Before I started on my Psychology training I was amongst the majority of you who thought that you had to be half way to crazy before you picked up the phone to make an appointment with a therapist. It was only after I qualified that I realised that therapy is in fact for absolutely everyone, yet it seems to be utilised by only a small subset of those that could benefit. Perhaps this has something to do with a misunderstanding about therapy, what it is, what it entails, and what it could do for you. Throughout my experiences as a Psychologist, a wife, a mother, and a friend I am yet to come across anyone who doesn't harbor a little anxiety. Who wasn't in need of reflection and clarity at some point in their lives. Who couldn't benefit from the space and time that therapy affords. I of course include myself in this. I remain on the hunt for a completely healthy human being who is so well adjusted, reflective and entirely neuroses free that therapy would be of absolutely no benefit to them. I am in fact understating my case, a trait which for those that know me well is entirely untypical!
The truth is we could all in fact benefit from therapy at some point throughout our lives. We all experience significant challenges at one time or another, we all understand loss and grief, we could all use a listening ear every now and then. We are in fact not as rational as we like to believe and our views of ourselves, our thoughts and behaviours are often blinkered by our own perceptions and experiences.
Most of us, by now, are likely to have developed our own go-to coping mechanisms for when stress and challenges arise. Hopefully these are healthy and helpful mechanisms such as finding comfort in our friends and family, talking to those around us whom we trust and perhaps even getting the adrenaline and endorphins pumping with a little exercise. But regardless of where our coping mechanisms lie on the continuum, we could all use a little extra support every now and then. I am sure we can all think of times throughout our lives when circumstances have gotten in the way of our well being and we needed, or could have done with, help taking back control. Work stressors, relationship difficulties, family conflict and parenting issues are part and parcel of the human condition, and they are all valid reasons for seeking a little extra support.
Before you dismiss the idea that therapy is for everyone in its entirety consider the science. Research has shown that verbalising feelings can actually have a positive effect on our brains. This means that talking through your daily challenges, thoughts, feelings and behaviours, even those that might be considered insignificant, is beneficial for our well being. This doesn't seem a giant leap considering that we are fundamentally social creatures and communication and connection are at the core of our very being.
My understanding is that people often avoid coming to therapy because of the stigma it holds. People fear it may cost them their jobs, their relationships and worst of all their respect and reputation. The public seem to believe that if they keep up the illusion of mental health they will fit into the societal mold of appearing "normal". But the truth is that many people who attend therapy are not experiencing serious mental health problems. They are more likely to be simply experiencing difficulties that are taxing their current ability to cope, which in turn is having an adverse effect on their psychological health and well being. You see therapy has two possible goals, to treat illness and/or to promote well being. Therapy is popularly known and understood for the former but is significantly lacking in its recognition for the latter. Hence the popular perception that therapy is there to be accessed by people who are ill.
Here are some ways that therapy can enable those looking to promote their well being to live a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling life:
1. Therapy can help you deal with your feelings and experiences, even if they are not life altering or traumatic. As a Psychologist I recognise the reputation therapy has as a tool for overcoming depression, anxiety and so fourth. But more than that, therapy itself is a way of exploring the connections between our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Therapy can be an interpersonal laboratory, a place which affords you the time for quiet reflection and learning. Therapy can help you to see how your cognitions and emotions impact your behaviour and ultimately your well being. It is a place where you can experience some honest feedback and get a sense of how you appear to others, helping you to see things from a different perspective. I think on some level we all recognise that there is a gap between our "real selves" and the self that we present to the world. Therapy allows the space for this acknowledgement and reflection and ultimately this may lead to positive change. Therapy can help us to develop compassion towards ourselves, improving self-esteem and acceptance of who we really are. So you don't have to be experiencing a huge trauma or upheaval in your life to get the benefit and insight that therapy offers on our every day emotions, behaviours and relationships.
2. Therapists can help you to work towards and achieve your goals, even the little ones! Most of us are striving for something better in one way or another. These goals can be huge, such as a change of career, but they can also be smaller but just as significant, such as better and more honest communication with a loved one, or becoming a better parent. Seeking out therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool both with regards to motivation and achievability when it comes to working towards goals. Many of us revert to old habits, behaviours and patterns that are familiar to us or we experienced in childhood. Despite our best objections behaviour can at times be difficult to change on our own. It can be helpful to have a professional who will not only be able to hold you accountable and check on your progress, but also as a means for support when challenges to achieving your goals arise. Moreover the science suggests that seeking out support can increase our resilience against stress, a pretty useful tool when we are making life changes.
3. Therapy can help you problem solve and find purpose. I have seen many clients who have come to me with a particular problem, but after a few assessment sessions and a chance to discuss things openly and honestly we have come to agree that the problem in itself is only a symptom. The heart of the matter is often a lack of sense of purpose or self. Therapy can help when you feel a sense of uncertainly. Where the problem might seem fuzzy and hard to pin down. Therapy offers a chance for exploration and open discussion without judgment. It provides an opportunity for reflection and often clarity. Many of my clients have told me that simply coming along has helped them understand their difficulties more clearly, even when I have offered nothing more than a listening ear.
4. Therapy can help us let go of things we are holding on to. Holding a grudge isn't a diagnosable problem but it can have a significant impact on our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and overall well being. Therapy offers the space to explore the reasons for holding onto negative feelings and can help you to practice acceptance, compassion and forgiveness. A good therapist can help you to learn to resolve past issues and move forward in a more positive light.
5. Therapy can allow you the time and space to practice new things and focus on yourself. I don't know how many times each week I must say to my family and to myself "I just need a moment to think!" Therapy allows you the time and space to 'just be' for a while. To explore issues you want to reflect on further and to get to know yourself that little bit better. Therapy can be a place to unload freely and learn how we can handle our daily lives differently to help achieve a healthier and happier space for living. It also provides a platform to practice new things. For example I encourage my detached clients to practice expressing emotion, my passive clients to practice assertiveness and my self-conscious clients to practice compassion and acceptance during our sessions. These new behaviours can seem scary to initiate in the real world at first and therapy offers the space to perfect these new behaviours before stepping out and trying them at home.
I do have one slight caveat to all of this however. This has to be your own decision. You have to want to go to therapy and be motivated and invested in attending. You are unlikely to benefit if you feel you are being cajoled into it by your family or colleagues. For those that choose to go to therapy because you want to enhance and enrich your life, you have my utmost respect and admiration. I am impressed you have taken action to better yourself and live a more fulfilling happier life. For everyone else...get in on the action, your future self will thank you for it!
For more information or if you would like to read some of my other blogs please visit my website at www.nicolamccaffrey.com. You can also follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest and Instagram for further information and free resources.