As a therapist, when we tell people what we do as a career, we often get told, “I went to therapy before. I think it can work great for some people it just wasn’t for me.” In fact, people can usually think of several friends/family in their lives who could benefit from therapy before thinking about it for themselves. When I ask the follow up question (as therapists are trained to do) about why it “wasn’t for them,” I tend to get the same responses every time. See if you’ve ever thought, felt, or said any of this about your prior experience with therapy:
1. I didn’t like the therapist.
I totally get this. You’re not going to jive with everyone. Whether the therapist just didn’t get you, you’re fundamentally polar opposites as people, or the therapist was seemingly preoccupied with something else and didn’t give you the attentiveness you deserve, you don’t want to waste time or money seeing a therapist you don't like.
*Jamie, An anonymous contributor said this: “I can think of about six therapists I’ve been to in my life. A few of them I saw only once or twice, tops. I just didn’t connect with them for various reasons. If I didn’t connect with them after a session or two, I’d just quit scheduling with them. Then I’d kind of just think the problem wasn’t going to be helped by therapy anyway. When things got worse instead of better [after quitting therapy] I’d eventually try therapy again. By eventually, I mean a couple of years would go by. I probably shouldn’t have struggled for that long but I was convinced no one could help me. That’s not true though because the other three [therapists] I probably saw for several months to a year each. So this was like, once was when I as a teen, then again in my early 20s and the shortest time in my 30s. Each one of those therapists couldn’t have been more different than the other in personality and therapy style. I don’t know, it was like I just liked spending time with them and felt lighter after sessions. I think what made the difference was they genuinely seemed to like me and believed in me. I always remember one therapist who said, 'I like meeting with you because you know deep down what the answer is, you just need someone to listen while you process it out loud.' That meant a lot because I felt the therapist really did believe in me. So if they challenged me at times, I knew it was coming from a caring place and I listened to their feedback. Mostly, I think each one [of the therapists] taught me to trust myself and be okay with who I am. I don’t know that I’ll need to go to therapy again in the future but if I do, I know I may have to try a couple of people before I find the right match. I know that can be frustrating but I feel like it’s just part of the process.”
2) It just felt weird to complain about my problems to a stranger.
Fair enough. Some people just don’t like to talk about their feelings. Some cultures (whether a family culture or a societal culture) believe feelings=weakness or talking about feelings makes you weak. Plus, if you have a good friends or family who listen and are there for you when your struggling, you might think that’s good enough.
Those social connections can be powerfully healing, but they also require mutual support. You may be unable to talk to a friend or loved one about your stress who is going through a lot themselves. Your therapist isn’t going to make the session about themselves or have you stop to comfort them. Or at least, they shouldn't! You get to be totally selfish in monopolizing the time and conversation while in therapy. That’s expected because it is your time and money.
Besides, sometimes family and friends, as well-meaning as they may be, are actually too close to a situation themselves to be able to give sound advice. I mean, you can only complain about your boyfriend so much before they give Tom the stink-eye every time at the next family BBQ. That may not be helpful when you’re trying to make it work and realize deep down, both you and Tom are contributing to the relationship problems!
Therapists do far more than just listen and tell you Tom is a loser and you deserve better. They are trained to know how to help you figure out why you chose to be in a relationship with Tom in the first place, and what part you can play in improving your relationship with Tom. They can stay much more neutral while allowing you to figure out if Tom is the guy for you. They can even help you learn the skills to move forward in that relationship or find better Toms in the future. They can do all this for you while not being part of the family group [gossiping] text messages you just know are happening behind your back!
3) Things got better on their own.
Again, this makes sense! Sometimes situations do spontaneously improve! That difficult boss you have might get transferred. The marital stress may turn a corner and improve. You might get on an antidepressant and feel a lot better!
Another thing to consider, however, is that you may have been unconsciously putting things out there (such as a lack of assertiveness) that was subtly attracting difficult relationships. These subconscious driving forces may be things that when addressed in therapy, started leading to the "spontaneous" life changes you were seeing! But therapy is not just about improving life problems in the short term, but also preventing them from becoming recurring life problems and decrease your susceptibility to stress and struggles over time. The therapy work you were doing could have been the catalyst for your new, improved life!
I would encourage you that if you’ve given therapy a chance before, but didn’t like the therapist, felt weird about talking about your problems, or life just suddenly improved, consider going back if you even THINK you might need it. If you want to be happier, feel more confident, think about the past less or worry less about the future, call us. Family Solutions Counseling has several therapists you are welcome to “try us out” before finding the one you connect with and make the lasting changes you deserve.
*Name was changed to protect confidentiality
In this video about practicing mindfulness in nature, I mention that mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and non-judgmentally. The focus of your attention or the place you are practicing mindfulness could vary greatly but as long as you utilize these elements you are practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean sitting on a cushion with our eyes closed thinking about nothing, or doing a specific breathing practice, or doing a certain type of meditation. Mindfulness could simply mean that we really focus as we enjoy a cup of tea or coffee, we notice how the sun feels as get our mail, or we take a walk focusing on how things look and sound right now, in each passing moment.
If you decide to start practicing mindfulness one huge element you will immediately become aware of is distraction. I typically get distracted within the first 15 seconds of trying to pay attention to something on purpose. It’s normal to get distracted, our brains are not automatically good at paying attention to something on purpose for any extended period of time. You might notice the urge to check your phone, feel restless in your body, or get lost thinking about the future or the past. While this can be frustrating in the beginning, it’s important to recognize that this is normal and an important part of the process. Practicing mindfulness is the equivalent of doing strength training with a particular muscle group. You have to do the exercise over and over again before the parts of your brain used to pay attention to the present moment get stronger. Redirecting your attention back to the original focus without judgement is a key to learning to use mindfulness. Be curious about your experience and gentle with yourself as begin focusing again.
So why would you want to start doing mindfulness after hearing it isn’t easy and that you have to practice before it gets any easier? I mentioned in the video that practicing mindfulness can help you feel calm and relaxed, be generally more focused, and can be important for your mental health. I would argue that if you are practicing mindfulness the goal is not to feel calm and relaxed, the goal is to be aware, but sometimes we end up feeling calm and relaxed as a nice bonus. Better focus is a common result of practicing mindfulness because you are able to exercise the “brain muscle” of paying attention which will lead to it become stronger and to the ability to use this skill across different areas of your life. I know from my own experience as well as working with clients that if you are able to be mindful for even a few minutes a day it can help us check in with how we are doing physically and emotionally. If we get focused on how we feel in the present moment we may notice we are holding unneeded tension in our shoulders or we might notice we are hungry and need a snack. If we take a few moments to check in maybe we realize we’re holding onto a difficult experience from earlier in the day and be able to let go and move forward more effectively. Being mindful throughout the day helps us check in and see how we are feeling and what we need so that we can care for ourselves.
Being in touch with ourselves in this way has also been shown to help decrease behaviors that we know aren’t serving us. We all get caught up in habits or patterns that don’t help us live our best lives, but when we try to control ourselves or push ourselves to change the behavior, we often aren’t successful. This is because the part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) which is in charge of making decisions that are in line with our morals and values goes offline when we become stressed. So we might have good intentions to quit smoking or not use our phone while driving, but something stressful happens and we go back to a bad habit that we have been trying to work on. According to Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist who has studied the connection between mindfulness and addiction, the key is curiosity about what is going on in our bodies and minds from moment to moment. This curiosity of what is going on in the present moment helps us notice the urge to do the behavior, become aware that the urge will pass, and be able to let go of the thing that is no longer helping us and move closer to the life we want.
Author: Robin Hunt, CSW
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