Thursday, July 25, 2013

10 Things I Learned In Therapy

I recently started therapy after a rather ugly break up (you can read all about it here: but the truth is, I have long struggled with “issues” that, at least in part, caused that relationship to end. Therapy was something I resisted for a long time because I never felt unclear about what the causes of my problems were, it was just a matter of knowing the solutions (see, 1, below); however, I came to realize that having met someone I valued and was very important to me and then losing her, and that loss being related (in part) to my inability to solve these problems on my own, I needed to get help if I wanted to move forward with my life. 

So I took the plunge and I am happy I did, for (some) of the reasons mentioned below, but most importantly, because it was and is an investment in my mental health and well-being. There is something to be said for having a trained professional who knows what they are doing help you work through things you cannot get past on your own. I’m not saying therapy is for everyone, but it is working for me. So, without further ado, my listicle of things I have learned in therapy:

1. Diagnosing the problem is not the same as knowing the solution.  Anyone can tell you that taking a bullet to the stomach is likely to kill you, but you need a trained professional to figure out how to heal the patient. For many years, I *knew* what was “wrong” with me – difficult childhood, parents who withheld affection, being married to an emotionally abusive and withholding spouse and feelings of unworthiness resulting in crippling self-doubt and low self-esteem – but was ill equipped to figure out what to do about it (accept that the past happened, figure out how to reframe liabilities into lessons learned and obstacles overcome, looking more objectively and positively about myself, who I am and what I’ve accomplished, to name a few). A good therapist should be able to not just diagnose your problems, but offer concrete solutions for how to address them and improve yourself. And I found one (more below). On the other hand, if you’re not an analytical sort, your therapist should be able to pick through the information you provide him/her (and remember, the advice will only be as good as the honesty and sharing you provide, see below), frame issues in ways that make sense and provide guidance on how to address your problems.

2. You, or more specifically, your problems, are not unique snowflakes. Whether your problems are systemic and long-term or appeared out of nowhere into your otherwise good and healthy life, someone else has had those issues too. It’s not to dismiss whatever it is you are going through, it’s to empower you to realize that the person to whom you have brought your problems, has, in all likelihood, helped others work through the same issues. The facts might be a little different, the situation not entirely the same, but the general themes will be. Be thankful that others have plowed earth you are now walking on and thus, making your treatment easier. 

3. Rome was not built in a day, neither were your problems.  If you’re expecting revolutionary and immediate change just because you spilled your guts to a therapist for one hour, you’re doing it wrong. Chances are, whatever brought you to this point took time, in some cases, A LOT of time, to pile up; unpacking and clearing them out will too. For me, it was helpful to think about when I finally quit smoking for good and became serious about fitness and good health. First, it took a couple of fits and starts to actually quit smoking *for good* and start focusing on losing weight (unsurprisingly, the two kind of go hand in hand). Although this all happened 13+ years ago and my memory is hazy, I assume day one sucked, as did day two, day three and so on. But little by little, change took place such that now, 13 years later, I have a BMI most people would give their right arm for, I look at least 5 years younger than I am, feel at least 10 years younger and don’t recoil when I look in the mirror. Oh, and the suit I got married in? It’s loose on me.

It took a looooong time, a lot of “sweat equity” and discipline to get to that place, but here I am. Improving yourself will take time too. Do not get discouraged because the results are not immediate or that you sometimes feel like you are “relapsing” into whatever bad behavior, negative thought or disappointment temporarily reappears. The important thing is to recognize when that happens, have the tools needed to reverse that flow and move in a more positive direction.

4. Change the tape in your head. Speaking of which, much of what I wrestle with is tied to my self-esteem and self-worth. For too long, the tape (yes, I am dating myself because I still remember cassette tapes) looped to the idea that I was not good enough, had not accomplished enough, and was unworthy of love and affection. This was tied largely to receiving those messages from people I should have been receiving validation and support from (family, spouse) but instead got a tidal wave of negativity. I internalized these ideas instead of considering what it said about the people who were uttering them and whether, empirically, they were right (spoiler alert: they were not) and manifested those thoughts in a highly self-critical, brutally self-deprecating style that I came to realize made me a major turn off. Simply put, if I did not like myself, why should I expect others to?

Sadly, when someone came into my life who wanted to smash that tape into a million pieces, I did not know how to handle it or thank her because I was so absorbed in believing I was broken. Turns out, I’m not, it’s just a lot of other people tried to break me and for too long, I let them. Letting go of the past, no longer punishing myself for things I’ve done and being excited and engaged in my own present and future are all part of the new tape in my head. It also helped to look at myself more honestly, to find the ample good I have done not just in the world but in my own world (i.e., with family, friends and loved ones), that I am the author of my own script in life, to acknowledge that I have worked hard, damn hard, to get to where I am and to be confident in my abilities without sounding like an arrogant jerk. Regardless of what your problem is, chances are, you too have a tape that is also playing at least one similar verse – “you won’t be able to get better, you cannot improve yourself, this is the way you are.” Lose that, immediately.

5. The universe is not indifferent. Sorry, Don Draper, but you got this one wrong. Something that therapy opened my eyes to was the value in the world around me and that putting positive energy out into the world makes me feel better as a person. I cannot control how people react to me, but I can control how I carry myself, how I treat people and what I do and do not allow myself to get invested in emotionally. Avoid the drama swirls, vortexes and self-absorbed behavior of others and you will already be most of the way to a better tomorrow.

6. Nothing is gained by holding back. What brought you to your therapist’s office? No, really. What brought you there? My break-up was the superficial answer, but underneath it, were a whole host of open wounds and festering sores that had been around for a long time. It would have been a waste of time to just frame my narrative as “I’m sad because a woman I loved walked out of my life without so much as a goodbye.” This would have been akin to going to a doctor for a sore throat but not mentioning the weird tumor that I’ve never told anyone about but might be cancerous. If you are investing time, energy (and money!) into having a professional help you, nothing is gained by ignoring or not talking about the things that are truly troubling you.

