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.
After a few weeks of this my counselor started asking me to rate how much anxiety I felt in various situations, one of which was in sessions. Upon hearing how difficult sessions were for me she determined that rather than working toward my goals we should work toward me being more comfortable with her.
This is where things started spiraling downhill in a hurry. I would come to a session and she would have me lie down and close my eyes and do breathing exercises for fifteen minutes, then send me on my way. She couldn’t have known this since I never said anything, but closing my eyes brings my anxiety level up, laying down makes me feel vulnerable, and the breathing exercises were the way I breathe when I’m really anxious. So doing this was bringing me into an extremely anxious state at every session, and it would take me longer each week to calm myself from the session.
My sessions are on Tuesdays and one week it got to the weekend and I still couldn’t fully calm myself—nothing was working. I was frustrated and ready to just tell the counselor I was done, but because talking to people is so hard for me I didn’t know if I could do it. I was scared not only of doing it, but of hurting her feelings. After a weekend of spending hours on my laptop trying to figure out how I was going to tell her what was going on, I finally wrote something to tell her we either needed to get back to my goals or be done.
While this seems like a negative experience, I think the negative backstory is necessary to explain the positive experience I now receive. At my session that week I read what I had written and, although skeptical at first, my counselor agreed to go back to my goals. Unfortunately, I am a college student and we only had one more session before I left for break.
In that last session, though, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had managed to not only meet, but exceed my goal for the week, and said hi to three people over the course of the week. I know that seems like a marginal accomplishment, but for a girl whose social interaction is mostly limited to her journal that was huge. I also was given a packet about recognizing negative and unhelpful thoughts to read over my break.
Between my break and hers, it was a month and a half before I saw her again. We spent the first session back discussing the way my thoughts and anxiety affect each other, and planning our goal for the week: trying to say hi to as many people as I could throughout the week and recording both my negative thoughts and coming up with alternative responses. I wasn’t feeling very successful at the beginning of the week, but by the end of the week, with the support of my counselor behind me and the knowledge that my thoughts and feelings don’t have to define the situation around me, I had grown much in my ability to communicate. I was finally able to at least acknowledge my friends when I saw them. That was an enormous accomplishment for me.
Although that was only two weeks ago, it seems like eons ago because of the amazing progress I’ve made since then. In sessions, my counselor and I talk about the situations in which I completed my goals for the week, how the situations felt, and what could have gone better. We also roleplay situations that might still be too difficult for me to do spontaneously, and she talks me through the situation and encourages me until I can do it successfully.
Once my counselor and I were on the same page, I started making so much progress. I wish that I had had the confidence to let her know what was going on earlier, but even with the short time we had together before my break, my family and friends noticed a distinct difference in my confidence and ability to communicate. Now, after only a few weeks back with my counselor I have progressed to a communication level that I never realistically expected of myself. Sure, I always had my fantasies about becoming like my extremely extraverted friends, but I always knew that extraversion was likely not a part of my personality, and had much lower realistic expectations for myself.
I thought that once I got my therapy back on track that it would still take me years to reach a level of social ability comparable to that of my peers, and have been pleasantly surprised to find that at the rate I am progressing now I may be there by the end of the year. Understanding how a more normal friendship works may take a bit longer after living isolated as a nearly silent companion for so many years, but with the support I receive from my counselor I know I will soon be the socially secure college student I long to be. Even something as simple as commenting on a blog post, or even liking someone’s post on Facebook was way outside my comfort zone just a few months ago, yet now I can do them with little concern.
Although the process is difficult, every frustration and challenge has been worth it to be able to have the ability to have more than a one-word contribution to conversations with my friends. I would say even the frustration and anxiety that resulted when my counselor and I did not see eye to eye was worth it because it showed me the importance of learning to advocate for myself.
What started as something to check off the to-do list to please others has become something that has given me more than I ever expected to receive.