I spent the first two and a half years of college working up the courage to start therapy. At the beginning of my second semester as a junior, I finally bit the bullet and made an appointment with my university’s counseling center.
Fast forward three years later to now, I’ve gone through my fair share of therapists and only recently found one who I felt was truly helping. I have bipolar disorder type 2 and generalized anxiety with a few other things thrown into the mix. My main and most debilitating issue is depression, but this isn’t a post about my issues. Rather, it’s a post about what I’ve learned throughout these last few years sitting on couches, trying to make it one day at a time.
1. Drop that emotional wall you’ve spent years building.
OK, I haven’t quite figured this one out, but that’s why it’s a hard lesson. I learned at a young age to “swallow” my emotions and put on a neutral face. When something traumatic or negative happens, my first instinct is to go numb and survive it. I take on the role of being the brick wall who’s “unaffected” so others can be emotional. This lifelong practice has made it nearly impossible for me to express sadness or any negative emotions to others.
While I’m in therapy, I have to let that wall down, and I’d like to be able to let it down outside of therapy, too. The problem is I don’t know how. I’ve spent so much time guarding myself that I now have to learn how to express emotions. I spent a solid month in therapy just building up to talking about a particularly trying and traumatic time in my life. When my therapist and I finally began talking about it, I had no reaction to talking about it because I became an expert in compartmentalizing and removing myself from my emotions.
Compartmentalizing became my coping mechanism, but the problem is I can’t do it forever. Eventually, all that emotion I’ve buried has to come to the surface. I haven’t fully gotten there, but I’ve slowly taken down bricks in my emotional wall. I feel a little less claustrophobic as the wall comes down.
2. It’s OK to cry in session (and in places other than the shower).
This really goes along with the first lesson. I am 100 percent a shower crier. It’s only there that I feel like I can release my emotions by crying. Like I’ve said, I’ve been in therapy off-and-on for the last three years. You want to know how many times I’ve cried in session? Zero.
There’s been the occasional watery eye, but I’ve been good at keeping the real crying to the shower. I want to be able to cry in therapy. I know it’ll help me feel better, but I’ll refer you to lesson 1 about why that’s hard for me.
My therapist has told me it’s OK to cry before, and I wholeheartedly believe her. One day it’ll happen, and I’ll actually be happy that it happened. I just hope it’s not like the “don’t break the seal” rule when you’ve drunk too much.
3. You’ll only get what you put into therapy.
Talking about your week or ranting to a therapist can be helpful but in my experience, that’s not enough to see real change or feel better long term.
I prefer therapy that comes with homework. One of the things I do is fill out weekly mood charts I’ve customized to my experiences and coping skills. This helps me remember how I felt the week since my last appointment and can help identify triggers or an oncoming depressive or hypomanic episode.
There’s also less concrete homework such as challenging your thoughts. I struggle with self-doubt and negative self-talk. If I come into therapy each week and explain the same thoughts but don’t question them or challenge them, I’m not going to quiet those thoughts.
Therapy is not a passive activity, and you’re most likely paying for it. Get your money’s worth by being active in your progress.
4. You’ll learn new things about yourself, and you’re not going to like all of it.
I’m a writer. I like writing. The first time a therapist pointed out that I have a restricted emotional vocabulary, I was mad. As time went on, I realized she was right. I struggle to name my emotions past the superficial sad, happy, angry, etc.
Once I realized this, I slowly began building out my vocabulary. It’s still not where I’d like it to be, but I’ve noticed that specifying an emotion helps lessen the power it has over me. Labeling my emotions more aptly gives me the power instead of them having power over me.
Our first instinct when we learn something about ourselves we don’t like is to deny it. You’ll learn more if you consider it.
5. You have to accept and process how you feel before you try to change it.
Being patient is not my strong suit, especially if I feel miserable. There is nothing about depression that would make me want to say, “hm, I need to sit with this.” My initial reaction is to fight like hell to make it go away. Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t include assessing why I’m feeling depressed (if there is a reason). I can’t just run over the depression by keeping busy 24/7 or burning up all my coping skills (healthy and non-healthy). I need to recognize how I’m feeling and work through it.
It’s a bit like telling someone who is drowning to take a moment and reflect on drowning. It seems counterintuitive, but I’ll run myself into the ground trying to get out of the depression if I don’t first accept that I’m depressed.