Starting Therapy Can Be Scary

You might know you need to start therapy. You might have a lot of mental health issues you’ve been struggling with for a very long time. You know the sooner you start going, the sooner you will gain a new understanding of the underlying causes of your problems and receive the help you need in confronting them. You know it would be invaluable to gain insight from an unbiased party that doesn’t know you personally, who has had extensive education in the mental health field, who can help you get on the right track to living a satisfying life. However, there are several things holding you back.

You’re scared of being judged. You are incredibly hard on yourself and feel like you aren’t deserving of understanding and empathy from your therapist. While you know from an academic standpoint that therapists are supposed to show unconditional regard towards their clients/patients, you are still worried you will be judged, even if silently. It’s easy to believe that your issues are unique, that nobody could possibly have gone through similar circumstances or feel similar emotions, but all human beings struggle with the same issues at their core. Therapists have almost certainly heard worse, more shocking stories than yours.

You’re scared of giving up control. By expressing your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings, you feel you will be making yourself irreparably vulnerable. You’re scared of saying something you can’t take back. You’re not used to opening up to anyone. Perhaps even those closest to you don’t really know you. This can be terrifying and definitely takes courage. However, it’s the release of control that can bring about beautiful forward movement in your life and allow you to see the possibilities of how wonderful your life could be. Also, modern therapists are taught client-centric, client-empowering modalities so that the client is always the one in charge during sessions.

You’re scared of being institutionalized against your will. Although you may not be suicidal or violent, you fear that you will seem so crazy to your therapist that they will have you locked away, anyway. In reality, laws are very strict regarding putting someone away against their will. And thoughts of suicide from time to time are actually pretty common, even in those who do not suffer from mental illness. What alerts therapists is if you have a plan such as, “On Saturday afternoon when my family is gone, I’m going to shoot myself”. Likewise, angry, even violent feelings and thoughts towards others are normal, and therapists understand this. I myself have had them from time to time but have never acted in a violent manner. Again, a detailed plan is what would alert a therapist.

You’re scared of affecting other people, perhaps in unforeseen ways. You know that by telling your story, you will inevitably be telling other people’s stories along the way. That makes you feel uncomfortable. You don’t want this to have unintended consequences for anyone else. A therapist is required to keep confidentiality at all times except in very narrow cases — those being if they have reason to believe you or another person is in imminent danger or if they are given a court order (and even those can be fought). Also, it’s important to realize that your story and the stories of others in your life are intertwined. People who have wronged you are especially not owed your silence if it means jeopardizing your own well-being and stopping you from telling your own story. What you tell your therapist stays between you and your therapist. And there are stiff penalties for any therapist who abuses your trust.

You’re scared of the energy it will take to tell your stories and unearth your trauma. It is overwhelmingly emotionally taxing to think about, let alone talk about. You constantly question whether your memories are accurate. You worry you have a martyr’s complex and that you’re simply overreacting. You engage in mental gymnastics to excuse others’ behavior because you don’t want to believe bad of those closest to you. You fear how talking about the sorrowful experiences may bring them to life in a scary way. You don’t want to intentionally trigger yourself. Talking with a therapist (especially a trauma-informed one) is a good way to process repressed thoughts and emotions so that you’re not kept paralyzed and unable to move forward. A therapist’s job is not only to empathize, but also to challenge you. If certain unproductive thought patterns reveal themselves, your therapist will broach them as a topic of discussion to ensure you’re being honest with yourself.

You’re scared of change, even positive change. You have been stuck in the same thought patterns for so long, what opportunities would present themselves if you were well? The possibilities take your breath away. You would have nothing holding you back, and it’s overwhelming to think about. The enormity of it is terrifying. It excites you to think of the limitless possibilities of what you could achieve, how happy you could be, how at peace…but it also kind of feels like the descent on a super-tall, super-steep rollercoaster. Change is definitely scary. Even positive change such as getting married, having a baby, or starting a new job can be stress-inducing. However, with change comes new opportunities and revelations about yourself. Adeptly dealing with change results in a stronger person who more easily adapts to unforeseen circumstances and is able to thrive even amid the chaos often present in the world.

