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Have You Ever Been to Therapy?

Reader question: How did you decide that therapy was the right choice for you? Abruptly returning home to California has forced me to reflect on my life here before I left for school, and I find myself spiraling into self-loathing as I realize that I never really solved my internal problems. (Paraphrasing what you wrote in an old essay: ‘Wherever you go, there you are.’) I’m thinking of talking to someone, as I find myself too deep in myself that the reassurance from my close ones only washes over.

Haley’s answer: I still remember telling my mom I was going to try therapy when I was 24. She said, “You don’t need therapy. You’re already thinking all the right things! You just need to think less.” My mom is an emotionally attuned and thoughtful person, so it’s surprising to me that she’s wary of therapy. But I think her reaction is a common one, and speaks to why a lot of people never seek out counseling. They assume it’s for someone else — someone more fucked up, or with a harder life, or less capable of coping independently. But for me, going to therapy isn’t about the severity of my problems or ability to solve them; it’s an opportunity to see things differently, which to me is one of the most important aspects of being alive. For that reason, I think therapy is a huge privilege, and anyone who has the resources to go is lucky. (More than that, I think it should be free and paid for through taxes.)

I once took a class in San Francisco on journaling, very random, and I never forgot something the teacher said about taking notes: that it wasn’t about the individual things you wrote down, necessarily, but about the patterns that emerged over time. This describes my experience with therapy almost exactly. Not only does verbalizing your thoughts often reveal something about them, but doing it repeatedly over time often reveals something about who you are. It can make you realize the extent to which you’ve been ruminating on what is essentially one root problem, or help you appreciate the seriousness of something you might deem inconsequential in the day-to-day, or, to borrow a cliche, show you that it always comes back to that thing that kid said to you in sixth grade. Or whatever! A good therapist will help you navigate that process in surprising and useful ways, but I’ve even made headway with bad ones, because the simple act of giving things air is useful on its own.

For an overthinker like me, therapy has also been humbling. Sometimes I’ll be convinced I’ve thought of every possible angle, and then my therapist will offer a completely different way of looking at it that blows my mind, or she’ll make a connection I’d have never thought to make. Some of those moments have genuinely changed me, and I’m so grateful for them. But even less monumental sessions can be restorative. It’s so unusual to have a private relationship with someone whose only focus is to help you, who will accept you even after you say the horrible thing you’ve never said out loud before. And if you’re someone who tends to cut yourself off, or apologize a lot, or overextend yourself for other people, it’s an opportunity to be totally unselfconsciously self-involved. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy, but there’s a sense of safety inherent in the relationship. You’re free to fuck up and be the messiest version of yourself because that’s the point.

For a first-time therapy-goer, there are definitely some hurdles to clear — finding someone whose style works for you, getting comfortable with being vulnerable, letting go of trying to be liked — and I don’t think everyone needs therapy all the time. I go through phases myself. But I do think most people could benefit from some amount of it. We all have shit to work out, and I believe we’d be better to each other if we had the time and resources and willingness to do it. If you have those things, I say go for it! Moving home and feeling like a teen again seems like an almost comically perfect place to start.