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 give you some much-needed insight.
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’m Northern and basically not the sort of person who ever expected to go to therapy, so I didn’t want either of those things.
Actually, I chose a short term of therapy to give me some practical tools to handle a specific conflict in our family. 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 there was a major conflict in our family. A couple of years ago, I did something that inadvertently upset someone. 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.
Conflict isn’t easy for most of us, but I found it especially hard.
As an adopted person, I have long held a deep conviction that I somehow need to ‘deserve’ or ‘earn’ my family relationships. When those relationships were withdrawn, I struggled to keep the situation in perspective. I found myself feeling rejected, worthless and disposable. I couldn’t work, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t focus on anything.
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, because OF COURSE they think you’re right. That’s what friends do!
At the start of 2021, I found out that my birth mother had died. That was a real catalyst for me.
I told myself that life’s short, and I couldn’t waste any more of it feeling this way. What I needed was someone who could help me sift through my confusion about what the heck had happened, so I could make sense of it, put it in perspective, and move on with my life. 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?”
I’m often someone who can be self-critical. I’m so stupid. I’m so bad with people. Why do I always get obsessed with this stuff? Like many of us, I don’t always speak to myself with the kindness I’d offer a friend.
Rather than asking what I like about myself, asking what I wouldn’t change really made me think about what are the things that I identify as being important parts of my identity. 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: Our family doesn’t define our value
I am someone who has tended to find it incredibly important that my family approves of me, and my choices.
Lots of us are similar, I think. For me, being fostered until I was ten meant that I have always looked for reassurance from my family that I was wanted, that I could be myself and still be important, and worthwhile. When someone in my family withdrew themselves from my life, it was very painful. And my first inclination was to feel, “I guess they didn’t really want me. Just like I thought.”
Therapy helped me to remember that I bring value to the world. That I’m a really good mother, and colleague, and friend. My therapist reminded me about those things I wouldn’t change about myself. And she said, “If you are living in a way that is true to your core, important values, does it matter if someone else doesn’t agree with them?”
Your family not “getting” who you are doesn’t mean you’re worthless or wrong. It just means your values aren’t their values. And vice versa.
My therapist talked about how all the people in our lives have their own set of core values, just like we do. Sometimes those values are the same, but often they’re not. It’s natural to have conflict if you love adventure and your sister loves being home. Or you love solitude but your Mum is the life of the party. If you’re reckless and your cousin is cautious.
It can take some of the sting out of that situation when you realise it’s not necessarily that anyone is WRONG or RIGHT – you are just looking at the world through different lenses.
Things therapy taught me #4: it’s not about you
The conflict in our family has really dragged on, sadly, and it’s now been years.
I spent a long time thinking, “Wow, I must be a really crappy person for that person to hold onto their anger for THIS long.”
My therapist said, “Don’t you think your relative knows you’re a good person? After all they’ve known you for 40 years. I think they know perfectly well you wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone.”
Once you stop thinking that you and your many flaws are the reason why someone has withdrawn from your life, you’re free to think about what’s actually happening. The therapist suggested that when a conflict isn’t resolved in a few days or weeks, someone is usually choosing to keep that conflict going. My therapist asked me, “Who is benefiting from this situation?”
The answer to this question is usually quite complicated.
Maybe this conflict distracts them from something else. Maybe they’re feeling angry and frustrated and you’re an easy target for those feelings. Maybe it’s a long-standing issue that’s built up over years and this one tiny dispute was the final straw. Maybe that person is anxious and this conflict helps them feel strong, or in control. Maybe they like people giving them sympathy and attention as the “wronged” party.
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 month might be because you were a d!ck. But someone not speaking to you for a year or two or ten? Unless you’ve specifically asked them to stay away, then that’s a choice they’re making.
Things therapy taught me #5: it’s okay to move on
I think therapy can be about someone asking questions that make you say, “Oh. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
What my therapist helped me to see, just through asking questions about me and my family, was that it’s okay to be sad about a person who is no longer in your life. It’s okay to wish you could turn the clock back and to miss happier, easier times.
But there are three things I need to remember:
- My relative might come around one day, they might not. I accept they have their own reasons for the choices they’ve made and those reasons are not my burden to carry.
- It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to move on from people who can’t love you. You are not for everyone, and everyone is not for you. And the world tells us that doesn’t apply to families, but honey, sometimes it does. Go find people who love you. Because that is the very, very least any of us deserve.
- Complicated, painful broken families are normal. I promise. Virtually everyone you meet has a complicated family relationship. Don’t feel like yours is something to be ashamed of, or never spoken about.