7. Do not avoid big truths. I want to be in a serious, stable, and committed long-term relationship that leads to marriage (if my partner is the marrying type) or ends up being for the rest of my life (just without the binding legal contract). That’s about as big a truth as I can put out into the world and that scares the ever living shit out of me; however, by owning it, it made me realize that I was deflecting a lot of unhappiness I felt into places where I was not actually unhappy. When that light bulb went off, it changed my entire outlook on my life in a really important way. Oh, and it also made me excited at the prospect that I want to spend the rest of my life with another human being and not end up like some grumpy old man shouting at the kids to get off his lawn (a not insignificant thing).

8. Resist the urge to second guess. You’ve decided to go to a therapist for a reason – you’re stuck, you’ve tried (or not) other ways to resolve whatever it is you are there to get help with, don’t dismiss ideas because you don’t think they will work. My therapist suggested I meditate first thing in the morning and come up with a (what I would call) “New Age” mantra. My love of the Grateful Dead notwithstanding, I’m not a spiritual-commune-with-the-world type, but I took her suggestion and modified it to something I was more comfortable with – acoustic music playing in my ears and an agreement with myself that for 10 minutes, I would just power down my brain and focus on the music. Turns out, it’s a great way for me to start my day, with all thoughts of work and life cabined off until the music stops. If a licensed professional is giving you a suggestion, don’t dismiss it. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work, ask for modifications or alternatives. But …

9. Shop around if you must. There is nothing binding you to your therapist. If you do not think you are getting better, communicate that fact with him/her. If the problem persists, find someone else to talk to. A good therapist will recommend others who they think might be better able to help you. 

10. Ultimately, your betterment is in your hands. You can be monitored by a team of psychiatrists working around the clock [1], but ultimately, you own your own happiness. A therapist, and I use that term as a catchall to include, LPCs, MSWs, psychologists and psychiatrists, can offer you all the tools in the world that he or she thinks will make you feel better about yourself, but at the end of the day, it's up to you to put them into action. I know I am. Be fearless and embrace what life has to offer you and what you have to offer to it. 


1. Seinfeld, The Pitch, Season 4, Episode 3.


  1. IMO, #4 is mission-critical, especially the last two sentences.

    Glad it's sinking in how awesome you really are.

    1. Thanks - I miss you on Twitter. I hope you'll return soon!

    2. Got back on about ten days ago, started tweeting this weekend, just in time to hatetweet The Network with the rest of America. :)

  2. You know, I read this last night and again this morning and continue to identify with many of your points. I've realized #1 "Diagnosing the problem is not the same as knowing the solution" for a while, but still think I can come up with my own solutions. Also, #7 - I struggle with this! In every other area of my life I own what I want. Put it out in the universe. But when it comes to relationships or (gasp) wanting to get married, I can't seem to own it and am almost embarrassed to admit I feel like it might seem "weak" to want those things. anyway, great insight. Bookmarking for regular reading.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. If it helps, consider what other things in your life you go to others for help - I can't fix a leaky faucet, so why screw it up? Call a plumber. I thought about the stigma that attaches to "going to therapy" and I just don't think it is seen in nearly as negative a light as it once was. Plus, why wouldn't you (not you specifically, but the general "you") want to get the input of someone trained to figure these things out. Worst case scenario, you're unimpressed with the advice, but at least you tried.

      As for marriage, it is a huge step that is probably harder to take a second time than first, but to recognize that I am in a place where I want to spend my time with someone else was a game changer. Good luck!

  3. Good for you, SLG. Sounds like a huge turning point for you. Good luck, sir!

  4. After all these realizations, the real work starts. And more realizations will come. I'd add my own to your list (but it's not something you're likely to tap into until down the road): #11 Sometimes you have to let go of wanting to know why something or someone is the way it/he/she is. The moment you no longer need to know why is the moment when everything--or at least many things--change in your psyche. ... When you stop searching for the why (on some things, not all, of course), when it truly no longer matters to you, when you don't need to know anymore, suddenly you've freed up far more space in your heart, mind and psyche than you could ever imagine. Good luck. -JM

    1. I like this and it is something I have considered quite a bit over the past few weeks. Like any emotionally scarring event, it takes time to get over, but day by day, I am more distanced from it and able to take a more objective view, realize that some things are better left in the past and some things will remain unanswered.

  5. I am so glad that seeing a therapist is working for you! I am also glad that you know how going to the wrong therapist does not mean therapy is wrong. I went to a creep a few times, and then found my shrink who really helped me...

  6. Appreciate your sharing your insights after beginning therapy. . .which strikes me as kindhearted karma. Always a plus.

    As a writer, you buried your lead! : )
    (I had go get to Number 10 before reading "action")

    Also, in my view, number five could have benefited from a period after "is" as in, "The universe is." (Actually, I would have eliminated the first two sentences simply as positive and negative energy swirl throughout the universe.)

    But as a sailor, am mindful not to apply human, descriptive emotions to nature. (Never describe the sea as "angry" during a storm. It's just weather.) I mention this having discovered doing so helps me to become aware of, identify, and then rid emotion clutter from my decision making process, which is Generally a good thing. That's all I got for now.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Thanks for stopping by! Without emotion viz a viz weather, we would not have "the sea was angry that day my friends, like an old man at a deli returning soup," so I am going to part company with you on that suggestion, but otherwise, I'm pro positive energy in the world.

  8. Sharing can be even scarier than therapy and you've done both. Good job.