Therapy has a branding problem.
In my experience, most people think that therapy is only for when you have hit total rock bottom, something deliciously dramatic like:
- You and your partner insult and scream at so impressively, an observer would assume you hired an ex-telenovela writer to script your arguments. Solution? Couples therapy.
- You are lying in a pool of your own vomit and shame, having just spent your entire huge billion dollar inheritance on booze, drugs, and sex workers. Solution? Go to rehab.
- You are so completely overwhelmed with anxiety that you can’t speak to another living soul. So often it feels like live your life to be as small as possible, in hopes that no one will notice you too much, because if they did, it somehow would ruin everything. Solution? Go to therapy and talk every week about all the shit your scared of.
Do you see what I mean? And dude, I haven’t even gotten to talking about all the stereotypes of therapists (and I’m not going to here, because I just can’t even with how Netflix and HBO is conspiring to make us look like a bunch of weird, creepy stalkers: see here and here for what I mean.)
What sucks about thinking “I can only go to therapy when I’m sick enough” is that too many people stay miserable for so fucking long.
When you imagine that there is some magical criteria that you do not yet meet, you continue to live in pain, convinced that there is something you should be doing, but you’re not sure what.
Not only does waiting to hit rock bottom before going to therapy keep us stuck in suffering, we also start to exhibit issues in how we feel in our body, how intensely we experience our emotions, and how we begin to engage in actions that we feel ashamed about, but helpless in the face of stopping.
Life isn’t as dramatic as we wish it would be though.
And there often is not some magical sign from heaven (or the aliens, depending on your eschatology). Rather, if you start to pay closer attention, you often begin to notice things like:
- You keep choosing friends, romantic partners, or jobs, that at your core, you just don’t vibe with. You find yourself settling because you’re scared that it’s wrong to want more.
- You are pretty much worried about something–small or large–all of the time. Anxiety is like this constant buzzing in your ears, and you find yourself working to control everything and everyone around you to try to lower the volume.
- It’s not like you’re going to kill yourself, it’s just that sometimes the idea of being gone–never waking up and staying asleep forever–sounds so fucking appealing. Sure, some people might miss you, but you’re confident they’d get over it pretty quick.
All of these things break my heart. Even more than the earlier examples of “rock bottom.” This is some heavy shit. Sure, none are all that dramatic. Yet each of these are things I have heard from clients. Eventually, they have found themselves in a place that they don’t want to live in this silent misery.
So many people walk around wounded, minimizing their hurts, because they’re not Lifetime movie worthy, and definitely don’t compare to what they imagine people who go to therapy must deal with. In my experience, it’s these smaller, deeper cuts that permeate the landscape of who comes to therapy.
The truth is therapy is for anyone who wants to heal and grow. If we can learn how to recognize the signs in our body, emotions, and actions, then we can recognize when it is time to go to therapy. When we are willing to take the risk and begin therapy, we learn that it is entirely possible to go through life feeling grounded, emotionally aware, and able to move forward in ways that fill us with genuine pride.
Keep reading for 3 signs to recognize when it’s time to go to therapy, so you can stop waiting to hit rock bottom.
without therapy, you are stuck pretending how much you love your life
I hear you, you’re fine, completely okay, nothing in your life is bad at all.
I mean, except the part where you often feel like shit, don’t know how to move forward in your relationships, hate your job and can’t imagine it getting any better, and feel paralyzed by embarrassment of who you are.
Oh! And let’s not even start on how you find yourself using alcohol, marijuana, work, food, sex, or video games to numb out and forget how shitty you feel anytime you pay attention to how you’re feeling.
I mean totally, you’re fine. In fact you LOVE your life. You love it so much, you can’t stand it. Like literally, can’t stand it, so you keep hiding away in your apartment, binging Netflix hoping that someone will both invite you out to drinks and while simultaneously dreading that someone will.
You’re going to keep going to a job that bores you, engaging in relationships that dissatisfy you, and engaging in activities that shame you.
All I have to say, is that sounds like it completely sucks. And if that’s what being fine is, then why the hell do you want to be fine? Why not be extraordinarily happy? Or deeply connected? Or profoundly proud of who you are?
When you live this way, you are not getting any closer to being better than fine, in fact, you are closer to the precipice of being completely and totally not okay.
with therapy, you never have to fake how awesome your life is
Although you are not fine, you have the potential to be way, way more than just okay. You have the opportunity to create a life you take utter delight in. If you’re willing to take the risk and own that you need help.
When we choose to start to admit that we are not okay, the possibility for change exists. Instead of continuing to attempting to keep all your emotions under lock and key (and I bet they've been sneaking out in unexpected ways). You can start to love yourself deeply, and enjoy your days more and more.
You have the opportunity to let go of this heavy baggage, and have relationships you feel known and deeply loved, pursue a career that brings you joy (and money), and feel glad that you are you.
