A couple of folks have dropped me emails and comments recently thanking me for being open (now and in the past) about my diagnosis of bipolar disorder and c-PTSD, and for talking about coping mechanisms. First, I said this privately but I’ll say it again: you’re welcome.
Second, holy shit, global pandemic and **waves hands at 202020202020202020** the Year That Never Ends Can You Believe This Is Only Halfway, definitely putting some stress on the cracks in all of us right about now. People are lonely and isolated, lashing out, getting clingy, feeling depression and despair and anxiety on civiliation-wide levels that probably haven’t been seen since WWII. As I sit here writing this I’m waiting for a SURPRISE HURRICANE (okay, tropical storm) that just BOOM formed off the coast and headed inland, in a pretty unusual pattern.
Hot ocean make more storm: pretty simple.
Anyway, I am really glad I’m not out there in the no-warning scrum in the local grocery stores buying french toast ingredients in a global pandemic… and I feel really bad for the people whose job it is to be at work in those stores today. (I have done a few turns as a grocery store clerk/food service operator. It’s not an easy job. Stay safe, my service sector brethren.)
I’ve also been talking to some friends who are undergoing non-global-pandemic-related major life changes (divorce, confronting emotionally controlling parents, relocation) about their experiences in therapy, which has been really interesting and enlightening on its own.
And then it occurred to me that some people might be looking at therapy for the first time, and trying to find a therapist right now is a zoo unto itself (My friends and acquaintances who work in those fields are s w a m p e d) and that Therapy Is Scary And Hard. And that maybe I could give a layperson’s overview of what my extensive experience of therapy has taught me, and make it seem a little less overwhelming.
1) It’s not going to be comfortable. My therapist’s job is not to be my cheerleader or life coach. It’s to help me identify and fix my own patterns of behavior that contribute to my unhappiness and the unhappiness of the people around me. Their job is to challenge me and make me confront my own maladaptive behavior.
2) If I didn’t have maladaptive behavior that was making me unhappy, I wouldn’t be in therapy, so buckle up, buttercup.
3) The discomfort I feel in therapy is similar to the discomfort I feel in confronting societal privilege: it’s healthy discomfort. When my therapist guides me to confront my assumptions, I am undermining the point of therapy if I react with defensiveness. I wouldn't be there if my brain defaults were working for me.
3a) Defusing that defensiveness is hard and requires self-awareness and a real ability to check my own responses and think them through. If I am in a reactive state, i.e. if I am triggered or defensive, I can’t do that work. My therapist is going to try to get me into a self-aware and considering state, but it’s my job to do the work to get there too.
4) It’s really easy to fall back into those old patterns of behavior even though they make one unhappy, because they are safe. They’re a known quantity: if I appease the toxic person or persons in my life, I might be miserable, but I’m not taking any risks. Standing up for myself is a risk. Changing myself to become healthier is a risk, and it can result in that person who has a vested interest in the current patterns (a parent, in one instance I was recently talking to a friend about) pushing back hard to try to get me into the unhealthy pattern again. That person has a vested interest in keeping control over me, and they know that conflict hurts, so they will use conflict and the threat of conflict to keep me in line.
4a) Therapy helps me not be the toxic person in anyone else’s life and that’s a worthy goal.
4b) Therapy helps me identify and maintain healthy boundaries, so I can decide just how much of other people’s drama I want to onboard into my own life, rather than just automatically onboarding it all because hey, you have to, right?
Anyway, the end result of all that work and pushing against one’s own reactivity and ingrained habits is that one is no longer stuck repeating the same unhappy pattern over and over again, expecting a different result the next time.
I guess I’m just saying, therapy is scary and hard work and requires one to eventually be honest with one’s self as well as one’s therapist (which is the worst!) But if I’m there to do the work, I’m not there to be cheerled; I’m there to be challenged. And a good therapist is sort of like a good sports coach: they will require me to push myself enough to improve, without causing me injury.
I hope that makes everything a little less scary.