You’re not sure how to choose a therapist. You know it’s important to pick the right one for you, as the therapeutic relationship is the basis for success in therapy. There are a lot of factors to consider. Licensed therapists have at least a masters in mental health or a related field and have gone through internships and supervised practice before sitting for their licensing exams. They commit themselves to a certain code of ethics and are perhaps held more accountable than their non-licensed counterparts. They also use only evidence-based modalities in their practice. But that doesn’t mean competent non-licensed therapists don’t exist. Older therapists might have more experience than younger ones. Certain practitioners have taken additional training in niche areas such as addictions or trauma to work with individuals suffering from those specific issues. If race, religion, or gender is an important part of your identity, it might be wise to find a therapist who shares that same trait. Also, there are many different theoretical orientations which include different therapeutic interventions. Examples include cognitive-behavioral therapy, narrative therapy, and family systems therapy. Lastly, therapists come from different educational backgrounds and worldviews. A social worker will often prioritize the broader, social dynamic of a person’s life; a psychiatrist the biological; and a mental health counselor the personal, emotional.

Is anyone reading this struggling with starting therapy? Or has anybody experienced these concerns only to start therapy and realize it’s what was missing all along? I’d love to hear from you!

You’re Not You (and Why This is Freeing)

An important concept to learn, understand, and remember is that you are not you. Knowing this can help you disconnect your self-worth from your thoughts, emotions, and tendencies. Your personality is largely made up of dynamics you don’t control, such as early childhood experiences, family culture, and genetics.

For example, I grew up in a very strict religious family with a diagnosed narcissist for a father. Individualism and critical thinking were not encouraged or tolerated. Religious, mental, and emotional abuse were the hallmarks of my childhood and teenage years. I grew up dreadfully insecure and fearful. As a teenager I developed OCD (never officially diagnosed, as my parents did not seek professional help for me), which included obsessive praying multiple times a day for God to forgive me, obsessive counting, and obsessive hand-washing.

Even at 36, I don’t know to what extent my personality has been shaped by the traumatic experiences of my youth. I very often have identity crises that most people past their teens or early twenties no longer experience. I constantly question what I want and if it’s not actually my trauma talking. I still feel that I don’t know who I am, what I should be doing, what kind of a life I want, or what I believe. It’s even hard to know how I’m feeling sometimes.

In his December 14, 2015 Bustle article entitled 7 Signs You Grew Up With a Toxic Parent and Didn’t Know It, JR Thorpe pulls from Dr. Susan Forward’s book Toxic Parents and says, “Many children of toxic parents find it exceptionally difficult to identify who they are once they grow up. Forward identities three areas in which their self-knowledge falls short: ‘who you are, what you feel, and what you want’…your sense of confusion and distance runs very deep indeed.”

Science tells us that your personality is pretty much set by six years old. It is largely an amalgam of your parents’/early caregivers’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Science also tells us that certain mental disorders have strong genetic links and that trauma can be passed down in the genes of families from generation to generation (epigenetics). But does this mean you can’t change? That you are bound by the mistakes of your parents and the generations before them for your emotions, feelings, reactions, and attachment styles? Thankfully, not. Recent science also emphasizes the neuroplasticity shown by the brain and its capability to create new neural pathways. By consciously making better, more self-caring choices, we can create new pathways in the brain and new defaults for our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Eventually, it becomes easier and more natural for us to act and think in ways that benefit us and allow us to take back control of our lives.

I take some comfort in the thought that I am not simply a summation of my personality, interests, and mental issues. My worth does not lie there and cannot be calculated by arbitrary factors such as these. I don’t have to allow these facets of myself to control my decisions, moods, or mindsets. I don’t have to follow my instincts and can instead choose to think and act in ways that are best for me, which will in turn make me feel my best.

First Change Yourself

I’m trying to learn to take more responsibility for my life by changing myself before trying to change my environment. It is easier to change things under your control, such as restructuring your priorities or taking a different perspective on your situation, than to change other people or circumstances that arise outside your control.