3 Signs that It’s Time to Go Therapy
Yes, it’s true that you might be feeling scared that going to therapy will somehow label you as a basket case. (secret: it won’t.) The exact opposite is true, we go to therapy not to discover that we’re awful, terrible people, but to discover our strengths, our complexity, and our beautiful unknown.
The key to recognizing when it’s time to go to therapy is in being open to the fact that you probably don’t actually need to read the next three signs I lay out (though, I mean, go ahead and do–they’re pretty informative). If you’ve made it this far, there is something within you that wants to change. You don’t need a sign to change. All you need is the desire to do so.
And really, going to therapy is pretty amazing. And not nearly as scary as you might think. So often physical sensations, emotions, and actions can seem all mixed up into one giant blob of: “shit I’m unhappy about.”
What makes therapy seemingly magical, is that it provides space for you to delve into who you are, why you do the things you do, and how you can continue to grow into the person you long to be. So shit you’re unhappy can be transformed into the hard earned gold of your life.
Take a look at these 3 signs to see how you can know when it’s time to find a therapist
It’s Time to Go to Therapy If Your Body Acts Like It Hates You
There’s that great line in Sherlock, where he remarks that “the brain is what counts, everything else is just transport.”
It would be so awesome if that was true. Unfortunately, it’s a load of bullshit. (And it’s also interesting, though not surprising that throughout the series Sherlock consistently abuses his body. When we discount our bodies, we put them in danger of being seriously harmed.)
Our bodies–of which our brains are a part–hold so much, and often when we are feeling sidelined in our lives, it shows up in our body.
You might begin noticing that your appetite is super out of whack (wanting to eat all the time, or then hardly ever eating, in some weird cycle that is impossible to understand). You find yourself watching your weight fluctuate, and get pissed off in the process. Sleep is a mess and no matter how much or how little sleep you get, you are chronically exhausted.
Then there’s the muscle tension. No matter how you move, it seems like something is always tense and sore. And lately, you’ve might have even found yourself in a WebMD spiral trying to determine diseases have chronic stomach pain, numbness in your hands, low libido, and the daily tension headaches as their major symptoms.
You hate to admit it, but somedays it feels like you and your body are at war with each other, and you are losing soundly.
Physical Symptoms Might Indicate Mental Health Issues
First, stop trying to diagnosis yourself. You probably don’t have a medical degree (and if you do, you don’t get to be your own physician in any case) and go to your primary care provider. If your physical symptoms are assessed to be not directly caused by any illnesses, then there’s a good chance that they are seeking to communicate to you how distressed you are actually feeling.
Part of the reason our body does this is because it’s easier to minimize our emotions and thoughts. It’s a lot harder to minimize a blinding headache, countless sleepless nights, or a stomach that is constantly clenched.
When I work with clients, I encourage them to pay close attention to their body as we explore whatever they want to work on in therapy. More often than not there is a tie between the physical sensation and the emotion they are feeling. When we can discover how their body is communicating to them, we begin to find ways that they can sooth the pain, get the sleep they need, and pursue more balance in how they experience their body.
It’s Time to Go To Therapy If You’re Keeping Your Emotions Under Lock & Key
Emotions are a hot commodity in therapy. I genuinely do love to ask you how experiences made you feel, because so often people don’t know what they are feeling. And, even when they do, they frequently are scared to share it with me (nevermind loads of other people in their life).
Often when a new client starts with me, we will begin to talk about about what has brought them into therapy. Inevitably, we hone in on experiences and relationships that have elicited many emotions. As we get close to these tender areas, inevitably the client will say or do something, that brings them up to the surface. They are frightened to share with me what they actually felt, because it puts them in a place of vulnerability.
For many of the people I work with, hanging out in a vulnerable place is the worst case scenario they can imagine. Later in our work when they are able to reflect on what it was like to share tender things with me, they tell me things like:
- “Ugh, I just didn’t want to word vomit all over you. It’s so hard to share this stuff, it makes me feel so angry and ashamed.”
- “I was scared you would judge me…as badly as I judge me.”
- “I didn’t want to cry. I didn't want you to see how upset I really am.”
Underneath each of these reflections was a core fear that I would shame them, and in doing so, make everything so much worse. The trouble with shame though, is it wants to hold on to all your emotions so tightly. Shame works so hard to protect you from feeling your feelings, never mind sharing them with another person.
This is deeply rooted self-protection.
In the end, it works to completely silence your emotions. However, emotions love to rebel against restriction. If the only way they can get noticed is if they increase their intensity, then they will take it to defcon 5. They desperately want you to heal, even if it means making you fucking miserable in the process.
When emotions have been locked away by shame, it can be very difficult to sort through how to unlock them in ways that allow you to have some measure of control in how you express them, rather than letting them take over and ruin your life.
