My Psychotherapy Experience
How psychotherapy has helped me and my insights if you are interested in trying psychotherapy
I have been to psychotherapy 40 times.
It was usually a breakup or a string of particularly low days that prompted me to seek a therapist. I would reach a point when I felt like my thoughts were running in circles, my anxiety was building up, and I wasn’t able to come up with positive and productive strategies to cope with my current challenges. In those moments, I always find talking about my struggles with someone who has an objective viewpoint to be very helpful. And a therapist is obligated to listen to my issues no matter how boring or repetitive they are. Perfect!
I have seen four therapists over the span of four years in the United States and France. Thus, I consider myself an experienced advocate of therapy. Some of my therapists have been better than others. The ones who have soothing offices with comfortable couches and pillows, lots of books, and thoughtful interior decorations are the ones who are serious about their practice. The ones with cold office spaces are predictably not so helpful. Although it may take a few visits to different therapists to find the one you feel most comfortable with, I strongly believe finding the right therapist is worth the effort and can have a big impact on how quickly you progress in therapy.
Many people are curious about therapy and wonder if they should give it a try, but hesitate for various reasons. There is a social stigma around therapy and it is not a topic often discussed by family and friends. Some people believe that therapy is only necessary for an extreme trauma like rape, a car accident, or being robbed. Many people don’t know what to expect and, additionally, find it hard to open up to a stranger. Others think it is not worth the money or are not supported by health insurance.
I believe therapy can help anyone face emotionally difficult situations in their lives. Therapy is an investment into one’s mental health which is worth the money, time, and effort. I hope by sharing my view and experiences others will gain a clearer perspective on what therapy is and isn’t. I hope this piece will ultimately encourage anyone curious about therapy to take the leap and give it a try.
Are you tired of a situation that is emotionally draining, stressful, or painful? Have you tried to address it as best you could but it has not improved over weeks or months? Are you receptive to trying new approaches which don’t come naturally to you? Are you committed to putting in the work to make lasting changes in your life, even if it takes a few months or years? If so, you are ready for therapy.
My experience with therapy is that it will not be effective if you go because a family member or friend has pressured you into it. Therapy is most effective when the person has the internal motivation to change and seeks therapy on their own. Oftentimes, it will be because the stress, pressure, or pain of a situation has reached an unbearable level and the person is willing to try almost anything to stop the pain. At this point, the person takes decisive action to begin therapy.
I was a few weeks away from returning to the United States from France to visit my parents. Going home is a stressful experience for me as my parents and grandma are very critical and controlling. I began to feel apprehensive and developed canker sores, my body’s usual response to anxiety-inducing situations. I decided it would help me to speak to a therapist before my trip.
The first therapist I met turned out not to be a good fit. Her waiting room was big and filled with metal chairs and a glass-top coffee table. Her office was gray, sterile, and business-like. On top of her desk was her laptop and handheld credit card reader. My chair faced hers across her desk, like I was talking to my financial advisor. The sessions were thirty minutes long and ended with her giving me a written exercise to fill out.
I quit after two sessions.
The second therapist I met was a much better fit. It was three months after I quit the first therapist and my struggles with my family continued even after I returned from my trip. On top of that, I was facing stress at work and becoming desperate to talk to a therapist. The second therapist’s office was smaller with walls painted lavender. There were two couches facing each other and stuffed animals around the room. She offered me cakes and tea at the beginning of the one-hour session. And I found myself crying fifteen minutes into our first session and not embarrassed at all.
That was when I knew she was the right therapist.
Therapy is like exercise but you are strengthening your mental health instead of your physical health. It takes time to build a habit of regularly exercising, and it also takes time to build a habit of regularly going to therapy. Exercise can be more effective if you set goals for yourself such as being able to run a marathon. Similarly, therapy is more effective if you begin with a goal in mind regarding the issues you want to work on and what you want to get from the sessions.
Once you find a therapist you might like, you go to your first session to discuss your issue and the therapist tells you if they can help you. You are as honest as possible about your issue and make every effort to answer the therapist’s questions about your inner feelings. If you reach the end of the session feeling like the therapist was able to give you better ways of tackling your issues, you may have found a good match.
If you walk away from the session feeling no relief, having learned nothing about your reactions to difficult situations, or not feeling supported in your challenges, you may need to try another therapist. It takes effort to interview multiple therapists before settling on one, but the effort is well worth it. A therapist who is a good fit will make you feel secure and relaxed, and the rapport you have with them will ensure you continue with your therapy work until you have reached your goals.
Keep in mind that there are many forms of therapy. I engage in psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, which is aimed at relieving emotional distress and mental health issues. Healthcare professionals who provide this type of care will generally have the job titles “therapist”, “counselor”, or “psychologist”. Each therapist has a slightly different approach which is why it is important to find the one who is the best fit for you.
I like to focus on a recent experience or situation which has been challenging during my therapy sessions. My therapist walks with me through my thought process and connects how my thoughts led to my actions. We explore my underlying beliefs which were formed during childhood, often unconsciously. We explore how I acted based on these underlying beliefs in the past, and how I am replaying the same responses in the present. Then we explore how I can adapt my coping mechanisms to be more effective for my situation today. We usually stay on a single topic throughout a session and flesh the topic out in detail.
In one recent session, we discussed my trouble with setting boundaries and saying no. I did not want to meet with an acquaintance. After turning her down once, she persisted and I gave in. Then she wanted to change the time of our meeting. Again, I reluctantly acquiesced. Finally, I blocked her phone number because it was easier to not read her messages instead of declining. I discussed this situation with my therapist and she helped me find my voice to keep firm with my boundaries and not give in.
Therapist: Why do you feel the need to say yes to her?
Me: Because I feel guilty for not helping.
