I am often asked, “When should I consider going to therapy?” The truth is, it could always be good time—and not just because you’re in crisis.
Sometimes it’s clear you need help. For example, anxiety or a low mood overwhelms you and keeps you from participating in your life. You may find it hard to know how to deal with emotional pain or negative thoughts, or find yourself coping with behaviors that make things worse. These experiences warrant more pressing attention because they interfere with your capacity to function.
But sometimes it’s not the serious, life-threatening issues that bring you to therapy. You may want help with a life transition, or you may have relationship or career goals you want to focus on. Maybe you want to feel more confident or like yourself a little better.
And even though most people don’t think of it, it’s ok to go to psychotherapy because you feel good and want to flourish even more.
Psychotherapy’s greatest gift is awareness. In therapy, we learn to listen to ourselves. Through this process we become aware of what we think, how we feel and why we act. We encounter our story.
Darlene started therapy because she was having stress at work and shortness of breath. As we observed her thoughts, feelings and behaviors throughout her day-to-day life, we realized she was a relentless perfectionist. Any time she worried she would do something less than perfectly, the breathing problem ensued.
The story we uncovered went like this: “I need to be perfect or everyone in my life will be disappointed. It’s not okay for me to make mistakes; I am better than that.” We also learned that she had been telling herself this story since she was five years old.
Awareness is the act of gaining an accepting understanding of ourselves and our lives, so that eventually, we see that we are both protagonist and narrator of our stories. As narrator/storyteller, we have the choice not of what happens to us, but of how we perceive what happens and how we respond. It is as narrator that we decide to make alterations in our thinking patterns and replace unhelpful behaviors with ones that serves us better, as Darlene started to do. Now she watches her thoughts more closely and repeatedly reminds herself that it’s ok to make mistakes. “I breathe more often too,” she says.
Psychotherapy also guides our narrator to be more flexible. Most of us get stuck when we can’t adjust to change. But change is the one constant in all our lives. We all need to build a narrator who is quick on her feet and willing to improvise, learn, and see things and others in many ways.
Talia was successful and happy overall, but she wanted to connect more with others. In therapy, we realized that she had some rigid rules around friendships. Talia’s main rule was, if it looks like I am going to be rejected, end the friendship. In time, we found ways for Talia to be more flexible with herself and others. Instead of impulsively ending the friendship when she feels rejected, she stays. Now her story is: “It’s okay to be hurt and rejected now and then. Most of the time it’s me recreating pain from my past.”
And she stays in the friendships. “My friends don’t have to be perfect. I’m certainly not. I want to see how things develop over the long term.” Gradually, Talia realized that when she stays connected many of her fears resolve. She also sees how her relationships are becoming more nuanced and sustaining.
When we are more open and adaptable, we have an easier time connecting with others. Belonging and connection may be the goals most people bring to therapy. They underlie all that we do and all that we want.
In fact, many clients come to therapy wanting to fix other people in their lives so they can connect more easily. This makes sense, because most of us have partners, parents, friends or bosses that could use some fixing. But in therapy you can only work on yourself.
By working on you, you can affect others and the world.
Rhonda initially came to therapy for one reason: her husband needed to be different. She reported that he traveled too much, wasn’t home enough and was irritable with her on weekends. She complained that all of their time together was spent arguing and accusing each other of not being good enough. Her story was: “He won’t go to couples therapy, so I figured I would come to you and get some advice on how to fix him.”
After explaining that I can’t do therapy on someone who isn’t in therapy, we looked at how Rhonda may want to change and grow. We discovered that it was difficult for Rhonda to focus on herself because “it feels selfish.” We realized that her internal narrator was telling her she was unworthy of time and attention.
Over time, Rhonda used her therapy sessions to take care of herself. She recognized that often, she blames her husband for the empty feelings she has always had inside herself. She started to fill the hole with compassion, devotion and self-respect. In turn, she came to feel less disappointed by her husband. Instead of picking fights, she is able to assert her needs more effectively, without attacks or blame.
Rhonda and her husband started to have more fun with each other, and, on his own initiative, he started therapy.
These kinds of changes can take practice. Any expectation of a “quick fix” from therapy may be unfulfilled. Change is hard but it is also invigorating: it feels good to have agency over our story.
How to Pick the Right Kind of Therapy
There are many ways to work in therapy and many different types of psychotherapy. You may want to delve into your history and give yourself the gift of time for exploring memories and reflections. Or you may want more practical help, like learning skills for regulating feelings, or changing negative thoughts. You may want to work through the body and get out of your thinking head. You may choose to do therapy via the creative arts, drama, the visual arts, dance or music.
Whatever kind of psychotherapy you choose, you will become more aware of your views about yourself and the world. You will tell your story. Together, with your therapist and/or your group, you will discover and uncover ways to make your story work better for you.
Have a burning question for Dr. Dintino? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org! We’ll answer one in our next column.
About the artist: Fonny Stone is a digital artist. Her designs are influenced by outer space, futurism, the mind, light and chrome. Her work combines imaginary images and distorted worlds.