Lessons Learned in Therapy
I started therapy about 7.5-8 years ago and have gone almost consistently ever since. Here are some things I've learned.
1. The importance of finding the right therapist
Over the years I have seen three therapists, two psychiatrists, and some other doctors. I have built myself a team for holistic support, but it took quite a bit of time. My first therapist was gentle, almost motherly, and was. the right introduction to my journey of healing. After a few years, it became clear I had stalled in my progress and she wanted to do some experimental treatments I wasn't totally on board for, so I found somebody who specialized in my area of need.
My second therapist was rough around the edges, but had a wealth of knowledge to push me through some of the most difficult processes. Covid was a big set-back as I hated online therapy, and she ultimately decided to continue with remote-only options. We eased our meetings, but I ultimately decided to take a short break and look for a new in-person option.
My current therapist was recommended to me by my dietitian. She has a different specialty and approach than the prior two, and it's been a bit of a refresh. Long story short, it's completely fine to end things with a therapist if the fit isn't right, you've reached the end of your journey with them, or for whatever reason you decide. It's also ok to find another one that meets your needs. A good therapist will be supportive and help with the transition.
2. The F Responses
We often hear about the fight or flight response, but there's more:
These are the 5 trauma responses, and while the trauma can go away, these responses can remain. They can become second nature and create inappropriate responses to non-traumatic events/your mundane life. Understanding what each of these 5 mean, how they are triggered, and ways to break out of them is essential. They're going to pop up a bit in my other lessons.
3. You don't have to rehash your trauma
I have enough flashbacks as it is. They're disorienting and panic-inducing. My first therapist tried a method that caused a severe regression - I dissociated, flashed back to a specific traumatic event, came to, and freaked the fuck out. I could never sit in that chair at therapy again. It was the first time I realized I dissociate, it was the first time I recalled that traumatic event, and I was not prepared for any of it.
From then on, I set the boundaries of what specific details of events I'd disclose. You can heal without having to recount the story. The next two therapists were better equipped to handle this method of therapy.
4. Nightmares = a way of processing
I've always been a dreamer in the literal and figurative sense. My imagination got me through tough times. However, my dreams are a cornucopia of feelings, many times nightmares, and always vivid. I take medication quiet down the worst of the nightmares, but not so much that I don't dream at all. I have come to recognize that the feelings I have in these dreams are echoes of the emotions from trauma, or feelings I'm experiencing in present day - just with a different situation. It's a gauge to let me know where I need to focus or take care. Some dreams stay with me for months. Some dissipate soon after I wake up, but the emotion remains.
5. Real but not true
I can perceive something as real, but it is not true. The emotion of being terrified that my partner is going to leave me, because I've lost a lot of people I care about in my life is real - but it's not true that he is leaving me. In fact, he's right in the same room as me right now. I could perceive a situation one way, and that way is real for me, but it's not the truth. This one has been a struggle, but I've slowly gotten the hang of it over time.
6. Limiting Beliefs
A self-thought or belief that essentially restricts you - often negative. I am broken. I don't deserve love. I deserve to lose friends. I don't belong anywhere. I will never get out of the abyss. Those are limiting beliefs. This is by far one of the hardest lessons I've worked on. I tend to fall into this one a bit, and then pull myself out, and keep going.
I do deserve love
I don't deserve to lose friends
I do belong
I am out of the abyss
...someday I won't feel broken...that's the one I keep working on. I believe I'll get there though.
7. The power of reframing
Instead of saying "I need to" or "I should" reframe it as "I would like to"
Sounds kind of silly, right? I thought so too, but it relieves that burden of expectation on tasks that are not necessary and the potential of feeling like crap if you do not do what you said you need to/should do.
I need to take my medicine, is a correct statement.
I would like to go back to yoga, is another correct statement.
Reframing can and does make a difference.
8. Don't invalidate your experiences
If you knew me while I was growing up, chances are you would have no idea that I experienced a significant amount of trauma. On the outside, my family appeared perfectly normal, and I became a master at flying under the radar. It's always been easy for me to downplay my experiences and use the "Others have it worse". Apparently, this is a hallmark PTSD move. The thing is, you don't have to have the worst experience in the world for it to impact you. We're all human, we all have emotions and our own level of resilience. It's not a sign of weakness to acknowledge your experiences and seek out the support you need.
9. Unbecoming a chameleon
I am a learned chameleon. Figuring out what others were into was an easy way to survive. The ultimate people pleaser. The shit I've done to please others, despite it not being my thing. And the saddest thing, I haven't known what my things are. I am now learning the activities, foods, ideas, music, and so much more that are most pleasing to me. I still find myself slipping into people pleaser mode, and a part of me has accepted that I'm ok having some level of that. But I've also learned how to be more assertive.
10. Anger and other emotions are perfectly ok
I used to ball my anger up so tight, force it down so it couldn't see the light of day. A fear of anger, as I associated anger with bad things. But the emotion of anger (my partner always says it's a secondary emotion) is not so bad - it just is. I allow myself to feel anger now, and I accept it for what it is. Just like I allow myself to feel all of the other emotions that were locked up. Learning emotional regulation after feeling numb for years was quite the ride.
11. Setting Boundaries
In addition to people pleasing, I was the type that didn't have or care about boundaries. However, this became an issue when I realized a core problem hindering my ability to heal was my own family. I am not at the point where I can quite cut them off, but I have set boundaries and limited contact for my own health. In many ways it's heartbreaking; I feel like an orphan. It's why partner, secondary partner, son, and my friends have become exceptionally important to me.
12. Mental Health & Healing are nonlinear
There is no set path for healing or mental health. We all have our unique experiences, timelines, and quirks that will determine our journey. Healing ebbs and flows. Some times I make great strides, and other times I regress and feel disconnected. The most important part is that I'm trying, I believe in myself, and the best support - my chosen family.
I'm a goofy, awkward, book-loving, hobby-trying, nap-happy, and so much more person. I spent years hiding my authentic self from others for fear of rejection because I didn't fit into societal norms. No longer. I let my freak flag fly, and if you like me that's awesome let's hang out! And if you don't, it's cool - sad for you. I didn't realize that spending years hiding behind walls kept me from creating some of the closest friendships and relationships I've had. Sure, it's also opened me up to more hurt too, but I have the support system and coping skills in place to handle that.