woman in gray long sleeve shirt lying on bed

I Thought I Was Doing Mental Health Right—Until I Went To Therapy

I had been contemplating going to therapy for the better part of the last four years. The idea would usually pop up whenever I was hit with a fresh wave of anxiety (specifically work anxiety), self-doubt, existential dread, or an excruciating concoction of all three. Now bear in mind, I have always recognized the importance of good mental health and the role of therapy in maintaining it. And yet, every time I considered therapy for myself, I would always have ready a host of excuses to avoid it. My go-to excuse was that my problems weren’t severe enough to warrant professional help. But more importantly, I was convinced that my degree of self-awareness and introspection would enable me to “self-therapize.”

Then came 2020, which brought with it a brand-new offering of anxiety and depressive traits. I finally felt like I was in over my head and decided to see a therapist. My first few sessions, while encouraging, were slightly underwhelming. I was expecting some kind of revelation, whereas my therapist was only telling me things I had already known about or had been practicing. It took me a couple of months to realize, while I may have been familiar with some of these concepts and thought patterns, I started applying them successfully only after going to therapy.

Self-love is incomplete without self-compassion

For the longest time, I thought I loved myself enough. Enough for it to be a healthy amount without bordering on narcissism. And maybe I wasn’t entirely wrong. I did always look out for myself. I never let anybody treat me badly or ever questioned my worthiness for their love and respect. I tried my best to alleviate my pain and amplify my happiness and peace. However, it was only after my therapist pointed it out that I realized, while I did love myself, I was super mean to myself. I would constantly tell myself I’m not good enough and that I didn’t have what it took to be successful in life. I justified this negative self-talk by thinking that without it, I was just deluding myself and setting myself up for disappointment.

Naturally, one of my first tasks in therapy was to check my negative thoughts and question them. It sounded pretty doable, even obvious for that matter. But considering that I had spent the best part of my 20’s treating that critical voice in my head as an anchor to reality, it proved quite difficult to challenge what I had perceived to be facts. Nevertheless, as I kept at it, I eventually started defending myself from the voice trying to bring me down.

I may have always loved myself, but now, I am kind to myself. If I ever struggle with failure or self-doubt, I treat myself with compassion, just as I would a loved one. The negative self-talk that I considered an antidote to complacency was only making me feel judged by myself. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows me to embrace mistakes because I’m more confident in my ability to encourage myself to do better instead of scaring myself away from ever trying again.

Negative emotions must be validated but not wallowed in

I can’t recall exactly when, but somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, I had made my peace with negative emotions. I obviously didn’t enjoy them, but I also never consciously suppressed them or willed them to go away on their own. The problem, as it turns out, was that I might have actually been a little too accepting of negativity. While I would often make an effort to understand those feelings, I never really worked through them. After establishing my emotions as normal and valid—which they absolutely were—I would always allow myself to dwell on them.

In therapy, I learned that whenever I experience a negative emotion, I should acknowledge it, validate it, and then move on. That meant no more pity parties for me. It was a difficult habit to cultivate, not least when I was overcome with self-doubt and fear of failure. I had gotten so used to stewing in these feelings that to me, they had become immutable facts. It was only during therapy that I developed the will to move past these emotions and started working towards resolving them. I now continually remind myself that feelings are not facts. They are temporary and I shouldn’t let them paralyze me.

There is no room for deflection during reflection

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never been one to sit with negative emotions without at least attempting to figure out what’s causing them. I would always reflect on my feelings and try to make sense of them. I almost took pride in how introspective I thought I was. But if I was really that good at introspecting, then why did so many of my emotional issues remain unresolved and my existential questions unanswered?

While navigating my work anxiety during therapy, my therapist suggested that I reflect on thoughts and memories from past work experiences without shaming or judging myself in the process. And that’s when it struck me that all the while before therapy, I had been unconsciously sabotaging my attempts at introspection by continuously blocking thoughts that would bring up any shame or guilt or any other unpleasant emotion, for that matter. Reflection only works when you’re being honest with yourself. By shutting down thoughts or redirecting them to something I considered more favorable or acceptable, I was essentially lying to myself.

I would often ask myself, “Why am I stuck?”, “What about my life is making me unhappy and what should I do to fix it?” No matter how hard I pondered, the answer almost always was a frustrated, “I don’t know!” A few months into therapy, I asked myself the same questions again, but this time with a genuinely curious and non-judgmental attitude. “I want to change my life but change is too daunting. At least the discontentment I feel now is familiar.” I didn’t like the answer this time either. But at least it was honest and it gave me something to work with. It is painfully difficult to uncover thoughts that I would rather bury deep inside my mind, hoping for them to magically disappear. But I know now that acknowledging and accepting the uncomfortable truth is the only way to move forward.

I’ve been in therapy for over four months now, and I can confidently say that I have made more progress in the last four months than I had in the four years I was debating therapy combined. Having said that, mental health is an ongoing journey and I still have my share of bad days. The only difference is that now I am better equipped to work through my thoughts and feelings. Minor but significant tweaks in mindset and thought patterns have done wonders for my relationship with myself. I truly believe that everybody can benefit from therapy in some way or form and that all mental health experiences, even ones that may not be on the extreme side of the scale, are valid.

Trying hard to maintain a healthy balance between adulthood and sanity

Keep up with Mariam on Instagram