Both Millennials and older Gen Z’ers alike seem to have come to one simple collective conclusion: mental health matters. With that conclusion, we have sought out various tools in order to help us understand and maintain our mental health, and I think (selfishly) my favorite tool of mental health maintenance has been therapy. There has been an increase in demand for therapists because these two generations one day woke up, looked around, and thought to themselves: “Man, I do not feel okay.” And witnessing both firsthand, and vicariously our “collective awakening,” and our attempt to navigate it through therapy has been an amazing, awe-inspiring journey. Outside of the awe though, it’s incredibly scary, because no one tells you how hard therapy can be some days. And no one gives you the tools to work through those hard days.
Therapy can be a beautiful tool for some because therapists often act as mirrors, or rather, walls to bounce thoughts of so that they aren’t just bouncing around in your head all day. I once saw an image that likened therapists to people who disentangle the ball of yarn that represents our thoughts, so that we can see them in a straight line, and clearer. Another good example might be comparing humans to snakes, who must occasionally shed layers of skin in order to grow. In this case, a therapist acts as a gentle hand that guides the removal of this skin, not pulling it off for you, but helping out when necessary.
Therapists sometimes examine our ways of thinking by repeating them back to us, and in this way, they encourage metacognition, or “thinking about the way we think,” which is necessary for growth. The hard days come in when we’re especially fond of a way of thinking because it has kept us safe in the past, but is not necessarily helpful in our present. And when our therapists challenge those what I’ll call “safety-net thoughts,” the shedding of something that no longer keeps us safe, it can feel threatening and scary. And because therapy sessions are typically only one hour, it can be hard to process those feelings of plunging into the unknown alone.
I’ll give an example from my own experiences with therapy, while being as general as possible. One day during a session, I was venting to my therapist about how I’d written an ex an angry letter, you know the kind you write in a rage but never send. As I was reading the letter to her, she paused me and asked me to consider a few things. “Is this letter really for him, or for the little girl in you? Or maybe a part of this letter is for your parents?” And in that moment, I imagined a wall coming crumbling down. You see, it was easier to paint my ex as a villain, than accept the fact that I was pushing a narrative of neglect onto the wrong person. My therapist called me out, and forced me to admit that I was the only person responsible for neglecting me in that relationship, and that realization made me bawl my eyes out for the first time in a session. And what was really a bummer, was that this breakthrough happened at the end of the session, and so I had to sit with those feelings for the rest of the day and the week.
And so what did I do after? I processed in a way that forced me to face these emotions, rather than run. Processing emotions looks different for each person, but all I’ll say is that from my experience, the hard days in therapy are really the opportunities for the most growth if we choose to sit with the difficulty instead of running from it. What’s that one quote from the Legend of Korra, “It is when we are at our lowest points that we are capable of the greatest change”? The best thing we can do on those difficult days is to lean into the difficulty, and even get metacognitive about it: “this thought has been hurting me for quite some time, so why is it so hard to let it go?” The difficulty won’t feel good; it’ll hurt. But sometimes I wonder, does the snake that is shedding it’s skin enjoy the process? How about the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon, eager to transform into a butterfly?
The point is that therapy isn’t going to be all unicorns and rainbows. But that’s no reason to quit. Granted, if your therapist is always making you feel bad there may be some issue, but generally speaking, learning about yourself is hard and grueling work, and the hard days are to be expected. When I think about the hard days, I am reminded of another favorite TV show of mine on Netflix, the Midnight Gospel. It’s a wonky show, but the final episode in the first season features a young man having the conversation with his mother he always wished he had. In this episode, he asks her what he’s supposed to do when things get hard, and when things hurt. In response, with a gentle and compassionate smile, she leans in and simply says, “You cry.” And so maybe, when we have a hard day in therapy, the easier choice may be to argue, and get defensive– I have certainly taken that route before. But maybe, the best choice is to just lean in, and cry.