FROM THE ARCHIVES: Therapy for the Skeptic
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“I don’t know why, but when I was praying this morning, God seemed to be saying that I should give this to you.”
And then my mom handed me a check for $400.
“I’m going to therapy.” When that statement was first true for me, the sentence felt slippery, like I couldn’t quite wrap my hands around it, like trying to hold one of those weird liquid-filled sparkly gel blobs we played with as kids (really, what were those?). Or like trying to roll those Spanish “r”s or pronounce those deep-throated “e”s like the French do—it sounded unnatural when I tried to say it. So instead, I said “I’m going to see Sarah” or “I have an appointment” or, mostly, I just don’t say anything at all, keeping it tucked away in my I’d-rather-not-say collection.
This post is titled “Therapy for the Skeptic,” but by that I really mean the proud, because let’s be real, they’re basically the same. Pride shuns belief that comes from any source other than oneself. Pride also shuns weakness. Pride definitely shuns therapy because pride definitely considers therapy as weakness.
And me? I am incredibly prideful.
But thing is, I didn’t shun therapy for others; I encouraged others in their anxious admittances of needing counseling. I applauded and admired my self-aware friends who had benefitted from it. What strength, I thought.
But me? Therapy? Nah, I’m good.
Until God thrust a pile of money into my lap.
You see, the night before my mom had given into divine demand and handed me that check, I had prayed a prayer—one of those desperate, defeated pleas to God.
“God, do I need to go to therapy?” I asked. “I can’t afford it, though!”
It was Easter. You know, a day you’re supposed to be joyful and have hope because Jesus overcame death and we can go to heaven now and all that jazz. But I wasn’t feeling it, because redemption and hope seemed like some far-off, non-applicable concept to my own heart. It had felt that way for months. Logically, I could accept the Easter message. Emotionally, I couldn’t. So I prayed my “I would go to therapy but I can’t afford it, therefore I won’t go” prayer. And then the next afternoon God answered my despairing prayer in a frighteningly-real way through a check from my mom, one that gave me no excuse but to ignore Pride’s insistence that I could figure things out all on my own, thank you very much. So I made an appointment.
It was a Saturday morning, and early too. She made me some coffee, and I sat across from this well-dressed, short-haired blonde who looked at me like I’m assuming all therapists look at their clients: the way J.K. Rowling describes Dumbledore’s blue eyes as piercing your soul. And she asked me why I was there.
“I’ve been sad,” I told her.
I had reasons for my emotions, but I had never considered them valid. “But no one has died! I haven’t experienced anything traumatic!” I often argued to my roommate in a booth at my favorite coffee shop after she would extol the benefits of counseling. In a world where governments are openly killing civilians and children are trafficked and people are hungry, what right did I have as a well-off Western civilian to feel sad? What right did I have to anything that wasn’t extreme gratitude for my circumstances? I berated myself over my sadness for months, reinforcing the narrative that my emotions were weakness, unreasonable, and unnecessary. I believed that my sadness was wrong and shameful, and it was up to me to return to my blissful happiness as quickly as possible.
And well-meaning friends urged this attitude—count your blessings. Of course, acknowledging your good circumstances is so incredibly important, but being mindful of your blessings does not negate emotion. Being grateful for your life and acknowledging when you are sad or angry or hurt are not mutually exclusive. You can know that you live a good life while also knowing that you are really, really hurting, too. Would you sit by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane as he sweat BLOOD FOR GOD’S SAKE and give him a shoulder nudge and tell him to count his blessings? (“Hey, Jesus, count your blessings! For one, you’re God and you already know the whole resurrection thing will happen so…”).
But I didn’t know any of this before I sat in that office with its Pinterest-approved decor on that Saturday morning with Sarah the Therapist. To me, life was black and white, and that included emotions. Good emotions: happiness, joy, love, etc. Bad emotions: anger, sadness, bitterness, etc. I once bragged to a friend that I hadn’t cried in a year and a half (yes, really); I was set upon living within only the “good” emotions and ridding myself of the “bad” ones however I could.
Until I couldn’t get rid of them.
In my nine months of therapy, Sarah the Therapist became a sort of guide to truth. No, she didn’t have all the answers. In fact, to the frustration of my incessant need for a how-to manual, she didn’t even tell me what to do. Instead, she simply listened and asked questions and helped me learn the art of offering grace to myself, a habit the perfectionist people-pleaser in me had actively avoided.
And that self-grace included allowing myself to feel things without shaming myself for it. We’re human beings after all—cells and souls and sorrows and celebrations—we were made to feel the emotional spectrum. But somehow we’ve come to believe the lie of Perpetual Happiness. And if we aren’t happy? We believe that something is desperately wrong, that we must rid ourselves of this dreaded emotion as quickly as possible.
But therapy taught me that it’s okay to not feel happy all the time. It’s okay to be a human being who feels things and to share these feelings of brokenness with those I trust. And I don’t mean to say that I am uniquely broken, but that we all are because we’re fallible humans who make messes and break hearts and hurt each other and feel feelings that aren’t happiness in the process. Therapy allows you to see this universal brokenness and to extend both grace to yourself and to others. Therapy—like sitting next to an alpine lake at the base of snowy peaks or breaking through the clouds to see a watery sunrise at 35,000 feet or feeling small next to the ocean at night, the black horizon bleeding into the black sky—reminds you of your humanness, your feebleness, your deep need that can’t be met with a prideful “I’ve got this all on my own” attitude.
Therapy isn’t about the 8 Tips and Tricks to Achieve Perpetual Happiness. It’s about accepting that life will be both glorious and mundane, joyful and heartbreaking, exciting and stagnant. It offers you the tools to navigate the seasons of growth and of death, all while being kind to yourself and others in the process, giving yourself permission to feel the full range of human emotions without considering it weak and shameful.
Had my pride not been humbled in this way, had my life instead carried on in its ignorant quest for Perpetual Happiness, had I not gone to therapy, I would’ve never learned the freedom of simply being human, emotions included.
[This post was originally published on January 15, 2017.]
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