Don’t wait until your partner forces you to go therapy

She didn’t mean it as an ultimatum—but it might as well have been. Years ago, a girlfriend all but forced me to go to therapy.

“Maybe you should talk to someone about that,” she said, after I’d complained about a recent visit with my parents. Looking back, what she really meant was: Maybe you should talk to someone about us.

After hesitating for a few months, I saw a therapist, but it was too late. We broke up weeks 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 on therapy.

Hollywood had been my only window into what therapy was like. The Sopranos. Seinfeld. Mad Men. Opening up to a total stranger seemed like it was for “crazy” people. Something had to be “wrong” with you. Or you had enough money to waste on making up problems that weren’t really there.

Growing up, my parents didn’t talk much about emotions. There was plenty of laughter, sure, and occasional angry flare-ups. But expressing “softer” feelings like sadness or fear was usually met with an eyeroll. Or at most, “Everything’s going to be fine.”

To my surprise, the therapist didn’t think I was crazy. In fact, she made me feel completely normal. After I ranted for what felt like an entire hour-long session about my parents’ focus on their jobs, she said, “Sounds like your family values hard work and success.” Yes, I thought, exactly. I hadn’t thought about it that clearly before. I’d been too caught up in the emotions—sadness, loneliness, resentment—to see the plain truth.

When I talked about missing my ex-girlfriend, my therapist said it made sense—I’d lived with her for three years. This made me feel a little less alone, like it was simply human to feel the way I did. She also gave me practical advice, recommending a book—David Deida’s The Way of the Superior Man—which I still turn to for guidance today.

I’m not sharing all of this for a pity party. My issues then were small and manageable compared to what life can throw at us in challenging times. I’m sharing it to convince you of the value of therapy—even if doesn’t feel like you’re in crisis.

Maybe you’re bored at work and unsure what to do about it. Maybe you’re struggling to connect with your teenager. Maybe you’re navigating the dating scene for the first time in years. Maybe you and your partner aren’t having sex as much as you’d like. Maybe your partner just outright said that you should talk to a therapist. 

Underneath these and other issues are emotions and ways of thinking that we rarely slow down enough to notice. Or we feel stuck in them, unable to make changes that we know we need to make.

Talking to a trained professional who won’t judge you for what you’ve done or how you feel might be exactly what you need to get unstuck. Therapy is different from friendship. A therapist listens to your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without any requirement for you to listen to theirs. They also have zero agenda—because they have no relationship with you outside of therapy sessions.

Using their training, a therapist can help you in many ways: increasing resilience, managing stress, showing up more authentically with others, noticing and expressing emotions, navigating life/family/career transitions, getting clearer about your life’s purpose. They can also teach you skills to use between sessions in your everyday life, like mindfulness, ways to regulate emotions, and communication skills.

The truth is, we all suffer from time to time. There are the obvious challenges that blindside us: experiencing a breakup, the passing of a loved one, getting fired. Then there are the areas of our lives that just feel “off”—that never get much attention because we’re racing from one thing to the next. 

All of us have experienced some level of trauma, particularly when we were young, before we had the understanding and emotional tools that come with being an adult. Some of us may have gone through the acute pain of sexual assault, a car accident, or a natural disaster. Some of us might have simply lost connection with our parents and other adults in moments that felt overwhelming.

“You can have childhoods where no overt trauma occurs,” says the physician and addiction expert Gabor Maté. “But when the parents are just too distracted, too stressed to provide the necessary responsiveness, that can also traumatize the child.” We’ve all been overwhelmed at times, unable to process our emotions, feeling as though we didn’t have enough attention and support to do so.

Being able to talk about these experiences, thoughts, and feelings with someone who won’t judge you for any of it—and who has been trained to help you—can be incredibly refreshing and healing. 

This is especially true for those of us who were raised as boys. Many boys are shamed for showing “softer” emotions. We’re told to “man up” and stop acting “like a girl.” We’re encouraged to take action rather than share feelings. We’re praised for solving math problems and ignored (or worse, teased) when they talk about emotions.

A while back, walking through a block party in my neighborhood, I witnessed a sad example of this unfortunate socialization. A smiling boy, all of six or seven years old, asked a face painter to turn him into a blue and purple butterfly.

“No, you’re not going to be a butterfly,” his mother said from behind him.

“Why?” the boy asked, his smile fading into confusion.

“Because…” she said. “Why don’t you be a tiger or a pirate?”

Many boys are taught by our parents and other adults about what it means (and what it doesn’t mean) to be a “real” man. Likely, the mother thought her son should want to be fierce and aggressive rather than radiant, harmless, and feminine, like a butterfly. She probably feared being judged by other parents for having a boy who expresses himself outside of masculine norms.

Even if your upbringing was different from this, you still received messages from our culture. Movies often feature tough, stoic men and warm, relational women. Male musical artists often sing or rap about women as objects rather than human beings. Our individualized society encourages competition rather than collaboration. Some of these things are changing for the better, but boys and men (and girls and women) are still bombarded by messages about how to be.

What’s more, men have been socialized to avoid asking for help. Men seek out therapy far less than women. So much so that there’s a popular Twitter meme about it. Men also tend to have fewer close friends than women do. And with the friends that men do have, we’re more likely to watch sports or throw back some beers rather than confide in each other about emotional issues.

Whatever your gender, it’s almost impossible to escape our society’s stigma against getting help with emotional and mental health. People who seek out therapy are often characterized as “weak,” “crazy,” “whiny,” “neurotic,” and all kinds of other judgments. Who wants to be any of that?

You might also be wondering, how do I know therapy will work? The answer is, you don’t until you try it. There’s tons of data showing its benefits—research shows over and over again that therapy has significant and lasting effects on mental health. It literally improves the structure of the brain. 

But here’s an analogy: If your car’s engine was making noises, wouldn’t you take a look under the hood? You’d probably take it to a mechanic if you couldn’t fix it yourself, right? Why not do the same with your mental and emotional health? You can always buy a new car, but you only get—in the words of the poet Mary Oliver—“one wild and precious life.”

Hi, I’m Jeremy, a writer, meditation teacher, therapist-in-training, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. Subscribe to my weekly email on how to be more mindful at your job, in your relationships, and when it comes to politics here.

Download my free ebook on how mindfulness can decrease your anxiety and transform your life.

Photo by Rawpixel Ltd.