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How I Get the Most Out of Therapy

When I posted on Instagram last month that I was going back to therapy, I was totally blown away by the response – it was my most liked photo almost immediately and y’all shared such honest and insightful comments. So, I wanted to continue the conversation and share a little bit more about my journey with therapy, since I really think it needs to be talked about and normalized a lot more!

I started going to therapy when I was 19. I had just gone through my first real breakup and was struggling with disordered eating, feelings of depression, and just generally didn’t feel like myself. At first I felt weird about going because I’d always associated therapy with specific diagnoses (like anorexia or depression) and what I felt was more general – I just felt bad! But luckily I went to a school where people were really open with their therapy experiences (good and bad) and it was enough to at least get me through the door. I started seeing a therapist in a neighboring town every week for the next three years and I unpacked so much of my life up to that point – things I didn’t even think were related to the way I was feeling, but clearly was all connected.

After graduation, I took some time away from therapy when I moved to Ireland mostly because I didn’t have good health insurance or extra money. Honestly that’s the time in my life I think I needed it the most – I was in a tough relationship in a new country where I felt like I had been dropped into someone else’s and I sort of numbed out until I could finish my degree. So when I moved back to Madison after finishing my Masters, I went right back to a therapist. I didn’t do a lot of good things for myself during that time (if I’m being completely honest lol), but I thank God I at least had therapy to lean on while I was sort of self-destructing.

When I left my corporate job in March of 2018, I stopped going to therapy because my health insurance ran out. At first I felt like I didn’t need it – I was figuring things out and trying new jobs and building a life for myself so I wasn’t worried. And frankly, I changed jobs so many times that year (I was laid off twice in three months) I never really had time to settle and figure out how I was feeling. But this past fall I really started to notice that something was wrong. I was constantly tired and slept all the time – I had injured myself while training for a marathon so I couldn’t workout which made me feel horrible. I was incredibly anxious about things that usually excited me – I remember calling my mom from the airport before leaving for Vietnam and crying that I was too scared to go, which is unbelievably unlike me. So when I got back from my trip I knew it was time. I needed to go back to therapy.

And oh my god has it already made such a huge difference for me. Every time I come back to therapy after spending some time away I’m blown away at how much better I feel. I’m a talker and I love to sort through things and vent so talk therapy generally works really well for me. But I also attribute the success of my therapy to the way I approached my sessions this time around. In previous times of my life, I just sort of showed up, which was a huge step in and of itself (and if this is where you’re at that’s amazing), but I often felt aimless during my sessions to the point where I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of them. So I changed my approach this time – I got more specific and I felt confident expressing myself more fully to my therapist. Here are a few things I changed:

1. I came in with a specific goal. This is my biggest piece of advice if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of going to therapy, especially if there’s a lot of things going on in your life. When I started therapy again at the end of 2019, I went in with two specific goals: figure out the direction of my career and work through my sleep-related anxiety. Of course there are a million other things going on in my life, too, but having two specific goals has helped me frame our sessions in ways that I find measurably helpful. And I’m always surprised at how connected everything is for me – my career conversations almost always turn into conversations about my family or my frustrations about women’s roles in society. When I’ve been in therapy without a specific goal, I’ve always reached these points in my sessions where I’m just recapping my week instead of working through something and I lost motivation to go. Having goals helps me stick with it and gives me a way in every week that feels productive.

2. I know my therapist isn’t my friend. I am a people pleaser. I want people to like me and I’m annoyed when they don’t. I’m self-aware enough to realize that I change my personality around different people depending on what I think they want to hear and my therapist is no different. I’ve often felt like I really want my therapists to like me and I find I’ll leave things out or edit them so I seem more likeable. This is not the point. This time around I feel like I’ve been able to get past my people-pleasing tendencies and be a lot more honest with my therapist, which is huge for me. Don’t get me wrong – I think my therapist is lovely! – but we’re not friends at happy hour. She’s a professional helping me reflect, set goals, and make changes for myself and that’s a very different conversation.

3. I tell my therapist what I need. I’ve been in enough therapy over the years to know that while talk therapy is great and leaves me feeling fantastic right after my appointment, that feeling fades pretty quickly and I don’t get a lot of benefit in between appointments. So I made clear to my therapist that I need homework – things I can do in between appointments to make my mental wellness a part of my everyday life. She’s given me assessments to fill out, breathing techniques to try, and behavioral strategies I can use to combat my anxiety. I like having things to do between appointments and it’s a great place for us to start when I have my next appointment. Therapy is my time (and money, frankly) so I plan on getting my money’s worth! Plus, I recognize that for me progress is a daily goal, not just a goal I approach once a week. I think this is the biggest factor for me in feeling a lot better now – I’m really making changes instead of just expressing that I want things to change.

Okay, so this whole post has become an enormous overshare at this point, but honestly I love talking about therapy and it has genuinely made such a difference in my quality of life. I remember how terrified I felt when I first decided to go (like there was something wrong with me), but now it’s become the backbone of my mental wellness. I think everyone can benefit from therapy in some form or another, even if it’s just the feeling that you’re taking care of yourself.

I also want to acknowledge that I feel really lucky to be able to see a therapist. I’ve been off insurance and between jobs and it was always the first thing to go because frankly it’s ridiculously expensive – without my insurance every session would be $160, which is insane. If you’re not on insurance (or your insurance doesn’t cover it), I’ve heard that Open Path Collective is a great resource for finding more affordable therapists (in the $30-$60 range). I also know people who have used Talk Space, an online therapy portal, and have really liked that too. It’s not necessary less expensive, but it is really flexible if that’s something you’re looking for. If I find more resources, I’ll continue to share those, as well!

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