A few days ago, I was talking to a friend over the phone and he noticed that I sounded tired. I did feel a little depleted after a few emotionally difficult therapy sessions.
Friend: You sound tired. What’s going on?
I: Nothing. Had a few sessions and just finished. It was tough.
Friend: Really? I can’t imagine listening to people’s problems all day long. What do they usually talk about?
I: All kinds of stuff. Today somebody told me about a difficult breakup. It was very sad.
Friend: So that person goes to therapy and pays you for THAT? To talk about a breakup? He must be very sick. Oh wait, [he chuckled], - but of course he IS sick – after all, he is in therapy.
Common myths about people who see a therapist
Even though the friend meant it as a joke, this comment reflects one of the common myths about people who seek therapy. The myths that I hear about the most are:
- Therapy is for crazy people. You have to really be seriously sick to go to a psychologist.
- Therapy is for weak people. After all, if you are strong, you can resolve your problems yourself and you shouldn’t be asking for help.
- Therapy is for people who don’t have any friends and are willing to pay somebody to listen to them.
As I am writing this post, I am reflecting on the sessions that I have with my courageous, insightful, inspiring clients. Individuals who want to learn. Who are not afraid to admit that they have lost their way. Who are strong enough to allow themselves to be vulnerable. Who are willing to face their worst fears and tolerate discomfort in order to be able to live their best life.
People who come to therapy, stay, and work their way toward living life in alignment with their values, have many things in common.
- They are willing to take risks. It’s tough to make that first step and contact a complete stranger (the therapist) with the purpose of possibly sharing deepest secrets, embarrassing thoughts, and bitter regrets with him or her.
- They are willing to develop an insight – an awareness of what they currently may not consciously know. This self-discovery is not easy. This is definitely another risk. It can be overwhelming and it often seems easier to maintain the status quo. Sometimes it’s terrifying to realize that you have been inadvertently contributing to your life’s problems. But it is crucial to develop self-awareness in order to become unstuck and move on.
- They are willing to face painful emotions (fear, anxiety, anger, disappointment, frustration, hurt).
- They are willing to take steps toward their goals in spite of the painful emotions.
- They are willing to develop a capacity to become observers – of their mind, of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, as well as of the here-and-now process. They cultivate a bird’s eye view as opposed to being entangled in the tornado of events, automatic thoughts, and emotions.
- They are willing to persevere. Those who succeed in therapy do not just embrace the concept of change when in crisis. They continue to be committed to change over a long period of time, making one small step after another, challenging the old patterns, and creating new habits. It gets frustrating. And it also gets boring. And difficult. Yet they steadily make their way forward.
People who actually come to therapy
Even after practicing for so many years I continue being in awe of my patients’ progress. They challenge me intellectually. They humble me with their wisdom. And they inspire me to become more reflective and courageous myself.
- A retiree finally coming to terms with her difficult childhood.
- A business executive overcoming crippling social anxiety and making an important presentation in front of hundreds of people.
- A mom able to put her kids’ wellbeing before her debilitating overprotectiveness.
- A teenager going from feeling lost to becoming an overachiever full of feisty ambition.
- Parents determined to take a risk of not being “friends” with their teen and assuming a parental role instead.
- OCD-sufferers able to face unimaginable horrific and embarrassing thoughts and images, tolerate the dread, put the OCD into its (disgraceful) place, and make a choice to live a fulfilling life.
I could go on and on with the examples. After numerous years of practice the examples are endless. My admiration for my patients motivates me to try and be a better person.
After all, even though I may sometimes sound tired after a long work day, I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do. And I never stop marvelling at my unbelievable privilege to accompany those brave and determined people in the journey to create their best life.