California-based psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, is a big believer in the power of stories to transform how we see therapy.
“In a society where we still hear statements like ‘only crazy people go to therapy’ or ‘you need therapy!’ as an insult, it can be easy to think that psychotherapy is a strange and mysterious endeavor for other people,” Howes said.
However, when we hear personal stories from individuals of different backgrounds and circumstances—perhaps backgrounds and circumstances that mirror our own—we realize that therapy can be transformative for us, too.
This is why Howes wanted this year’s theme for National Psychotherapy Day to be “tell your therapy story.” He said it’s “based on the idea that if everyone who had been to therapy broke through the perceived shame and talked about their experience, it would normalize it for everyone, and maybe some fence-sitters would give it a shot.”
The Shame Around Seeking Help
Sadly, there is a lot of shame and secrecy associated with seeking professional help.
“People are still much more willing to talk about their appointment with their dentist or physician or their yoga class than their therapy session, even though they’re all avenues for wellness and self-improvement,” Howes said.
British comedy writer Amanda Rosenberg resisted going to therapy for years because she was “embarrassed about how it would look to others.” She was also scared that it would confirm that something really was wrong with her.
Six years ago, Rosenberg was involuntarily hospitalized, and after meeting with a recommended psychiatrist, she was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. She still sees the same psychiatrist.
When T-Kea Blackman, then a college student, sought therapy, she didn’t tell anyone. “Growing up, I heard people say that therapy is for crazy [people] or white people. And since I did not fit into those categories, I did not think it was for me.”
After graduation, her depression and suicidal thoughts peaked, and Blackman started working with a new therapist—and is still working with her today.
Caroline Kaufman was 12 years old when she started therapy. But it took a few years—and a few different therapists—for her to actually take it seriously. Even then, though, she was still embarrassed and skeptical.
“I would tell my friends I had a doctor’s appointment because I didn’t want them to know I was in therapy. I come from a town where so many people struggle with mental illness, and I now know a lot of them seek out therapy as well, but no one ever acknowledged it. I initially felt like it made me weak; that going to therapy meant I wasn’t strong enough to handle it on my own.”
For many people, societal stigma isn’t the only deterrent to seeking help. Another deterrent resides inside our homes.
“Being raised in an emotionally silent home, talking about feelings and issues was never addressed other than, ‘you don’t need to tell anyone your problems,’” said Marlon Deleon, a first-generation American and disabled Navy submarine veteran. He did seek therapy after several close friends, who knew about his “tumultuous childhood,” suggested it.
The Surprising Benefits of Therapy
Taking the first step to actually get yourself into therapy may not be easy and it can be the start of something amazing—even if you don’t see (or feel) progress right away.
“In the early days, I expected to walk out of therapy feeling incredible every time but that’s not how it works,” said Rosenberg, author of the forthcoming memoir That’s Mental: Painfully Funny Things That Drive Me Crazy About Being Mentally Ill.
“Some days you leave feeling good, other days, confused, and there are days when you leave feeling like total shit. And it’s perfectly normal!”
Rosenberg noted that the benefits can manifest in surprising ways. “Instead of thinking in extremes as I’m prone to do, my mind would start to call upon tools I’d learned in therapy to tackle triggers that would otherwise ruin me.”
Blackman, author of Saved & Depressed: A Suicide Survivor’s Journey of Mental Health, Healing & Faith, is surprised with how much therapy has helped her grow. “I am a completely different woman than when I started four years ago. I am proud of my progress. When I look in the mirror, I see a confident, tenacious, and beautiful woman who is constantly working to become a better version of myself.”
She noted that the biggest lesson she’s learned from therapy is setting boundaries. “Before therapy, I had a hard time saying ‘no’ and did things I did not want to do just to make others happy or to be accepted. I put too much on my plate by overextending myself and it led to the demise of my mental and emotional health.”
Therapy has helped Blackman to value her mental and emotional health, communicate her needs, and become comfortable with addressing confrontation.
For Deleon, having a regularly scheduled session to check in with someone who’s solely focused on him is “really nice. It allows me the ‘me time’ while also being heard.”
Certified peer counselor Zachary Orlov uses an analogy to describe how invaluable therapy has been for him: “I have sailed the treacherous waters of bipolar illness much of my life. I fully realize that I need help navigating the seas, adjusting the sails …I can’t keep afloat when I am ill. In fact, I can’t do much at all. I am stranded at sea. I must pass over the helm when I need to be off watch and rest my weary bones. My therapists have all come aboard my odyssey with the idea of keeping afloat and then back on course wherever that leads.”
Orlov also views therapists as “a seasoned crew with all the skills necessary, years of science, and training to keep our inner compass true.” After all, sometimes, “the storms of life are too much for us all.”
Blackman wants readers to know that therapy is “a safe space to be you. You do not have to worry about being judged but more importantly, your feelings and experiences will be validated.” It’s also a place where you can become more self-aware, learn new coping skills, and heal from past hurts, she said.
Being Scared and Shopping Around
“I always stereotypically envisioned the long leather couch and somebody with spectacles penning furiously onto a legal pad, but it really is like professional dating,” Deleon said.
To find the right therapist for you, it’s important to “shop around,” he said.
In fact, Deleon’s first experience in therapy was far from helpful. Thankfully, however, he returned to therapy years later, and is currently working with a clinician he likes.
Kaufman, author of two poetry collections, including When the World Didn’t End, wants readers to know that it’s perfectly normal to be scared about therapy. “We’re all scared! It’s a scary thing to do!”
“A lot of people tell me they’re nervous that it won’t work, but that just proves that you want it to work—you care about getting better and want to get better. And admitting that is one of the hardest steps of recovery.”
“Why I’m Still Here”
“Therapy is a big reason as to why I’m still here,” Rosenberg said. “It’s allowed me to systematically process years of trauma and has given me the space to unsnarl painful, and often dangerous, ways of thinking. Because when your mind is a time bomb, you need a safe place to diffuse it.”
Orlov noted that he’s worked with various wonderful therapists who’ve helped him “heal the mortal wounds of mental illness” and “saved my life, helped me regain meaning many times over.”
Therapy, Kaufman said, has given her the strength and motivation to better understand herself, work on herself, and truly care about herself and her future.
“It’s brought me a sense of peace I never imagined I could have just a few years ago,” she said. “And I don’t know where I’d be today without it.”
Blackman can’t imagine her life without therapy either. “It was like I was suffocating without it and therapy has become the air I need to navigate through life and be the best version of myself.”
Therapy can feel intimidating, and it can feel impossible to pick up the phone to actually make an appointment. But know you’re not alone. Howes hopes that National Psychotherapy Day encourages individuals to share their therapy stories so others can find what they need—“and reap the benefits” that therapy very much has to offer.