin enjoying a gem most people never will: close, loving, life-giving relationships with many people.
2. Crying Is Actually Really Helpful. You Should Probably Cry More.
I’ve cried a lot in therapy sessions.
My therapist helped explain to me that in addition to the “fight or flight” response humans have to stressors, there’s a sneakier third response:
I’d freeze all the time. I wouldn’t run, I wouldn’t stand up for myself. I’d just stay there, and take the beating — from mean ex-girlfriends, bullies, jerks in class, family members, etc.
And now, it seems like the only way to resolve those moments is to cry through them — to be brutally honest and “go back there” in my mind. It’s been scary. It’s been horrible.
But when I cry in therapy, it’s like I’m draining horrible swamp-water from my mind. I feel clear. I feel like a new person. I feel like someone who wouldn’t just freeze anymore.
A lot of guys have a hard time with crying. But for me, it got to a point where I couldn’t hold it in any longer. It wasn’t about pride — it was about not feeling terribly, horribly ashamed and afraid.
Crying is really helpful. You should probably do it more. And damn anyone who tries to make you think you shouldn’t.
3. You Need to Pay Attention to Your Body
Your body keeps score.
Perhaps the most powerful experiences I had in therapy were the ones where my therapist had me close my eyes and relive some of my worst, most embarrassing, most shameful memories.
Doesn’t therapy sound fun??
Heh. But the fact was, these experiences had enormous power over me. They had led to extreme fear (I had been afraid of the dark throughout my teenage years) and anxiety. My body never forgot how stressful and scary those situations were.
When an animal escapes a vicious predator — say, an antelope escaping a hungry leopard — something interesting happens:
The antelope has a panic attack.
There are a ton of videos on this. I learned in therapy that these animals are literally releasing the adrenaline and fear they had of almost being eaten to death. They shake, their eyes roll into their heads — they look drunk.
But after, they go on with life as if nothing has happened. They confronted their feelings, resolved them, and re-integrate back into their routine.
Humans are terrible at this. We don’t deal with man-eating leopards (most of us, anyway), but when we do deal with scary, stressful things — angry bosses, aggressive partners, bullies, public embarrassment — we rarely deal with it. We carry around the stress for years.
Once I re-lived those scenarios and released the years of pent-up energy and fear, everything changed. I started sleeping better. I was no longer afraid of my boss. I felt less anxious and worried.
You body keeps score. You need to release your negative feelings, or they’ll spend years making you feel miserable.
4. Wherever You Are, Be There
“Serenity and centeredness happen as we let go of everything that prevents us from being here and now.” -David Richo
I never noticed growing up, but I was rarely present with the people around me. As a result, my relationships suffered — I lost things I’ll never be able to get back.
Sadly, many people are living this way. Most people are distracted right now. They’re distracted while they’re at work. They’re distracted when they’re with family and friends.
They’re distracted at the gym, on their commute, and even in the shower.
I was like this for a long time. And when you’re distracted, your relationships suffer. Your focus diminishes. You don’t get into flow states, and you prevent yourself form truly experiencing and enjoying life.
I had to make amends to many family members and friends for being there, but not really “being there” when we were together. Now, when my wife comes home, I shut my computer and look her in the eyes. I listen, and give her my full attention. I do the same when I hang out with my friends or see my family.
Therapy taught me that wherever I am, I should be there — really be there.
5. You Don’t Have To End Up Like Your Parents
This was a huge realization for me.
I learned that I didn’t have to be anything I didn’t want to be — I could change myself. There’s a great quote by physician Gabor Mate:
“Genetics can predispose, but they don’t predetermine.”
Your family history might be full of addiction, abuse, tension, cowardice, divorce, or anger. That’s alright — you don’t have to take any of those. It’s true that many factors are genetic, and things like addiction and mental illness can run in the family.
But there’s no “guarantee” of how you’ll turn out. You’re entirely in control of how you respond and what you become.
For me, I chose to become someone different than what I saw growing up. I chose to break the chain. I promised myself I’d be different — as a husband, son, brother, friend and someday father. I’d be different with money and work and communication. I’d be different with my emotions and hurt and pain.
You don’t have to end up like your parents. You don’t have to end up as anything you don’t want to be.
6. Life is Hard. Without Help, You’ll Get Overwhelmed.
I have no illusions about this: life is hard, and you need help to get through it.
One of your greatest strengths is asking others for help. Communicating — the key to any successful relationship — is something a lot of people don’t do well. But when you close yourself off from others, you suffer.
Over the past few years, I’ve put a lot of intentional time in making my relationships deep and meaningful. I’m at a place now where I can reach out to several men my age and ask for help — for prayer, for guidance, for venting. Without their help, life gets too much for me.
There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. In fact, it feels incredible when you finally admit you need help. You get to “know and be known,” which is all humans basically want, anyway.
Life is hard. It’s much easier when you swallow your pride and ask for help.
7. You Can Be Anything You Want Once You Remove the Obstacles
I use to think I couldn’t do a lot of things — I couldn’t write a book, open my own business, quit my job, be a good father someday.
After years of therapy, I realized a lot of the reasoning about why I couldn’t do things was deeply rooted in my family/upbringing. You learn untrue things growing up that, if left untouched, can develop into a powerfully negative mindset.
These obstacles had developed into a powerfully negative mindset for me. I had a total lack of self-confidence and self-worth — I thought I wasn’t worth much. That mindset dominated me for years. I showed when I tried to talk to girls, when I was bullied, when I failed, when I got rejected.
But you can be anything you want once you remove the obstacles.
After I did the hard work of therapy — revisiting my uncomfortable childhood moments, cleaning out my closet, revealing everything I had swept under the rug — I started to feel more whole. I started to feel like I could do hard things.
I wrote a book. I started my own business. I got married to my best friend and we’ve have an incredible marriage for 5 years. My friendships got deeper. I got bolder. I became the person I wanted to become — a full-time writer who works from home and does what he wants to do with his time.
There might be a lot of obstacles in your way right now. There were a lot in the way for me. But there’s a great quote by Ryan Holiday that really helped me along the way:
“Bad things are fuel. You don’t just want fuel — you need it. You can go anywhere without it.”
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