This is for those who’ve never been to therapy. You’re not crazy or weird or broken. You’re just a human living in a society out of touch with its humanity.
Like many men, I probably wouldn’t have ever seen a therapist if it weren’t for a woman.
That’s because those of us who were raised as men were shamed for showing emotions. We were told to “man up” and stop acting “like a girl.” So we shy away from feeling let alone talking about our vulnerability. (Because ours is a patriarchal society, many women experience the same pressures.)
Luckily, an ex-girlfriend suggested therapy for some issues I’d been having with my parents. What she really meant was that me not being willing to talk about our growing relationship issues was a problem.
I saw the therapist, but it was too late. We broke up a few months later.
“I’m going through some uncertainty in my relationship with my girlfriend and need some help,” I emailed the therapist the night of the breakup.
The relationship never rekindled. But within a few sessions, I was hooked.
Hollywood had shown me all I knew about therapy. The Sopranos. Seinfeld. Analyze This.
Opening up to a total stranger seemed like it was for “crazy” people. Something was “wrong” with you. Or you had money to waste on making up problems that weren’t really there.
My parents hadn’t raised me to talk about emotions. There was plenty of laughter, sure. But expressing “softer” feelings like sadness or fear was often met with an eyeroll. Or at most, a “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“How do you know therapy actually works?” my mother recently asked, her nose scrunched. It wasn’t a question.
The truth is you don’t really ever know. There’s research showing that talk therapy is effective for anxiety, depression, and other emotional issues — and can even improve the structure of the brain. But I just know that it works for me.
And that’s the key: Finding a therapist that just clicks with you.
When I saw my therapist after the breakup, what stood out was that she didn’t seem to care about the details. Friends and family had asked for the blow by blow. They’d taken my side to lift my spirits or downplayed my heartbreak as just a bump in the road.
But my therapist kept asking me how I felt in the moment. What my body felt like. Was there tension. What thoughts or images were coming up in my mind.
Whenever I would ramble on about the breakup or my job or my parents, she would bring the conversation back to what was actually happening in the moment.
This annoyed me. I just wanted to talk about the breakup. And I wanted help getting my ex back. But my therapist wouldn’t let up.
“What’s going on in your body?” she asked, when I told her my ex had rejected a proposal to get dinner.
I took a few slow breaths and felt around for sensations. I noticed a familiar tightness in my throat. I was eight years old again, trying so hard to fall asleep after watching a scary movie.
“What does it feel like?” she said.
It felt like I was protecting myself from someone slashing my throat. Like all my energy was being squeezed up into my head.
My therapist said that made sense. I was ruminating about how to get my ex back. I was trying to figure out the exact thing that would convince her to love me again.
And maybe there were some things I hadn’t said to her. Maybe they were stuck in my throat, metaphorically speaking.
“Imagine there’s a spiral in your throat,” she said. “Imagine it expanding outward and relaxing your throat and neck. Feel your feet on the floor. Notice the support of the earth below.”
What is this woo woo shit, I thought. But it worked. My neck and shoulders softened. My breath slowed down.
My therapist said that relaxing tension might not take my mind off of my ex. But it could be a doorway to healing the heartbreak.
And eventually it was. Countless times I’d be in my apartment ruminating about my ex, and I’d notice my throat was tense. Taking a few deep breaths and relaxing the tension took the edge off. It’d bring me back into the present moment rather than an imaginary past where I’d been a better boyfriend or a make-believe future where I got her back.
Sure, I was sad as hell — but at least I was feeling the feelings rather than trying to think my way into outrunning them.
The heartbreak, loneliness, and fear definitely sucked for a while. But eventually they subsided, and I was able to move on.
Along the way I learned that overthinking is my go-to when I’m feeling overwhelmed by an emotion. I also overwork, people-please, self-criticize, try to be perfect, procrastinate, numb out, you name it.
I’ve learned through therapy that these are my ways of avoiding feelings. My therapist has helped me notice them in how I relate with her. It’s like she’s a mirror. Talking to her, I’m able to see all the ways I try to manipulate other people into liking me so I can avoid feeling something.
What separates my therapist from my friends — even my best friend s— is that she’s been trained to show me what the psychologist Carl Rogers “unconditional positive regard.”
She doesn’t judge me or try to make me feel better or change anything about me. She accepts me for the messy, complex human that I am.
And because she accepts me, I can show more of myself to her. More of the parts of myself that I think are dark, fucked up, gross, and embarrassing.
This helps me accept myself more. Which in turn allows me to be myself more outside of therapy. Which in turn allows me to be more authentic in relationships. Which in turn allows me to accept (and love) others more.
“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be,” Rogers once wrote. “When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right-hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”
I plan to be in therapy for the rest of my life. At this point, once a month feels right. But if a crisis hits, I’ll do it once a week if I have to.
Not because I’m “crazy.” Because the more I do it the more I learn about all the ways I’m hiding from feeling things. All the ways I narrow myself down and miss the vastness of this weird, magical, one and only life.
Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. I’m here to help you be more mindful about work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe to my weekly email here.