Have Compassion for Someone Who Has Just Gone to Therapy

This may seem pretty basic, but I think it deserves noting: mental health therapy is hard. It’s hard in the best possible of ways. The person who is going is trying to heal their wounded mind.  And, just as healing comes with its discomforts and trials on a physical front, such is the case from a mental health perspective.

Now, just as I note with nearly every post dealing with mental health, realize that:

• I am a fan of mental health medications being used for chronic illnesses paired with talk therapy as needed. 

• I am just one person with one perspective on the issues of Anxiety and Depression. What’s right for me might not be right for some. 

• That’s why I advise anyone who is going through mental health difficulties to seek professional help. I am not a professional.

Okay, so that being said, let me tell you how talk therapy helps and impacts me. Talk therapy helps me navigate real-world situations more healthily. It shows me how the way I think about some situations might not be healthy. In fact, my approach may make my mental health situation worse. Case in point, before therapy, I’d try to fight Anxiety when It reared Its ugly head. Now, I know to either let Anxiety do what it’s going to do, but my lack of interaction with It to bore it. Yeah, I know there’s a bit of imagery there. A former therapist of mine told me to see Anxiety as not part of me, but instead a (fictional) character of sorts, standing next to me, trying to engage me in a fight over who was going to take control of my mind. My therapist said that Anxiety loves a fight. So it’s best not to engage. It gets tired of trying to rile me up.

That content seems simple enough. I get it. But my brain, when I was being counseled to react differently, was swimming in a bit of confusion and doubt as well as a lot of curiosity. It mentally and physically wore me out. My brain couldn’t absorb more; my muscles all felt exhausted. Why? Because for probably 35+ years, that’s not how I handled Anxiety. Mentally, I kicked, punched, and wailed (inside). Anxiety loved going toe-to-toe with me, and It did so often.

Let that sink in.  Over thirty-five years of my brain thinking a certain way, having synapses wired to get me to act differently. And in one 50-minute session, my (great) therapist was instructing me that:

• my prior approach was all wrong,

• there was a better way to handle things (which she described pretty effectively and efficiently), and

• I had some homework to do between our visits.

When the visit was over, I walked to my car and just broke out bawling. A few minutes later, I was on the phone with my wife, Rebecca (whose counsel I cherish). I gave her the session blow-by-blow (pun intended). First words out of her mouth: “I love your therapist.” Rebecca said a little bit more, but she knew her primary job in that situation was just to listen, let me process, and act compassionately as I cried at her.

Here’s the kicker, I was shot for the day, good for nothing other than to continue processing. For example, how was I going to not hit back when Anxiety pummeled me? Rebecca let me listen to music and head to bed early that night. That was the best I was going to do for myself and anyone else, for that matter.

Now, that lesson, by comparison, was an easier one. I’ve dredged up my past more times than I’d prefer to admit, gotten advice on what to do in social situations where Anxiety thrives, and been told things that run counter to my thinking as a social justice advocate.  (I struggle with those sessions pretty poorly, but that’s for another day.)

So what’s the takeaway if you know or love someone who has just been to a therapy session? First, know that they may likely have been challenged to think differently than they have for years, which is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of practice. Second, while not always the case, they may be struggling for several hours as they process what they’ve just been told. And third, depending on how that person processes information, they may need to spew out what they’ve just learned to someone whose best role is likely just to listen and affirm and give hugs.