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 short time. After a couple of months, 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.”
Which was gratifying, but of course I secretly worried she was just bored.
I’m Northern and generally the sort of person who has rolled my eyes when hearing the word “therapy”. But as it turns out, therapy can be extremely helpful. It doesn’t need to last for months or years, and it can be a useful way to speak to someone and learn strategies to help you understand, move on, or adopt to changes in your life.
Here’s what I learned from my experience of therapy:
A therapist provides a useful ‘outside’ view
I never thought much about counselling until I found myself in conflict with part of my family. As a result we’d lost contact with several people who had previously been a big part of our lives.
After a year, I had to admit that I was really struggling. Like many adopted people, I have a huge need for family connection and approval. Losing that unexpectedly was devastating. I couldn’t work or sleep or focus – and I certainly couldn’t put it behind me.
Then, at the start of 2021, I found out that my birth mother had died. I gained contact with two sisters, and that turned out to be – complicated.
It was the kick up the behind I needed to take action and I decided to look for expert help from a local therapist.
I had no idea what therapy is like but I quickly realised that it 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?
These were questions that encouraged me to think. About how my personality shaped the situation I was in, and how other people’s personalities did the same thing. Sometimes, just explaining a situation to someone else – who doesn’t have any emotional involvement – helps you to understand it better.
The therapist was also great at encouraging me to be LESS polite and reasonable.
Often when we have issues in our lives, we try to say the ‘right’ thing and make people feel better. Having an external ear in a therapist means you don’t need to do that. My therapist often said, “This is a space where you can vent. Your feelings are just as valid and important as anyone else’s.”
Let’s face it. Sometimes we’re just incredibly pissed off. We think they’re mean and unfair and stupid. But we don’t say those things out loud because we’re adults and we’re trying to be reasonable. Turns out sometimes it’s very therapeutic to just have a good old vent!
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?”
Like many of us, I don’t always speak to myself with the kindness I’d offer a friend.
I’m a procrastinator. I’m so stupid, sometimes. I’m so bad with people. I’m so disorganised. I dwell on things, for far too long. When I’ve had difficult situations in life, like many people, I blame myself. If I wasn’t so X or Y or Z then this wouldn’t have happened to me.
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.
Your family doesn’t decide your value
I mean – all families are complicated, right?
My family is complicated because there’s fostering and adoption and estrangement and bereavement and addiction and abuse, and a whole host of events that have shaped us, and the way we relate to one another.
I spent ten years in foster care and I think that’s why I’m quite needy. I like a lot of reassurance, all the time, that I’m truly wanted and needed and loved. But for a long time I was in a very unhealthy position of feeling it was more important that other people approved of me than me actually approving of myself.
I think lots of people have versions of this story, for all sorts of different reasons. Many of us find it far too important to feel like our family approves of us.
Therapy reminded me that ALL families are complicated and messy. Even if you can’t have healthy, loving relationships with important people, it doesn’t take away the fact that you’re a good person who brings good things to the world. That is true EVEN if your family or friends or partner or whoever happens not to agree.
Related to this, my therapist said something that I think is helpful: “If you are living in a way that is true to your core values, and reflects the things about yourself that you don’t want to change, does it really matter if someone else doesn’t agree with them?”
Which is a fancy way of saying if I’m independent and I like that I’m independent and someone falls out with me because I’m independent – should I want to change myself so they’ll like me more? Of course not!
Equally, it’s important not to demonise people who don’t like you. They’re not terrible people because they don’t like you. Just as you have things about yourself you don’t want to change, so do they. We’ve all lived different experiences that shape our values and personalities and some people’s values will be so different to yours that it’s hard to be close. It’s not that you’re wrong or right, or good or bad. You’re just looking at the world through different windows.
It’s probably not about you
I think a lot of us spend a lot of time imagining that a lot of stuff is about us, when it probably isn’t.
When my relationship with one person in my life broke down, I was inclined to think I must be a terrible person for them to think I’m fundamentally worthless to them.
My therapist said, “Is that realistic? That someone could know you for so many years and think you’re terrible? Because I think they know you, and they know very well that you wouldn’t hurt someone intentionally.”
The point being that the situation that I assumed was entirely about me, probably wasn’t. Sometimes, situations and reactions and people don’t make sense to us because the situation is about something bigger than just us.
Maybe you did disappoint or hurt or offend someone. Maybe they are feeling angry or disappointed or embarrassed or any of a hundred different emotions.
Some of that emotion might relate to what you said, or did, specifically. But some of it might be about other things going on in that person’s life. So for example:
- Could this person be using this opportunity to express anger they feel over a long-standing resentment that they haven’t felt able to express before?
- Did creating a big conflict help to distract someone from issues in their own life that they didn’t want to think about?
- Is creating a conflict where you’re the “bad guy” helping someone to feel better about ways they might feel that they themselves are failing?
- Maybe this person enjoys being a victim or having conflict because people sympathise with them and give them attention, in a situation where they’ve felt overlooked?
- Perhaps what you said or did inadvertently hit on something that person feels vulnerable about, and they’re over reacting out of pain?
You might never know for sure WHY someone is choosing this situation. But if there’s a conflict and you’ve tried to resolve it but the other person has refused, you be sure of 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 situation, 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:
- That person 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 don’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, it absolutely fucking does. Go find people who love you. Because that is the very, very least any of us deserve.
- Complicated, painful and 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.