You may have tried to unlock them on your own, but I imagine your attempts were not successful. When we try to do this work alone, we often find instead of untangling this painful web, we only succeed in tightening it’s hold on us.
Emotions are Complex Clues that Are Difficult to Make Sense of Alone
Bottled up emotions are dangerous. They have in many ways the ability to completely annihilate our sense of who and what we are. The longer you suppress your emotions, the longer they have had to ferment into a poisonous brew.
Instead of trying to decode and release them on your own, getting in touch with what you’re feeling is best done with company. In therapy, I guide clients into paying attention and feeling into their emotions. We work together for the client to stay grounded and aware of what they are feeling, as well as investigating what experience prompted these feelings.
One of the reasons you do this with a therapist instead of just your best friend, is because therapists are trained and experienced professionals who are seasoned in how to hold intense emotions while staying grounded and calm.
There’s something profoundly wonderful when you get to do as much word vomiting, snot-filled crying, and allowing yourself to be tender and raw, without having to worry about what the other person is thinking or feeling. Instead, you get to be held (metaphorically speaking) and have that person feel with you.
It’s Time to Go To Therapy Your Actions are Out of Whack with Your Integrity
For the majority of people, initially deciding to go to therapy, has way less to do with emotions and physical symptoms, and more to do with a mismatch of what they want and the actions they are taking.
Clients share that they have been using alcohol or cannabis to lubricate not only social interactions, but also to soothe themselves when they get home from work, or that party, or that drinks thing with friends. They’re starting to realize that they’re tense all the freaking time. They’ve gone from a bottle of wine with friends to a bottle of wine by themselves, and now they’re frantically googling whether or not they are an alcoholic.
Some tearfully admit that they been binging again, and they loathe themselves for doing so. While others are certain if they could only be more disciplined, restrict their calories just a little more, that they would be proud of their body and be willing to finally have sex with the lights on. To even think about doing so now is the most ridiculous thing they’ve ever heard.
Others confide that their whole relationship history is just a series of disappointing friends-with-benefits situations, but they’re too scared to risk being in a more “serious” relationship with someone. So they just keep on the path of casual sex, though it isn’t what they’ve truly been longing for.
Almost all share how they have found other, more ‘socially acceptable’ ways to hide their pain at the cost of never sharing their true selves with others.
They become the most dedicated employee in the office–first in, last out–because going home just reminds them how miserable they really are. Or they become the ultimate pseudo-therapist in their group of friends, always holding the secrets of others, never sharing their own.
More people, than I think you’d believe, share with me that they’ve thought about hurting themselves. They haven’t, and often that thought is terrifying enough to send them straight into finding a therapist–suicidal thoughts definitely counts as rock bottom for many.
There are many other ways that my client’s actions are out of whack with their integrity: explosive anger, withdrawing from others, out of control with their spending, and engaging in more classic risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with strangers, driving while under the influence, or deliberately self-harming.
So of course if any of those behaviors are part of your life, you want to stop them, immediately. It makes complete sense that you would want to do what you know is ‘right’ and ‘good’, and stop engaging in these self-sabotaging actions.
It isn’t quite that easy though is it?
And look, I get it. My husband and I are really diligently trying to eat healthier right now, and I’m sitting here writing, while munching on half a chocolate chip cookie at Panera thinking, “oh, Jenn, how come you didn’t pick that apple? You love apples! You love how you feel when you’re eating fruit as your sweet treats. So why’d you go for the cookie?”
Whatever action you are engaging with that is out of whack with your integrity also functions in a way that meets a specific need, but likely not in the healthiest way. There are layers upon layers of why we choose the actions we do.
Ingrained Behaviors are Difficult to Change Alone
When behaviors meet specific needs in our lives, it’s so much harder to stop engaging in them. This is especially true if you don’t know what need that action is meeting. Part of the reason you go to therapy–any kind of therapy–is to learn how to do things differently.
Not surprisingly, this isn’t a chance that happens overnight. If it was, you could just keep googling what to do about your behavior, or keep consuming all the self-help books you can handle. It doesn’t matter how many tricks and techniques you know about how to stop, until you know why you start in the first place.
When you schedule a session with me, that’s where we dig in deeper. I’ll help you explore what sets these behaviors in motion, and challenge you to get curious instead of critical about what’s happening.
By engaging with someone who is an expert in how and why we do the things we do, you make space to let yourself not only let go of this behavior, but also ensure another unhealthy behavior doesn’t take its place.
are you ready to unpack your shit?
Recognizing that it’s time to go to therapy can be an absolutely terrifying, courageous decision. You truly find relief from the suffering that prompts you to come. And I am excited to help you.
So, really, dude. Stop carrying all that heavy shit on your own. It’s time to reach out and ask for help. Schedule a consult with me today, and let’s work together to help you unload that baggage.