It’s one thirty in the morning and a friend of mine approaches me as liquid courage, in the form of spiked seltzer, is running through his veins. He raises the palm of his hand, blocking half of his face to indicate this is a private conversation in the middle of his living room. He says to me, “Stephen, I do really think that I should see a therapist, but like…also, fuck that, I don’t even know how.” I replied, “Well, if you’re serious this time, I think Google is your friend and I can help you two narrow down a list of potential therapists if you like”. He nods in agreement but quickly moves on to another conversation.
As a psychology student and vocal attendee of therapy, I have many friends who approach me with similar grievances. All of them share the desire to understand their mind more but not quite enough to actually schedule an appointment.
In today’s world, it seems most people don’t seek out a therapist until a major trauma happens; a divorce, the death of a loved one, an assault, and so forth. This approach is fine but I would argue that building that scary relationship with your own thoughts first — whether it is in a therapist’s office, or practicing daily meditation — allows you to navigate through life with more confidence and awareness.
- Therapy is not for men
- Therapy is not for black people
- Therapy means you’re crazy
- My girlfriend/boyfriend is my therapist
- Therapy is wildly expensive
- I don’t want someone controlling my thoughts
Many men, in particular, think that going to therapy is a sign of weakness, a confession of a shortcoming in their personality. This is only as true as much as going to the gym is admitting that you are weak. The point of therapy (and meditation) is to strengthen the mind. If you take time to invest in your physical health, it would make sense to take time to strengthen your emotional well-being, too.
My father once said, “good therapy is like getting a postgraduate degree where the subject of study is your own mind.” While I myself have not been in therapy for much longer than a year, I am already finding out more about myself, my potential blind spots, as well as ways to cope with anxiety.
Throughout my sessions, it soon became apparent to me that the relationship with the therapist is different from the relationship one may have with a close friend, grandparent, or girlfriend. In so much as it is different to play tennis with a friend versus a pro; playing with a friend may be more fun and easy but playing with a pro challenges you to improve your mental and physical skill.
Therefore, the relationship with the therapist should not be one that is rooted in blood or intimacy. The relationship with the therapist must be less complicated; completely free of expectation and judgment.
ANXIETY & DEPRESSION: NOW PLAYING EVERYWHERE (2019)
Anxiety and depression seem to be ubiquitous in this generation and people have blamed everything from smartphones to Donald Trump, to the alignment of planetary systems. I am not interested in debating the causes as much as I am in treating the symptoms. As the Buddhist story goes, a man who has just been struck by an arrow should worry about getting rid of the arrow, not enquire where it came from.
It may be helpful to first note that these emotions have a purpose. Anxiety’s function is to let us know when something is out of place, to let us know if we are in a potentially dangerous situation; like the feeling that arises when walking over a bridge that is not stable. We feel anxious about situations that are not actually life threatening but feel so due to the effects of stress on the mind and body.
Typically, anxiety will continue to run circles in the mind until it is externalized somehow. This is why one of the first thing therapists may suggest for clients is to keep a journal. Putting your thoughts onto paper brings the thoughts into the world, where they become tangible ideas to work with and/or refute.
Anyone who has kept a journal before knows that it can quickly fill up with self-doubt and neuroticism. This is normal and not surprising, as many psychology and sociology studies have shown that humans, as early as infancy, have a strong negativity bias. That is, we are more attuned to negative news, our personal shortcomings, and our mistakes in sports or at work.
The acute negativity perception must have been our distant ancestors’ ally as it was advantageous to remember what plants, territories and animals to avoid. However, as we seldom face wild boar attacks today, the excessive brain energy devoted to negative conditions can feel overbearing.
One of the best, most effective ways to combat a negative mind is to practice gratitude. Practicing gratitude in a few sentences in a journal, or even silently acknowledging all that you have, has been shown in numerous studies to increase happiness, physical health and even improve sleep.
It is important not to identify yourself with the negative emotions, rather to label them as part of your experience. If you find these ideas too abstract or difficult to perform by yourself during meditation or basic shower contemplation, then consider finding a therapist. Specifically, hypnotherapists and Cognitive Behavioral Therapists are apt at changing unwanted behaviors or beliefs in a problem-focused and action-oriented type of practice.
What you resist, will persist
I think people often avoid therapy because they are afraid the therapist will unbox some repressed trauma and it will be worse to confront that trauma than to leave it buried. I understand this fear – for a long time I would have rather spoken about politics at my family dinner table than my breakup.
It takes time to be comfortable opening up about our past trauma but the only place the past can be healed is in the present. Leaving our trauma in the past may seem like a safer space for it, but there is much evidence to the contrary.
Psychoanalyst legend Carl Jung studied the unconscious mind tirelessly for over sixty years through dream analysis, association tests, and religious mythology. Jung famously noted that, “what you resist, not only persists but grows in size”. He concluded that the longer a trauma is left dormant in a patient, the more likely it could manifest itself as an undesirable characteristic.
Until we allow our past traumas to emerge out of our subconscious and enter into the external word, they will govern our behavior and attitudes like the ventriloquist controlling a dummy. The internal trauma must come out whether it be in words spoken to a therapist, in a song or poem, or even aloud to all of your social media followers. In the words of Elsa, “Let it go“.
finding a therapist
Hiring a therapist should be treated like dating; do some research/facebook stalking first, but ultimately you have to meet the person to see if there is a connection.
In the past I met with two therapists – one female, one male – both of them sucked. I felt nothing special and quit after three to four sessions. It wasn’t until I found a hypnotherapist in Chiang Mai that I made a connection with a professional that continues to inspire me every other week.
Thus, it can take a little bit of patience but I think some of the benefits are outstanding. I look forward to my appointments like I’m attending a coveted self-improvement class. It’s rare we get the chance to speak to somebody who listens and sifts through all of our bullshit to dissect the real meaning from the narratives we like to tell ourselves.
It is true that therapy can definitely seem expensive but it is ultimately an investment in yourself. Worst-case scenario, it is like going on a bad date. Best case, you may meet someone who can change your life. Fortunately, many insurance companies now include therapy as part of their covered policies. There are also online therapy platforms, like Talk-space, which are generally cheaper and more flexible.
It is nearly 2020 – the start of a new decade – I urge you to leave any antiquated ideas about therapy in the past. Having someone help you on your journey – whether it is a psychologist, counselor or hypnotherapist – is a strong decision and may prove invaluable in building confidence and awareness.