5 Hard-To-Admit Things I've Learned From 15+ Years Of Therapy

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group therapy

Like a guard “escorting patients through the rooms of their own house.”

This is how psychotherapist Irvin Yalmon has described his role in the therapy process.

“What a treat it is to watch them open doors to rooms never before entered, discover new wings [of their house] containing parts in exile—wise, beautiful, and creative pieces of identity,” he wrote in his memoir.

With my therapist in high school, I, too, felt like I was unlocking doors to rooms inside my mind I’d never felt safe entering before.

As I lay on her sofa during our weekly sessions, we worked through depression, social anxiety, and unwanted same-sex attractions.

Seeing her through adolescence helped me through these highly uncertain and conflicted years. I felt valued and understood; she’d tell me better times were ahead and that life would feel more navigable as I grew into myself. She wasn’t wrong.

Our climate now is so different from just one or two generations ago, when most thought of therapy as existing only as a resource for crazy people or the seriously disturbed.

It's now far more acceptable to admit to mental health struggles, and I hope these attitudes will only continue growing stronger. The collective healing of our flawed and deeply wounded world depends on it.

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Here are five hard-to-admit truths I’ve learned from 15+ years of therapy:

1. There’s no before and after narrative; healing is ongoing.

Life would be going well. I’d feel like I’d finally overcome a situation or setback and that my recovery house was solid. The stairs had achieved great heights and were continuing their ascension— only to be blasted by memories back down into scattered pieces suddenly.

Sometimes to create distance from our pasts, people unconsciously divide our selves into two versions: “Who I am Now” versus “Who I Used to Be.” As Cheryl Strayed wrote, “We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’ve been before.”

Aspects of this can be healthy; I think it’s important to acknowledge progress and believe we’re all capable of remarkable growth. And yet I also think that much of the time, this growth is a messy, gradual, and nonlinear process.

Even when we make significant progress, the potential for slipping back into old ways is always present.

When we know that this person isn’t a constant or given — but rather, results from our daily actions and decisions—it motivates us to continue making healthy and conscious choices every day. Making them helps us to embody the best person we can be.

On my part, I recognize that mental health struggles may never be strictly a remnant of my past. And yet I rest easier knowing I now have the tools, confidence, and wisdom gained from experience to take on challenges as they come.

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2. Therapy is a non-judgmental space for growth and healing.

I appreciated the therapists who encouraged greater focus on identifying feelings than on applying labels. Labels can be helpful. Adopting one can provide belonging, help us feel less alone, and connect us to the resources we need and a larger community. And yet there’s such a thing as over-diagnosing. Certain labels also carry a stigma and can, ironically, make getting to the real root of the issue more difficult.

As Mark Hyman put it, “These descriptions (in the DSM) tell us nothing about why those symptoms occur, or how people with exactly the same symptoms may have them for many different underlying reasons and need different and individualized treatment as a result.”

It’s primarily in stigma-free climates that people feel safe enough to acknowledge and confront their issues. It’s within them that they feel freer to become their better selves.

3. Therapists help you be gentle with yourself while acknowledging your progress.

Growth and recovery are challenging and nonlinear. Maybe you’re still finding yourself swept up in the chaos of before when you thought you’d left it all behind. The past gets its claws into us. It can be hard to separate the past from the present. For example, I used to feel ashamed whenever I had negative thoughts.

I think part of why those feelings were deeply uncomfortable was because my mind had learned to associate them with the consequences that at one point followed them. At an age when I couldn’t tolerate these feelings, I’d act out on them, which would lead to consequences. Years later, when I experienced similar feelings, my brain re-experienced the consequences of those behaviors. It re-experienced the reality of actually being abandoned or of actually having harmed a relationship.

Stepping back lets me see more objectively — that the same past scenario isn’t playing out again. Here in the present, I’m not acting on my feelings. Or rather, I can choose to act on them in a different way. And this has made an incredible difference.

We don’t always see the progress we’ve made. Feeling the way we did in the past doesn’t mean we are behaving the way we once did — or even that we’re about to. So I’ve learned to have patience and compassion. To understand that I’ve made progress and am where I need to be, even when it feels like I’ve taken a bunch of steps back.

Truthfully, my ideal headspace would be one wherein I never harbor a negative thought about another person and always rush to the most positive and benevolent interpretation of another’s action. Until then, though, I remind myself: it’s not our feelings but our actions that matter most because it’s only our actions that we can control.

My therapists, through the years, have helped me see this.

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4. Therapists will help you see the role that you played in situations that were hurtful to you, as well as how internalized lessons taken from past events influence our present-day behaviors.

Years ago, I didn’t see this; I only saw how people had harmed me. When my feelings were hurt, or I felt let down by a friend, for instance, I’d lash out in response (rather than communicating my feelings vulnerably and directly). I might have consciously been able to pinpoint my contribution to the painful situation at the time. Still, I wasn’t at the level of awareness yet where I could begin really viscerally understanding the entire dynamic, piece by piece.

Whatever we’re feeling always deserves recognition. But the behaviors that those feelings translate into the matter. They have a bigger impact than we realize. “It is one thing to think horrible thoughts; it is another to behave atrociously,” wrote Lemony Snicket.

Close friends and people who care will forgive occasional slip-ups, but if it becomes a pattern, continual forgiveness of harmful behavior and communication is akin to enabling. It’s the kind of unconditional support that only a parent can offer their child. Therapy helped me see this.

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5. Therapists help you reckon with the uncertainty of maybe never knowing “the truth.”

I was diagnosed with Celiac in October 2020. A person can be born with Celiac, or they can develop it later in life.

I have no way of knowing whether mine developed later in life or if I’ve always had it. All I can do is speculate.

It was hard for me, at first, not to have that answer. It made it difficult to form a coherent narrative when looking back on my life.

Since I couldn’t be sure, it was like I had two alternative stories (therefore interpretations) taking place side by side. I had more than my share of emotional and behavioral struggles as a child. Undiagnosed Celiac makes these issues more pronounced, as the child suffers but doesn’t know how to put the what or the why into words.

Knowing would have put earlier struggles into context. It could have changed the way I viewed my childhood. Many of us crave that context when reflecting on our lives. Perhaps we can view our experiences in a more compassionate and forgiving light if it becomes clear that a hidden beast was lurking in the dark corridors (in my case, the Celiac) and holding us back. Causing us to struggle so much more than we would have had someone think to shine a light on it.

My mentality was that If I wasn’t born with it, I could blame myself or my life choices. The alcohol I drank in my 20s. My diet, for many years, contained high amounts of sugar and processed foods.

Through therapy, I gradually arrived at the conclusion that the more I focus on making good decisions here in the present, the less the past matters.

I recognized that maybe a (futile) search for a convenient albeit reductive explanation to explain my struggles had propelled this need to know. And maybe this search functioned to shield, partially, from having to do the work of healing the harm or living differently from there on out.

We can’t change the past, but the future is within our power to shape. We can make choices that will lead to healthier and more positive ones. If mistakes were made, we don’t have to keep repeating them.

As Karen Salmamnsohn said, “Do not waste time thinking about what you could have done differently. Keep your eyes on the road ahead and do it differently now.”

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Eleni Stephanides is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Them, Tiny Buddha, LGBTQ Nation, The Mighty, The Gay and Lesbian Review, and Introvert Dear among others.