My Psychotherapy Journey: From Duty to Timidity to Progress

I started psychotherapy for the wrong reasons.

A few people had suggested throughout the past couple years that I do it, and I thought I’d go to one session to say I’d done it and be done with it. Well, I went to that one session and told the counselor I needed help with stress. She talked to me about stress, but in ending the session, rather than asking “Do you want to come back?” asked “When do you want to come back?”

I have difficulty saying no to anyone, so I agreed to a time. The next session went nearly identical to the first, but during the third session she redirected the goal of our sessions toward me talking more. She had me take some tests (MMPI-2 and MCMI) and I wrote out a list of my goals for her.

She never directly told me, but eventually I picked up that she thinks I have social anxiety disorder. She started having me write down situations in which I felt anxious and what I was thinking and feeling at those times, but I didn’t really understand the point of it. I started realizing just how much anxiety had controlled my life, but I didn’t feel like doing this was helping me.

What this work did do, however, was make me really want to be able to do the things I was so terrified of doing.

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Submit Your Psychotherapy Stories

There are a ton of good stories out there about people's experiences with psychotherapy, and we want to feature them each week here on the World of Psychology. By shedding more light on the process of therapy, we believe it will make people more comfortable and perhaps get a better understanding of it.

So we're putting out a call for any and all psychotherapy stories -- from therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, clients and patients. If you have a story you want to tell and can do so in under 1,400 words, we're interested.

We're not looking (just) for salacious stories. We're looking for stories that show the personal nature of therapy, and how it can help people.

Read on for details...

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Relationship Themes in Suicide Notes

Years ago I worked in a psychiatric emergency room in a large metropolitan hospital. My job consisted of evaluating a steady stream of patients to determine whether they should be hospitalized or sent elsewhere.

I saw people in the throes of mania, psychosis and suicidal depression. I still remember the man who asked if I was a witch who would place a spell on him. And the woman who came barreling at me down the hallway, warning, “You best get out of my way, or I’m going to go Ninja Turtle on your ass!” I remember the man who swallowed six bedsprings in a suicide attempt. And countless others with bandaged wrists, bruised necks, and broken souls. I learned a lot about the breadth and depth of human suffering.

One day I was waxing philosophical about suicide with one of the charge nurses who had worked there for more than 20 years. She shared that she had a collection of 350-odd suicide notes that had been collected by a medical examiner over the course of his career. The notes had been collecting dust in her attic for the past 10 years.

She asked if I wanted them.

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How To Have Conversations, Not Confrontations

It’s been a while since they have agreed on anything. They still loved each other and wanted to figure it out. All they needed was a good conversation.

In search of a connecting dialogue, they’ve come to a marriage counselor. Unfortunately, their initial therapy session ended up as a triumph of assumptions and accusations. So much was said in that hour that the distance between them felt insurmountable. It was a...
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Therapists Don’t Dance, Do They?

About a month ago I attended a wedding in Sonoma, California. Before the ceremony, I made random small talk with one of the other guests. We covered occupation and connection to the bride and groom, moved on to comments about the beautiful setting, and then parted ways to continue with the obligatory mingling process.

Strangers’ responses to learning that I’m a therapist are varied, and it’s not uncommon for them to be loaded in some way or another. “You’re analyzing everything I say, aren’t you?” many people joke. “Mmhmm,” I’m tempted to respond, with a raised eyebrow and Mona Lisa grin. “Oh,” others murmur, before the conversation trails off into stilted silence and the person starts surreptitiously glancing over my shoulder for someone else to rescue them.

The wedding guest’s response to learning I’m a therapist was of the “Oh, that’s cool” variety. I didn’t think anything of it. Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really “analyze” anyone, let alone people I’ve just met.

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Should You Share Your Therapist With a Friend?

I have a friend who lives by this cardinal rule: She will never ever work with a friend.

So when jobs surface in her company, or if she hears of an opening in her field, she only shares the information with non-friends. It’s just too messy, she explained to me the other day.

Having experienced a situation not too long ago that became just that -- messy -- I can understand her logic and applaud her for sticking by that rule. I am now much more careful about sharing work opportunities with close friends... in order to protect myself.

Should the same rule apply to therapy?

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Brain and Behavior

I Am So NOT Sorry: An Exercise in Exposure Therapy

One form of cognitive behavioral therapy is exposure therapy, where your brain is supposed to form new connections and rewrite the language of your amygdala (fear center), so that it doesn’t associate every dog with the pit bull who took a bite out of your thigh in the fourth grade. By doing the exact thing that you most fear, you are, essentially, telling the old neurons in your brain to take a hike so that new ones, who don’t know anything about the pit bull, can now live inside your brain and tell you that everything is peachy.

Yeah, well, that’s the theory.

So you jump into a pit bull fight and say, “Here, doggie, doggie, you want a treat?” If he doesn’t take your leg off, you are good to go!

If he does take your leg off, you have much more exposure therapy ahead of you... For which you might want to wear a padded suit.

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Wake Up! When Your Therapist is Sleeping

Although not all that common, psychotherapists sometimes fall asleep in session. Probably more common in traditional psychoanalysis (where the psychoanalyst is sitting behind and out of view of the patient), it far harder to do in more modern, time-limited psychotherapies where each session is more of an active, working period between therapist and client.

What is one to do when one is confronted with a sleeping therapist?

Stephen Metcalf, writing in New York magazine, set to find out by going back and talking to his prior four therapists, all of whom had fallen asleep on him. Was it him or them?

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Brain and Behavior

Meeting Again for the First Time

It's Friday afternoon, and that means clinic. It's 1 p.m., and that means I’m walking to get Samantha from the waiting room for our therapy session. I take a deep breath before I open the door, and find myself looking forward to our session.

“Hello, Samantha,” I say, “I’m Dr. Hufford. Come on back.”

I always reserve the same room for our work, hoping that it will help her to remember that we’ve met before. Samantha and I have met many times before, but for her, every session is like meeting again for the first time. She is stuck in an unrelenting present, experiencing life about an hour at a time, before her anterograde amnesia -- an inability to remember new events -- sweeps the memories away, floating just out of her reach.

“Cognitive difficulties” is the way that her medical record describes it. A more sterile understatement is difficult to imagine. Samantha remembers everything from before about 15 years ago. She remembers going to college, having friends and ambitions, and falling in love. But her description of the accident is distant and clinical; a factual recitation of what she has been told happened. In a casual conversation you might not realize that you were talking to someone who would, only hours later, have no recollection of ever meeting you. 
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Just Say No: 10 Steps to Better Boundaries

Up until recently, "No" was dirty word to me. As a stage-four people-pleaser, my vocabulary was rich with affirmatives: "yeah," "sure," "okay," "absolutely," "no problem." But my mouth just couldn't seem to form the consonant-vowel combination required to say "No," even when "Yes" was simply impossible due to time conficts or just an overdose of stress in my daily life.

I would get stuck at " alright." Which meant I was doing all kinds of things that I didn't want...
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