I’ve utilized therapy since I was 16. I’ve always viewed therapy as a resource. I have never fully understood the stigma applied to therapy until I was older. Until I met my husband.
I suggested that he find a therapist a few years into our marriage, and he made a weird snorting sound and scoffed, “I will never do that. That’s for broken people.” I took that in and pondered. I went to therapy. Did he see me as broken? What a weird point of view.
Our youngest daughter was diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and comorbid anxiety disorder when she was three. I took her to play therapy. He seemed supportive. Was she broken?
Then Eadaoin hit puberty and her subtle social anxiety soon became an anxiety disorder, and she required medication and therapy, too. Was she broken?
Then the Big S invaded our home. Grace developed childhood-onset schizophrenia, and therapy was the least of our problems. Maybe she really was broken, but I was going to do whatever it took to put her back together again.
And guess who didn’t have the resiliency, communication skills, or emotional maturity to deal with any of it?
Of every member of my family, guess who is doing the most poorly?
Not Grace. Not Milly. Not Eadaoin. Not even me.
You see, we all leave our families of origin with deficiencies, and we all have coping skills in place to compensate for those deficits. We could have had the most wonderful parents, but there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Even if our parents were perfect, we don’t grow up in the vacuum of our homes. We go to school. We make friends. We travel, get jobs, and participate in extracurricular activities. A lot happens to us as we are developing, making and losing friends, experiencing middle and high school. We don’t emerge from the first 18 years of our lives unscathed. Not a one of us.
We were not born knowing how to act or knowing what to do. We learn by watching how the people around us act. We learn what to say by modeling what others around us say. We learn how to manage conflict by modeling how our family managed conflict. Some people realize at a young age that what they are witnessing isn’t right. They, however, don’t know what the healthy way is so they might fumble their way through.
This is where therapy comes in. Contrary to popular belief, the therapeutic experience isn’t lying back and talking about your father while some mustachioed man smokes a pipe and writes on a legal pad. In fact, that sounds a whole lot like the beginning of a porn film. No, therapy doesn’t have to be client-centered at all (the Rogerian approach). It can be entirely skills-based–a DBT skills group, for example. The point is that “therapy” doesn’t have to be the four-letter word that so many people I’ve met think that it is.
Therapy is our gateway to growing up. When we find a therapist that we like and trust, we can actually do the work of maturing and growing into the adults that we have always wanted to be. How?
- A good therapist walks with you through those memories that are holding you back in order to help you resolve them so that you no longer carry them, and they no longer define you.
- A good therapist helps you learn to talk about your feelings so that you can communicate effectively within your relationships.
- A good therapist validates you and your life experiences. This is key because we need validation to feel safe and sane.
- A good therapist teaches you how to self-validate so that you are no longer beholden to others for your validation and sense of self.
- A good therapist models empathy which, hopefully, will teach us how to do the same.
- A good therapist teaches us how to be empowered in our relationships forsaking victim thinking, codependency, and caretaking.
- A good therapist provides a reality check and tough love when necessary so that we learn what true accountability in relationships looks like.
- A good therapist guides us into learning distress tolerance so that we can give up maladaptive coping strategies that harm us and our relationships.
- A good therapist provides insights into what motivates us so that we learn to become curious about ourselves and why we make certain choices.
- A good therapist legitimizes separation, individuation, and differentiation from our parents which is so often the root of our suffering.
- A good therapist teaches us a better way to think and shows us where we are believing negative things and, thusly, how those negative beliefs manifest in negative behaviors.
Therapy is the environment in which we continue developing as humans except that we have the opportunity to develop into better humans. Therapy is meant to teach us so that we are equipped to deal with whatever life throws at us.
Who do you suppose does better in a crisis? The person who trusts themselves or the person who is rootless, anxious, and doesn’t trust anyone? Part of becoming an educated person is receiving an emotional education as well. One of my favorite college professors once told a group of women that her goal in teaching us was to create educated women. When asked what that meant, she replied, “To be truly educated means that you are critical thinkers. It means that if you don’t know the answer to a question, then you know how to go about finding it.”
This is what it means to be emotionally educated. It means that you are a critical thinker when it comes to yourself. You are self-aware. You understand your motives. You know what you need. You can self-advocate. You can trust others. You trust yourself. You know how to ask for what you want, and you are not beholden to others for your sense of worth or sense of calm. If you find yourself in difficult situations for which you are not equipped, then you know how to go about equipping yourself. You know the skills you have, and you know the ones you need. Lastly, you take responsibility for yourself–your actions, your feelings, your desires, and your needs.
This is what therapy can do for us. All of those inadequacies that we see today? Those deficits in our personalities that we try to hide out of shame? Reframe them. They are just opportunities when you put them in a therapeutic environment. What if you simply need to learn a new skill? We will all be developing and maturing until the day we die, picking up more wisdom as we go. Engaging in your own emotional education is not something to be ashamed of. It should be celebrated.
Remaining emotionally illiterate because someone somewhere once said that only weak people see shrinks? I think that’s the least educated view of all.