what is therapy like

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.

Or maybe not. I only saw my therapist for a few weeks. After a month she said, “Of course there are two sides to every story but there’s also usually someone who is right, and you are right. You don’t really need my help to understand the situation, it seems to me that you understand it perfectly well.”

Anyway.

If you worry that therapy has to last ages, or has to be expensive, or has to be a deep, probing look into your life, let me reassure you. It doesn’t. It can be a short course of conversations that help you clarify your thinking and move on, emotionally.

Here’s what I learned from my experience of therapy:

An outside view is always helpful

I never thought much about counselling until I found myself in conflict with half of my family. I’d apologised but things weren’t resolved and actually, the people involved simply stopped speaking to me (and my daughter).

After a year, I had to admit that I was really struggling with the situation. As an adopted person, one of my particular weak spots is family connection and approval – having that withdrawn from me by people I’d trusted to always care for us – well, it was devastating. I couldn’t work or sleep or focus – and I certainly couldn’t put it behind me.

At the start of 2021, I found out that my birth mother had died.

It was the kick up the behind I needed to take action. I decided I wouldn’t waste any more of my life feeling so upset – and if I couldn’t quite manage to move past the situation by myself, I’d look for expert help. So I found a local therapist.

What I quickly realised is that therapy isn’t about someone telling you what to do, or think. Mostly they ask questions to help you look at the situation in different ways. My therapist said things like:

  • How would you describe that person to someone who has never met them?
  • Why do you think that person made the choice to have conflict?
  • If you could wave a wand and make things better, what would you like to change?

A therapist points out things that are amazingly obvious – but only once you voice them out loud. I also found my therapist was really great at encouraging me to be LESS polite and reasonable, to stop looking for reasons why someone did X or Y. She often said, “This is your space to vent. Your feelings are just as valid and important as anyone else’s.”

finding therapists

 

I’m a worthwhile person and so are you.  

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, sometimes. I’m so bad with people. I’m so disorganised. I dwell on things, for far too long.

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. I’m honest.

Talking about this really helped me to see that our value isn’t defined only by other people.  Even if someone else doesn’t value you, it’s still important to value yourself, and know that you bring good things to the world.

what i learned from my therapist

Our family doesn’t decide our value

I mean – families are complicated, right?

Our family is complicated because there’s fostering and adoption and estrangement and bereavement and a whole host of events that have shaped us, and the way we relate to one another.

Me? I’m the youngest. I spent a lot of time in foster care, before being adopted. I find it hugely important to feel that my family approves of me, and my choices.

That’s not unique to me – but it did mean that when my family cut us out of their lives, it was tough. My inclination was to feel, “I guess they never really wanted me, after all, once they saw something in me they didn’t like.”

Therapy reminded me that ALL families are messed up. All sorts of families stop speaking to each other, not because of adoption or fundamental failings in someone’s personality – but because people are complicated and they get hurt, and they’re stubborn and they commit to stupid choices that don’t really make sense, but all of a sudden it’s too late to turn the clock back and the family is just… broken.

My therapist helped me to see that I am a good person who brings value to the world, and that isn’t necessarily only true if your family agrees with it. Your friends agree. Your extended family agrees. Your colleagues and your social media friends and the people you volunteer with, and the people who read the things you write.

Related to this, my therapist said something that I remember. “If you are living in a way that is true to your core values, and true to the things about yourself that you don’t want to change, does it really matter if someone else doesn’t agree with them?”

Which I guess is a fancy way of saying if you’re being true to yourself and someone doesn’t want to be in your life, would you rather NOT be yourself just to win them back? No thanks.

Rather than deciding this person or that person in your family is TERRIBLE, my therapist talked about the idea that we all have core values, and things that are important to us. And just because someone happens to be related to you, doesn’t mean you have the same values. Actually as life goes on, you might find that your values are so different that it makes it very difficult for you to have a close relationship, or any relationship at all.

It can take some of the sting out of that situation when you realise it’s not necessarily that anyone is WRONG or RIGHT or GOOD or BAD – you are just looking at the world through different lenses.

what happens in therapy

It’s probably not about you.  

It makes me sad to think that this split in our family has now dragged on for several years. At this point, it’s permanent. I can’t see any scenario where things will be any different to how they are now.

I spent a long time thinking, “Wow, I must be a truly terrible person for my family to think I’m so disposable to them.”

And my therapist said, “Is that realistic? That someone could know you for 40 years and think you’re terrible? Because I think they know perfectly well that you wouldn’t hurt someone intentionally.” 

Interesting.

So yes, my relative might be hurt. They might be angry or disappointed or frustrated or embarrassed or any of a hundred different emotions. But they don’t think I’m a terrible person. Because they KNOW that I’m not.

If you’re in a similar situation, my therapist pointed out that conflict that persists after the initial heat of anger is a choice. Someone is making a choice to prolong a conflict and not to resolve it. And they’re making that choice because – in some sense – it helps them. My therapist asked me, “Who is benefiting from this situation?”

Maybe someone is acting out of jealousy or a long-standing resentment? Maybe they’re anxious or battling an issue in their own life that they want to be distracted from, or they need a sense of control. Maybe they like being a victim, and people offering them sympathy and support. Maybe they just have a particular sore spot and poor communication skills and they aren’t equipped to resolve the situation in a sensible manner.

You might never know for sure WHY someone is choosing this situation. But what you can be sure of is that it’s not about you.

 

You don’t have to fix everything.

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, a lot of times 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.