Self

I Failed At Therapy — And That's When My True Recovery Began

Photo: Ron Lach | Canva 
Woman experiencing burn out

For years, I believed therapy didn’t work for me. I’d leave initial sessions feeling either “too much” for therapists to deal with, or that my problems weren’t severe enough to warrant therapy. Only after realizing I probably had ADHD did I see my approach as a trait, not a shortcoming — and realized I probably needed a therapist who understood ADHD.

At first, I was right. For the first time, I felt seen, even energized after leaving my 45-minute sessions. My therapist, who also had ADHD, was easily able to keep up with my “info-dumping” stream-of-consciousness sessions. Understanding all the shame my traits had engendered over time, she helped me start to unpack my issues around emotional dysregulation.

But then, about 18 months in, therapy felt like it stopped working.

I’ve burned out in nearly every job I’ve ever had. Tech support, freelancing, and marketing roles all led to the same place: the mental image, accompanied by the ghost sensation, of pancaking into a brick wall. Then, for weeks afterward, being wholly unable to produce.

   

   

This tended to happen in environments and situations when I felt my voice stifled; when I felt like a cog in a machine, serving an organizational purpose at the expense of my own, when it seemed like the same grind of work would never end.

RELATED: 9 Scary Warning Signs You're Completely Burnt Out

Of course, I never expected it to happen in therapy.

I’d been in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trauma therapy for nearly a year when I experienced a trigger so severe that it convinced me EMDR wasn’t working for me — or at least, not to the extent that I felt able to construct the boundaries I needed.

I began to feel as if the “healing” work would never end. My therapist and I seemed to endlessly rehash the same memory without me feeling any new sense of peace. Unsure of what other “key performance indicators” I was supposed to meet, I started to feel like a failure, left behind in my treatment.

Attempts to explain this resulted in my therapist’s insistence that I was further ahead than I realized. Then why didn’t I feel that way?

I’d message my therapist between sessions — something we'd agreed I could do — but felt frustrated and triggered when she didn't respond. My ADHD rejection-sensitive dysphoria had kicked in, tipping the balance of my transference from healthy to unhealthy as her “ignoring” me left me feeling abandoned. It was exactly the way I’d felt in other unhealthy relationships when my failure to comply with expectations had resulted in me receiving the silent treatment.

Indeed, when my therapist asked whether I might consider depression medication, it sounded less like an offer of help, and more like a signal that she didn’t know what else to do with me. Through my filters, all I heard was that there were conditions I needed to meet to receive help; I needed to get my symptoms under control before she could continue working with me.

RELATED: 5 Difficult-To-Admit Reasons Your Previous Therapist Didn’t Help That Much

Not long after that, I quit therapy.

I then entered an intensive six-week program of energy healing mixed with life coaching. For the first time, I learned how to describe the way different emotions felt in my body, along with different modes of meditation. I even started to make some profound shifts in the way I thought — from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking, for one.

At the end of it, though, I was ready to be done with all things healing. I had worked so hard and yet still didn’t feel “healed.” Once again, there was always one more trigger to work through, one more test to gauge whether other people felt “safe” for me to be around. I was exhausted.

Yet on my own, during the first opportunity I’d ever had to slow down and listen to myself, I found that I was doing things differently. With no expectations to try to fulfill, no spiraling attempts to explain myself to others, and no one else’s opinions to consider, it was just me and my intuition.

To be clear, I wouldn’t have been able to get to that point without all that work. I needed to hear that it was okay for me to slow down, listen, and trust my intuition after so many years of hearing that it wasn’t. I also needed to learn how to listen.

   

   

I began to focus more on bodywork and energy work. Reiki healing helped me continue to shift my thinking. Yin yoga began to help me stretch the connective tissues where, it is said, trapped emotions are stored. Listening to solfeggio music as I slept, and binaural/bilateral music while I journaled, continued the work I’d started in EMDR, all at my own pace.

I also started to make more of an effort to see friends, ones I felt could accept me as I felt I could accept them. Granted, this led to the loss of some friendships, ones I realized had been imbalanced and even toxic all along — the kinds of situations I believed I deserved.

RELATED: How I Got Into And Managed To Walk Away From Burnout

It took me several months outside of therapy, slowing down to the mental pace I needed, to realize that all along, therapeutic boundaries had me unknowingly responding to a time bomb buried deep in my subconscious.

Growing up, I believed I was a problem that needed to be “fixed,” thus asking for help meant needing to prove I was worthy of receiving it. Proving I wasn’t a lost cause meant proving I could understand myself well enough to identify my “problem areas.” It was a form of people pleasing I didn’t think of as trauma because I hadn’t yet questioned what it was, much less why I believed it.

I soon saw, though, how these beliefs had kept me stuck in an endless loop, trying to prove I could still work hard and measure up, even if I wasn’t pursuing what my therapist wanted. Going unanswered felt like being given up on.

I now believe that my earlier episodes of burnout were tied to the same fundamental problem. I’d felt the need to prove myself worthy to others who had either never set the bar or had set the bar so high and then kept moving it. I could never develop a sense of myself or my capabilities, the kinds of internal metrics that could help me communicate any misalignments.

The world we live in doesn’t allow for this kind of deep introspection. Most people work multiple jobs, their days a grind of doing and going. There’s not a lot of room left for being. Trends in “self-care” and “forest bathing” only go so far when you’re too stressed out to listen.

I’m still not sure whether the true purpose of therapy is to help us learn to listen to ourselves, or just to cope better with the lives we choose to box ourselves into because those are standards by which other people have found success. What I do know: therapists and coaches can help us untangle the knots in our minds and hearts, but ultimately, it's only ourselves we have to answer to.

RELATED: I’ve Had It With Therapy. Here’s What I Need.

Christa Miller has been a professional writer for 20+ years, publishing works in niche trade, nonprofit, and regional lifestyle articles, content marketing, journalism, peer-reviewed research, and fiction for both children and adults.