My journey to a life experienced with more awareness, insight, acceptance, compassion, gratitude, and ultimately forgiveness for myself and others did not just happen and I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that supported such practices or values. My first encounter with therapy was when I was about 10 years old, when my single-mother-of-three-children took the family to the Division of Youth and Family Services for help. When I reflect on this early childhood encounter with the mental healthcare system, I wonder if it was the first step on the long and winding road to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist today. I do know that the experience opened me up at that very tender age to the fact that sometimes we need help from someone other than our family and friends, a route that I found myself taking at different stages of my life. I didn’t know that seeking support through therapy was viewed in our culture as a stigma, suggesting that I was either weak or crazy, as my mom was a platinum member of the therapy frequent flyer club who shared what her therapist said to her to anyone that was willing to listen.
Flash forward 20 years, when I find myself married, working two jobs and back at school to pursue a Master’s degree in Healthcare Administration (have I mentioned yet that I had acquired an overly developed work ethic by this point?). My attachment to work and “doing” (being productive), not creating enough time and space for my relationship with my partner or myself for that matter, and my need for a sense of value and belonging somewhere produced the ideal environment for the perfect storm. Just reflecting on that time through writing these words is making my belly and chest tight! I found myself back in therapy, both with my partner and individually, on-and-off for the next four years.
Initially, therapy did not progress smoothly as it took several attempts to finally find the ‘right’ therapist to help us as a couple and another one to help just me. I didn’t realize that every therapist had a different approach; all I knew is that after a couple of sessions I didn’t feel like I was being heard or understood. My partner was a bit more direct than I was when he would simply say “I don’t like him and I don’t want to go back”, so the search continued. Even after a ‘good fit’ was found for us to do the work, we would experience progress, terminate therapy, and then we would hit another pot hole and find ourselves back in session. It wasn’t until my therapist guided me to focus on and discuss my past relationships, specifically with my parents that the real healing and change began.
What I learned about myself – the past influences going back multiple generations in my family that shaped my world and how I learned to adapt to survive – was beyond powerful. On one side of my family, emotional expression was very high while on the other side, emotional expression was not tolerated – so what was I “to do” when I felt a moving emotion? I spent a great deal of energy stuffing my emotions down, only to have them leak out in some of the most inopportune moments. I would think to myself “Why can’t I control my emotions?” or “What is wrong with me?” My compassionate and patient therapist would listen to my stories of how I navigated between the chaos on one side of the road and the desert on the other side to avoid being flooded or dehydrated. She encouraged me to feel my emotions, explore the benefits of those emotions, and even discover new, more subtle (yet no less powerful) emotions such as compassion and gratitude.
Once I was able to honor my emotional intelligence and tap into the reservoir that I had built up over the years, I developed a very close and dear relationship with my emotions and now depend upon them for their guidance, especially the ones that most people try to avoid, such as anger, fear, sadness, and even helplessness. What I have come to understand and value is that all emotions serve a purpose and our overall health and well-being depend upon the ability to experience a broad range of them in order to live life to the fullest, especially in our relationships with our significant others where a deep emotional connection is the life preserver that helps us weather the many storms and pot holes life presents along the way.
I found myself back in therapy once again as I took the final steps on the path to becoming a Marriage and Family Therapist. It was important to my development as a therapist to once again explore and expand my emotional awareness as I navigated this latest life transformation. Through my personal experience of therapy, my education, and my training, my view of life has grown. I now have a deeper appreciation for the resiliency of the human spirit as I developed a greater understanding of our reactions to life’s challenges as normal, natural adaptive responses motivated by a desire to stay connected, to be accepted, to belong, and to survive.
If my personal reflections on how ‘talk therapy’ changed my life and my relationships don’t convince you that psychotherapy works, check out some of the latest evidence gathered by researchers by clicking on the link below: