If you’ve ever wondered what is therapy like, if it’s helpful, or whether short-term therapy can help you, hopefully this post will help.
Many people worry that therapy will be expensive. Or perhaps that it needs to be all deep and exploring your past trauma. Therapy can be both of those things, but I chose a short term of therapy to give me some practical tools to handle a specific situation. Here’s what I’ve learned from my first experience of therapy in my 40s.
Things therapy taught me #1: We all need an outside view
I never thought much about counselling until I inadvertently caused a conflict in my family. A couple of years ago, I wrote an article that a relative thought was a deliberate attack on them (it wasn’t). I apologised and spent the best part of a year trying to make amends, but that person and their family hasn’t spoken to us since 2019.
I’m adopted, and I found the situation really hard to cope with. I felt rejected, worthless and disposable. I couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t put the situation out of my mind. Friends were really kind and supportive, but having a friend tell you that of course you’re right and they’re wrong isn’t always enough.
Then, at the start of 2021, I found out that my birth mother had died. I realised that life’s short, and I wasn’t prepared to waste any more of it feeling this way. What I needed was someone who could help me unravel a complicated situation, to see what had happened, to understand how I felt about it, and hopefully to move forward. So I found a local therapist.
What is therapy like? For starters, a therapist won’t tell you what to think, or if you’re right or wrong. They’ll ask questions to help you look at a situation in different ways. They’re great at reassuring you that you’re normal (they’ve heard it all before) and giving you a safe space to vent.
Things therapy taught me #2: I am a worthwhile person
One of the first things my therapist asked was, “What wouldn’t you change about yourself, even if you could?”
This question makes you think about what are your real, core values. What things do you really like about yourself and seem too important to change? I came up with things like – I work hard. I’m quick to laugh. I’m willing to take risks and find new adventures. If I fall down, I pick myself up and try again.
Talking about this really helped me to see that my value isn’t defined only by other people. Even if someone else doesn’t value me, I can value myself, and know that I bring good things to the world.
Things therapy taught me #3: My family doesn’t define my value
I was fostered until I was 10, and even after my adoption, I was always looking for reassurance that my family wanted me around. That’s a habit I didn’t lose when I grew up. So it was very painful to feel that someone in my family could cut us off, and not seem to give it a second thought.
My therapist reminded me that I don’t need to rely on other people for my self-worth (see above). So long as I’m living in a way that’s true to my core values, does it really matter what someone else thinks of me?
We then talked about how my values won’t always be the same as everyone else’s. We talked about people in my family. What’s important to them? How do they like to be seen by the outside world? What do they value about themselves, and other people? What does their home and lifestyle say about them?
Ultimately we all have different values and perspectives on the world. If you prioritise security and community, but your Dad values independence and freedom, at some point you’re probably going to have conflicting views of the world. And maybe your Dad will seem critical, or distant, or disapproving.
It can take some of the sting out of that situation when you realise it’s not necessarily that you’re WRONG – you just are dealing with someone who is looking at the world through a different lens.
Things therapy taught me #4: it’s not about you
When our situation didn’t get resolved in a week or two, I took it as an indication of how terrible my relatives thought I was. My therapist pointed out that was unlikely, because my family has known me for 40 years – they’re aware I’m not someone who would intentionally hurt anyone.
The therapist suggested that when a conflict can’t be resolved, someone is usually choosing to keep that conflict going. My therapist asked me, “Who is benefiting from this situation?”
The reasons for prolonged conflict can be complicated. Someone might feel envious or resentful and use this opportunity to vent those feelings. They might be anxious and need to feel in control. Perhaps they need a “reason” for their problems, because they’re scared to deal with bigger issues. Maybe they just really like the drama. There are as many possible reasons for this stuff as there are people in the world, I’m sure.
I talked to my therapist about different people in my life, and it helped me gain some insight into what might really be going on. It’s not something I’d write about here because it’s speculative, of course. I can’t be certain why people in my life made the choices they did. But what I do know is that someone not speaking to you for a week might be because of you. But someone not speaking to you for a year or two or ten? That’s a choice they’re making for their own reasons.
Things therapy taught me #5: it’s okay to move on
I think therapy is about someone asking questions that make you say, “Oh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
When I started therapy I felt like the worst sort of person. I’d taken all my pain and feelings about being rejected, and turned them in on myself. What therapy showed me is that we can get so tied up in our own feelings that we don’t think about the issues that other people bring to a situation.
My relatives might come around one day, they might not. But for now I can accept they have reasons for the choices they’ve made and those reasons are not my burden to carry. I can feel sad about the gaps in my life where there used to be family get-togethers and lunches and celebrations. But with the support of a therapist, I can move forward and fill those gaps with people and things that make me happy.