In general, I am currently a pretty unhappy, dissatisfied person. There are a lot of things I feel are wrong or unbalanced about my life. But there are several small steps I could take to improve my life. For example, I currently live with my mother. Although we get along well, I feel uncomfortable with living at home at my age. I plan to get my own place. I also want to travel more often, get healthy, exercise regularly, look at screens (phone, laptop) less often, have more hobbies, and become more social. These are all relatively small changes I could make that I know would have a huge positive impact on the quality of my life. Making small changes or focusing on one goal at a time can be less overwhelming and less of a shock to the system than changing everything overnight or making radical changes.

I’ve often heard the expression that “no matter where you go, you bring your problems with you.” This I have found to be true throughout my life. Many of the issues that make us unhappy in life will not be changed just by moving geographic locations except for weather/climate issues; however, even these location-dependent issues are more likely to make us miserable depending upon our attitudes, reactions, and coping skills.

Are you planning on moving to alleviate your woes? Be honest about your motivations for wanting to move. Is your quality of life really going to be improved by your new surroundings? Are the deep issues that plague you going to resolve themselves? Or can you do the important work that needs to be done first, before moving? An unwell mind is not one which should be depended upon to make big decisions like a move.

It is sometimes easier to flee when we feel frozen than to start making less-dramatic, smaller changes. It is tempting to do something big and dramatic in order to force yourself out of your misery, but reacting this way is reacting like a caged animal.

Something I struggle with a good deal is impulsivity. It is a well-researched fact that impulsivity is a common trait of people with mental illness and can be found in the diagnostic criteria of several mental disorders. I find, personally, that while being rash often feels great in the moment and delivers instant gratification, it almost always screws me over in the end. And it’s when I’m feeling my least emotionally-stable that I act impulsively. When I’m feeling depressed and anxious, I don’t have the energy to plan and strategize the best course of action.

It is also a well-researched fact that mental illness and trauma negatively affect the executive functioning of the brain, making thinking and planning harder. However, planning an action before executing it usually ends with more desirable results.

I think we have a lot more control over how happy we are than we imagine. We have the power to enact many of the changes needed to improve our own lives.

One-upmanship and Trauma

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about one-upmanship, especially related to trauma. It is annoying and offensive enough when not surrounding trauma (e.g., “I got a B+ on the test!” “Oh, really? I got an A!”). However, it can be demeaning, isolating, and silencing to have your thoughts, feelings, and experiences about a traumatizing situation or event diminished or invalidated by someone else claiming to have had an even more traumatizing experience. I have had it happen to me, and it feels incredibly crappy.

It’s important to understand that traumatization is subjective and differs among individuals. One person can go through something and be scarred by it, whereas most people would simply brush it off. An example of this could be suffering humiliation at work or a break-up. Another person can go through something generally considered traumatic, such as war, famine, or severe abuse, but not experience debilitating effects afterward.

The way a person responds to any negative event in their life is largely based on the risk factors and protective factors present. For example, a person who doesn’t have a strong social support system, is impoverished, has not learned healthy ways of coping with stress, and/or has a genetic pre-disposition to mental illness is statistically less likely to process a trauma well. On the contrary, a person who has strong family and friend ties, is financially stable, has learned healthful ways of dealing with stress, and does not suffer from mental illness is more likely to take the trauma in stride.

Not only have I experienced being one-upped, but I I have found myself unintentionally committing the act. I can say my motivations are usually pure, in that I am not trying to stroke my own ego or “win” a discussion or, as I’ve heard it put before, win the “Oppression Olympics”. Instead, I’m motivated to relate to the other person, show them they’re not alone, normalize their feelings, and demonstrate that I can empathize with them. And while some of the time it might work, it also has the potential to cause more pain, grief, and feelings of separation. Impact over intent.

Have you experienced being one-upped by somebody, especially when you were relating a terrible time in your life, one that deeply affected and maybe even changed you? Only to have them start talking about themselves and their own situation in a bid to convince you that you didn’t actually have it “that bad”? Or maybe after reading this you realize it’s something you’re guilty of, yourself, and that you need to be more careful to honor others’ perceptions of their own experiences? I’d love to hear your story, if so!