I’ve been in therapy for a long time. I’ll likely be in therapy the rest of my life. I’ve learnt many valuable lessons along the way and I honestly feel that all people can benefit from attending therapy, whether they are diagnosed with a mental illness or not. The therapeutic relationship has been exceptionally important for my recovery journey. I have been fortunate enough to have some amazing therapists come into my life and they have taught me incredible lessons. I’d like to share with you five key lessons I have learned in therapy over the years.
Don’t judge your future by your present
I remember the distinct moment my Psychiatrist said this to me. I was deeply depressed, suicidal and despondent. I was sitting in the chair of his office with my face in my hands, wanting to cry but unable to produce tears. I was moaning about how terrible I felt and how the world was cruel and cursing whatever God may have given me Bipolar Disorder. I saw no way out from my suffering other than suicide. He was quiet for a while and then he uttered these simple words, ‘Don’t judge your future by your present’. Those words went through me like a lightening bolt. I went home and scratched them into my journal, like I was trying to engrave them into my brain. With that one simple phrase he gave me hope for the future. No matter how horrible things might be right now, tomorrow is a brand new day. The future is an opportunity.
Don’t expect people to be anything other than they are
This is something I worked on a lot with my old Psychologist. When I think of our time together this is the lesson that stands out to me. Because I am a perfectionist in nature I tend to expect perfection from others. This often leads to disappointment when people can’t live up to my ridiculously high standards. My standards can often be out of touch with reality. For instance, I might expect my father to be empathetic and tender in a time of crisis. That’s just not my Dad. Anyone who has met him will tell you he is a brash, awkward (in an endearing way) and doesn’t know how to handle emotional situations. To expect him to be anything other than that is cruel to both of us because I get disappointed and hurt, which causes me to act out and treat him poorly. When I learned to stop expecting so much from people, all of my relationships improved tremendously.
My feelings are valid and I need to allow myself to feel them
This is a lesson I have learned from my current Psychologist in a big way. I often self-harm because I am either feeling too intensely and want to punish myself or because I feel numb/am dissociating and need to shake myself into awareness. Something I have worked on with my current therapist is allowing myself to experience emotions without shame and to realise their value. We have worked a lot on trying let myself experience what she calls primary emotion. Primary emotions are all those deep, primal emotions that we don’t talk about. Hurt, disgust, shame, embarrassment. Often when we experience primary emotion we shut it off and express it in the form of a secondary emotion like anger. If we consider the example I gave about my father above; when he doesn’t respond how I want him to I feel hurt. But feeling hurt sucks so instead I shut that off and feel anger. Make sense? So my current Psychologist is helping me to experience and communicate those primary emotions, the ones that I feel right in the pit of my stomach, in a more real way.
Recovery isn’t a linear process
This wasn’t something that was said to me. It was actually a sort of epiphany I had during group therapy. I was listening to people beat themselves up for relapses and episodes. They didn’t say it with their words but they said it with their body language and tone: ‘it is all my fault’. My new found friends and I were talking and I found myself uttering the phrase ‘recovery isn’t a linear process’. I didn’t know it then but this would soon become a mantra of mine when the reality of life with a chronic mental illness got me down. We don’t have to constantly be moving forwards. We just have to keep trying and we will find ourselves where we need to be.
Thoughts aren’t facts and you don’t have to act on them
I can’t attribute this lesson to any one therapist in particular. It is just something that has been revealed to me throughout the process. I think sometimes it is so easy to listen to our thoughts and forget that they are just one point of view. Not only can they be doubted but they must be doubted in order to preserve our sanity. My thoughts can tell me some downright awful things sometimes. About myself, about the world, about others. I used to listen to them a lot more and let them carry me to all sorts of dark conclusions. When you accept the reality that thoughts are not fact you free yourself from their cruelty. When you realise that your thoughts are not fact you are able to ignore them, rearrange them, file them away for later. The term I often use is ‘cognitive acrobatics’ because thoughts can be made flexible until they better suit you and your reality.
What’s funny about therapy is that when it is done right the lessons often come from within. It isn’t something the therapist says to us directly. The biggest lessons we learn come from us, with their guidance. These were just some of the more general lessons I have learned in therapy. I’ve had many more personal break throughs that have changed my life for the better. I hope to continue learning and thriving through therapy in the future.