I’ll never forget the first day I entered psychotherapy. I was four months pregnant and reeling from a cocktail of pregnancy hormones that had me stumbling through life as a weepy drunk. And I was mad. Mad at the world. Mad at the television industry that (back then) discriminated against pregnant on-camera babes. Mad at my romantic partner who seemed hell-bent of winning the trophy as most unhelpful father in the world. Mad that the outcome of years of pumping and pulsing at the gym had been erased in a matter of months. One day my daily gush of tears made a unwelcome appearance at my monthly obstetrics appointment and my doctor ordered me into therapy.
I entered the therapist’s office apologizing for my tears. I assured her that I was normally quite a together woman was completely surprised by this mess of black mascara. She was kind, empathetic, and made me promise to stop apologizing for myself. (Sigh. It’s a Canadian cultural tradition so I still do it sometimes.) I expected, like most people, to have a couple quick sessions and be dry-eyed and beaming within a few weeks. Little did I know that I was actually embarking on a tender journey toward the center of my earth. I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was an identity crisis, some delayed grieving for the deaths of my parents, and yes, some pre-pardem depression. In the end I was so fascinated by the process that I spent seven years in therapy and a partially overlapping six years in graduate school studying psychology. Clearly I had found my bag and myself, and along the way I learned a few myths and methods of therapy that the common person may not know. So, here’s a starter list of things you may not know about therapy if you’ve never been there.
Stigma Belongs to You, Not Society At Large
Like many newbies, I was cautious early on about who I shared my news of therapy with. I still carried some crazy idea that therapy was for crazy people. In fact, psychiatric hospitals are for crazy people. The rest of us live with a pleura of annoying habits and feelings that sometimes run counter to society’s definition of “normal.” The rest of us can really use an observing eye to help us make sense of some of the painful lessons we learned and the thoughts in our head that stop us from being the best person we can be. When I finally started sharing my experiences of therapy with others I found out that nearly everyone, especially the most successful people I knew, had been or were continually in therapy. I felt behind the times.
The Range of Therapists Can Be Daunting
Most people choose a therapist based on a referral, having no knowledge about their psychological orientation or their education of licensure. To break it down, therapists can range from drug-prescribing medical doctors called psychiatrists, to clinical psychologists with a Ph.D., to marriage and family therapists, to social workers, to religious counselors, drug and alcohol counselors, to life coaches. Some are liscensed. Some are being supervised by someone with a license. Others are unlicensed lay people. But all have a capacity for care and are doing what they do because they have a lot of empathy. Many have recovered from some major emotional wounds themselves so they have personal insight into what you may be going through. It’s perfectly acceptable to ask a therapist about his or her credentials and treatment plan. But also know this. No matter the level of education or liscensure, it is the therapeutic relationship itself that heals. It is the consistent timing of sessions and consistent care giving that becomes the catalyst for growth.
Boundaries Protect YOU
At the beginning of therapy new patients are often taken aback by the abrupt way that a therapist may end a session at exactly 50 minutes or not disclose personal details about their own life. Or charge you even when you don’t show up. Or not extend the length of a session when you are stuck in traffic. Or, not take friends of yours on as patients. This is called the therapeutic frame and it is designed to keep you safe. Imagine the hurt if a therapist had time to bleed a session into 60 minutes one week but not the week you are in the most pain? Or, imagine your feelings of jealousy if your therapist seemed to be more helpful to a close friend of yours. Therapists may rigidly stick to the 50 minute hour or insist on a set weekly appointment because your brain responds to consistency of care. And because in the safety of that weekly 50 frame you have the complete freedom to vent and use it to your advantage knowing that the therapist will never inject their needs into your time.
Therapy Can Feel Like a Love Relationship
Imagine having a person entirely focussed on you, all eyes and ears during weekly sessions for months on end. Imagine that they have compassion and empathy and truly understand what you are going through. Now imagine that this kind of attention and safety brings forth emotional communication that you’ve never even been able to express to your real-world intimates. Yes, therapy can feel like love, because it is a kind of love. But it is a non-sexual love (and shouldn’t ever be!) and it is a false love in the sense that you never have to deal with your lover’s problems. Given the set up, it is perfectly natural to have deep feelings of love for your therapist, but in the psychological process these feelings will eventually transfer as you learn to love yourself and others. At no time should a therapeutic relationship become a dual relationship with real-world connections. A dual relationship has too much potential to injure a patient.
I’ll end this blog with a story I heard recently about Carl Jung. Jung was one of Freud’s disciples who broke off to form his own theory of personality. (I hope this story is true because I love it.) Supposedly Jung was once asked why would anyone ever want to enter therapy. Why would they want to put themselves through the psychic pain of revisiting all the hurts of their childhood or retelling of their worst nightmares. Jung seemed surprised by the question and responded with, “Well, you certainly shouldn’t, if you don’t HAVE to!”
(P.S.: I have opened a new private practice in Los Angeles and am taking clients who I do not know in the real world.)