Therapist: Why does not helping her make you feel guilty? You are not obligated to help her if you do not wish to.
We discovered my parents have a habit of pushing me to comply with their wishes even when that went against my own desires. They often persisted until I gave in, and laid on guilt if I didn’t comply. The experiences were so unpleasant and occurred so often that I learned to simply comply without pushing back because it was easier. Therefore, I never learned to enforce my boundaries and automatically associated guilt with saying no.
Therapist: Imagine I am your acquaintance. How would you respond if I said I needed your help this Saturday?
Me: I’m busy on Saturday, how about Sunday evening?
Therapist: What if I then changed the time to Monday instead?
Me: I’m busy on Monday, but can make some time if it is quick.
My therapist observed she could push me quite far. She was right. To help me set firmer boundaries, she suggested responses I could use the next time I was faced with this situation. I learned I did not owe anyone explanations. I could simply say no and leave it at that. That was a huge revelation for me. My therapist noted that I do not have to resort to blocking anyone on my phone if I am able to adequately hold my boundaries. I could simply use the following phrases:
“No, I am not available.”
“No, I do not want to meet. Please respect my wishes.”
Your therapist is generally open about discussion topics of your choosing. As my example illustrates, the discussions are generally very detailed and slow-paced. Thus, there is only enough time to talk about one issue per session. I generally choose recent experiences to discuss because I remember more details about them including what I said and what I felt. You may worry that you don’t have enough to talk about, but it can be surprising how much you have to say on a particular topic once you sit down and start talking. Therapists will drive the conversation by asking:
“How did this situation make you feel?”
“What was your thought process which led you to take this action?”
“Why do you think that is true (or false)?”
Below is a list of the topics of my last ten psychotherapy sessions. The topics range from romantic relationships to family relationships to interpersonal growth. When choosing topics for discussion, it helps to reflect on what has been a recurrent pattern or issue for you lately which you are not satisfied with. That is a great starting point for a discussion.
For me, therapy is an ongoing process that does not occur solely on my therapist’s couch. After my therapy sessions, I write down notes on what we discussed and thoughts I had during the session which we did not have time to fully flesh out. I may read internet articles about the topics we discussed, especially those written by psychologists who are helping their clients with similar issues. Then I write down more notes for myself.
Often it takes time for the points made by your therapist and the discoveries you make about yourself during sessions to sink in. It may be a few days after your discussion with your therapist before you fully grasp the contents of the discussion. Don’t worry, this is all part of the healing process. This is why sessions are usually scheduled two weeks or one month apart. You need time to process and integrate the new patterns you have learned into your life before diving into another issue.
It is up to you how much and how quickly you get better from your therapy sessions. The more effort you put into it, the more you get out of it. If you are willing to be honest with yourself and your therapist about what emotions a difficult situation stirred up in you, even when being honest about those feelings makes you break down in tears, then you will feel better after each session and find that you are on your way to recovery.
If you aren’t honest with yourself and don’t take the time to examine the true feelings a difficult situation elicited in you, your therapist will not be able to give you the objective feedback you need. Sometimes you will not like the feedback the therapist gives you on new approaches which may help. Give them a try anyway. If you are not honest and open-minded in your sessions, you will walk away not having learned new ways to cope with your current difficult situation.
This is where reflection and journaling may be useful. It is not easy to be aware of your emotions. Take a few minutes out of every day to journal about how you feel, then bring those observations into your sessions. Your therapist can help you go further in your thinking and uncover hidden thoughts and beliefs you were operating under but were not aware of. Once these hidden thoughts and beliefs are named, they can begin to be changed.
The length of therapy depends on you and your situation. If you are dealing with recent difficult situations such as starting a new job, job loss, divorce, or death of loved ones, you may find that you are feeling better after three to six months and no longer need therapy. In other situations, therapy may end up taking a few months or years for you. If you notice an improvement in your mood and less stress, then you are beginning to move in the right direction and should continue for as long as needed.
If you are dealing with childhood traumas, this could take a year or several years. You will be working through deeply entrenched beliefs and thought patterns, many of which are unconscious. These beliefs and thought processes take longer to identify and link to reoccurring issues you may be facing in the present day. They can also take longer to heal. When working through childhood traumas, you would ideally see progress along the way of your recovery.
I know therapy is working for me when I feel relief the day after a session. The sense of anxiety or sadness weighing on me is lifted. I feel more equipped to handle life’s challenges and have higher life satisfaction. These positive changes in my demeanor are big signs of progress and keep me motivated to continue therapy. I know I will be facing another challenge in two weeks, but I will be able to discuss it with my therapist.
Therapy involves reframing painful childhood moments where I picked up negative beliefs. The memories are remembered in detail, including how old I was, where I was, what happened, and the pain and suffering I felt. I see my progress when memories that were previously painful lose their intensity after being reframed in therapy. Most sessions involve me breaking down into tears once during the session. This is a sign I am being honest about my experiences and we are getting to the root of my problems. The tears are old wounds being reopened and healed.
Therapy has helped me build new habits and drop unwanted ones. For example, remember my trouble with keeping firm boundaries? I would struggle for five minutes to find an excuse to decline and end up giving in most of the time. Now, I can decline in thirty seconds and feel minimal guilt about it. This type of situation still induces a low level of anxiety in me, but I notice a significant improvement from my past responses.
Therapy may feel like you are turning a big ship slowly from East to West. You are! Changing the thought processes in your head and how you coach yourself in response to difficult situations is no small feat. Improvements come slowly and may not initially be noticeable. This is because you are still working to integrate the adjustments you have discussed with your therapist. Over time, you will feel less anxiety, more control, and higher positivity. Stick to it and you will be on your way to a happier life!