Unless you find yourself hosting The View, every job in the world requires a bit of censorship. Your barista probably has a thought or two about your fussy order, as does your professor about the pajamas you wore to class. Your therapist is no exception. In fact, we are on the extreme end of the spectrum — often, our words are chosen at a White House Press Secretary-level of consideration. Which is exactly why therapy only works when certain conditions are met: To start, we don’t want to make the relationship about us. You wouldn’t be paying for counseling if you wanted us to chat with you the same way you chat with your friends; or if we pulled the rug out from under you just with a stinging comment straight from your mom's repertoire.
Words have power; there is no doubt. A “He’s Just Not That Into You”-level comment may jerk your head in a different direction, but that doesn’t mean harsh truths are the stuff of real change. And that’s probably why you’ll never have a Dr. Laura moment with a real professional, regardless of what they might be thinking. The best truths are the ones you participate in unraveling, because they’re the ones you’re more likely to take seriously.
But for those of you who just can’t help but be curious, here’s a little peek into what’s going on in your therapist’s brain — and what she’ll probably never say to you point blank.
1. "If you’re just looking for support, you’re wasting your time."
Harsh, right? But it’s the truth. A client ready to take responsibility for their problems and the solutions is a thousand times more likely to get something out of the experience. You can show up every week and pay a therapist to make sympathetic noises and agree that your last boyfriend was an absolute tool, but you’re never going to get anywhere. We might as well be somewhere ordering mimosas and casually checking our smartphones. Taking your side is a job for friends and family.
Is there support in therapy? Yes. Is support alone enough to help you change? Nope.
2. "I can relate."
In my experience, I’ve yet to meet a fellow therapist who’s the epitome of mental health. Many therapists struggle with self-doubt, work/life balance, family issues, and even mental illness. Expecting us to be masters of mental health is like asking your doctor to never catch a cold.
You might think it would be refreshing to hear your counselor say, “Dude, I struggle with negative thinking all the time.” But the problem is that if I share my own problems, then it becomes about me. And it was never supposed to be about me. So just know that while I might make a strategy sound like a breeze, I’m laughing at myself three days later when I have my own crisis and remember how difficult change really can be.
3. "I hope you don't stop coming when things start to get better."
When you're sick, you stop going to the doctor when your symptoms start to improve. So why shouldn’t therapy be any different? Often, symptoms of depression or anxiety might start to fade as you work with a therapist and make changes in your thinking or behaviors. And so you stop coming. That money could be better spent, right? But if you haven’t changed the relationship or behavior patterns that contribute to these symptoms, then you’re likely destined to struggle with the same issues in the future.
But often, therapy is most effective when the symptoms aren’t so severe. That way, you are less reactive and can think more clearly about how your decisions impact your mental health. And just like medicine, prevention is much more powerful and effective than simply treating symptoms.
4. "You're so not ready to stop being rescued."
Maybe you’re content to dive into another codependent relationship to avoid what it feels like to be alone with your thoughts. We wouldn’t do what we do if it didn’t work in some way, right?
The sooner you’re ready to take responsibility for your own actions and emotions, the more you can grow as an adult. At some point, you have to stop letting others do things for you that you can do yourself. But guess what? If I as the therapist try to drag you kicking and screaming out of that unhealthy pattern, and I take responsibility for your improvement, then I’m no better than your mother who drove you here.
Lack of autonomy is not something a “snap out of it” statement can fix. It takes time for you to understand patterns in relationships and take responsibility for yourself. Therapy is a high wire act. It happens inch by inch, and with time you won’t need that safety net quite as much.
5. "Here's what you should do:"
I will stop writing about how change is hard when it stops being hard. But until our alien overlords arrive with that solution, therapy will continue to be about digging in your heels, being uncomfortable sometimes, and making mistakes along the way. Real change is like a good TV show — if everything were resolved in the first episode then we wouldn’t bother to root for our favorite character. It’s more of a journey, but ultimately more rewarding in the end.
It's true your therapist might have some pretty blunt opinions when it comes to how you life your live. But what's good for you ultimately has very little to do about our opinion. Only you can decide what it would take for you want to live and feel differently. While our thoughts might be intriguing, you're the expert when it comes to knowing yourself. We may tilt the mirror so you can get a closer look, but the person you see staring back is up to you.
Images: HBO; Giphy