If you’re taking cues from movies or TV, you probably think therapy is for people who’ve run out of options. The obsessive-compulsive girl who has to lock the door 37 times before she goes to sleep. The traumatized soldier who hears helicopter blades in the ceiling fan. Or the couple on the edge of divorce who are reeling from multiple affairs. Unless you’re suffering from a mental illness or a shattered relationship, you should be able to solve your own problems, right?
We live in a society that tells us if we work hard enough, then our mental health will catch up. If we download the right app to track our happiness, go to yoga class, and lean on our friends for support, then our mood and habits will fall into place. Because of this impossible expectation, we beat ourselves up when we feel anxious for no reason or aren’t so chipper when our alarm blares in the morning. Like Ross Geller’s couch, we feel stuck while our mind is screaming, “Pivot!” So if you’re feeling stuck, why not try something different? Enter your therapist, stage right.
Science tells us that speaking your fears and goals out loud to somebody in person is powerful. Therapists are trained to not judge you, and can help you map out a new strategy for life.
So if you’re not sure whether making a therapy appointment is right for you, here are seven not-so-obvious signs that you might benefit from a little shrink action.
1. You always assume the worst.
Some of us have Chicken Little personalities where we always assume the sky is falling. Being stood up on a date equals dying alone with 200 cats. Blowing a job interview destines you for a life under a bridge. When you always assume the worst, facts have very little meaning. Optimism seems like Lucy holding the football out for Charlie Brown, and your negativity can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Therapists call this “catastrophizing,” and over time it can lead to serious depression or anxiety problems. Professionals often use a popular intervention, known as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help you can practice identifying and restructuring your irrational thoughts into more realistic ones.
2. You mentally beat yourself up.
Some of the kindest and most competent people in this world have a secret battle being waged in their brains. Nothing they do is good enough, and they relive mistakes over and over like a Real World marathon. As much as they care for others, they struggle to extend the patience they have for friends towards themselves.
As writer Anne Lamott says, “My mind is a neighborhood I try not to go into alone,” so taking a professional along for the trip might be worth it. One therapy technique is called "externalizing," where you learn to stop seeing problems as external forces rather than character flaws. By not taking problems so personally, you can start to prioritize the health of your mind and body.
3. You take responsibility for other people’s problems.
While some people manage their fears by avoiding responsibility, some of us try to control others. The psych term for this is called “overfunctioning.” You might seem like the healthy one if you’re paying your stoner boyfriend’s half of the rent or taking your depressed mom’s phone calls a dozen times a day. But being a successful adult is about not doing for others what they can do for themselves.
A therapist can help you see a pattern of overfunctioning in your own family and what triggers you to take on someone else's load. From there, you can begin to strategize how to be a resource to people without being responsible for them.
4. You feel helpless when you’re stressed.
It feels pretty damn good to text a friend to complain about your boss, but constant reliance on others to calm your emotions can cause problems. Good mental health is about taking responsibility for your own distress rather than blaming or always depending on others. When you think about it, therapists are kind of like football coaches. We help you learn and practice the plays that help you feel in control of your life.
Still skeptical? Research has shown that people who feel they have no control over their environment, also known as an "external locus of control," are more at risk for depression, low-self esteem, and even physical health problems. Therapy is the training ground for generating healthy reactions to stress, helping you bounce back faster on a tough day.
5. You tend to avoid difficult situations.
Humans wouldn’t have survived for thousands of years if we didn’t have the instinct to avoid threatening situations. But if you’re never flying home to see your dysfunctional family or can't summon the courage to go to that daunting job interview, then you’re only giving yourself temporary relief.
Your therapist could help you with role playing a difficult conversation or challenging you to be more objective about the people you loathe. Inch by inch, you may find yourself rebuilding the bridges you’ve axed and taking brave leaps into new territory.
6. You care too much about what other people think.
Approval and recognition are basic human needs. But when you live your live for the praise of others, you might find yourself making compromises that aren’t true to yourself. People who turn into chameleons to fit in with the group are often the unhappiest of people.
I might ask a client, “Who would you be even if no one ever praised you for it? What would still be important to you?” I might help someone catalog their weekly actions into choices that were about their values, and choices that were meant to please others. Mentally healthy people make decisions from the inside out. They don’t put their beliefs and goals up for a vote.
7. You’re human.
Just hear me out.
People with spotless teeth still go to the dentist, so why shouldn’t we take our mental health just as seriously? If you find yourself in a turmoil-free stage of life, then this might be the time you’re actually most receptive to working with a mental health professional. Taking the jumbled mess of thoughts that are always there in your head and speaking them out loud can keep minor symptoms and unhealthy behaviors from spiraling into something more serious when times get stressful.
There are a thousand good excuses for you not to see a therapist. I even use them myself sometimes. You might have horrible insurance coverage or an insane schedule that won’t seem to budge. But just for a second, take the time to think about all the things you prioritize over your mental health. Is catching up on the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy or hitting up your third happy hour of the week really making you feel like the best version of yourself?
So take a chance on therapy, and see what it can do for you. You can ask your doctor for a recommendation, access the employee assistance program at your work, or check out Psychology Today for a list of local professionals. Many university clinics or nonprofits also offer free or affordable counseling.
Who knows, maybe you’ll find a trick or two for how to be a little kinder to yourself. Or maybe you'll find that you have the answers already, and you just needed someone to hear you say them out loud.
Images: Mandate Pictures; giphy (7)