What I’ve learned from 10 years of therapy – and why it’s time to stop | Life and style

I am standing outside an ordinary house in a tree-lined street on a midsummer afternoon, about to change my life. I glance through a window and see the reassuring domestic ephemera of books, a computer monitor, a child’s drawing. Next to the front door is a small, typed sign with the details of a psychotherapist. I draw myself up, feeling both grown up and childishly nervous, and ring the buzzer.

It is June 2012, and I am nearing 38. The country is preoccupied with whether the Olympics will be ready on time and if England might crash out of the Euros. I have other things on my mind. A few weeks earlier, I made a call. The woman on the end of the line was polite, warm and to the point, and we agreed to meet. Waiting for her to answer the door, I start to sweat: will I like her? Will she think I am a time-waster? What am I going to say?

I feel like an outlier: in 2012, therapy carries something of a stigma. Beyond one or two close friends, I haven’t told anyone I’m here. The open conversations we have today around mental health weren’t happening. Now, Covid has sharpened everyone’s awareness of their own mental health struggles: according to a report by Mind last November, over a third of Britons say they don’t have the support or tools to deal with the ups and downs of life. Ten million people will need support for their mental health as a direct result of the pandemic, according to the Centre for Mental Health. Demand for therapy is outstripping supply. A study by the New York Times in December revealed that therapists in the US, where it has always been more accepted, are turning away patients. Even in the UK, demand for mental health advice has soared since the start of the pandemic.

It hasn’t taken a crisis for me to seek help. I’m doing so because I feel stuck: at work, in life, and certainly in love. I feel there is a braver, happier, more fulfilled person inside me trying to get out, but I don’t know how to reach her. I am existing with a low-level frustration, without being able to pinpoint what I am frustrated with, let alone find the tools to address it.

I have been wondering for a while if talking to a professional might help. But something has always stopped me: who am I, with a loving family, good friends, a roof over my head and food on the table, to need therapy? I don’t come from a family of therapy-seekers. My Yorkshire-born parents, from working-class homes, would no sooner have sought out something so self-indulgent than joined a circus. In the world I’ve grown up in, therapy is seen as a rather shameful last resort for someone in need of help, not for someone with a functioning life who’s feeling a bit directionless. Just cheer up and get on with it was the message I learned.

As a result, it has taken me a long time to convince myself that, even though I am not suffering from what my friend (and also a therapist) Ellen calls “capital T trauma”, it could be helpful. As Stephen Grosz writes in his 2013 book The Examined Life: “At one time or another, most of us have felt trapped by things we find ourselves thinking or doing, caught by our own impulses or foolish choices; ensnared in some unhappiness or fear; imprisoned by our own history. We feel unable to go forward and yet we believe that there must be a way.”

I want to change. In fact, I want to be a different person altogether. I am like an old house whose electrics keep shorting in the same place, and I want someone to rewire me. I have a very strong sense that unless I do something, I’ll be stuck here for ever. So here I am, sweating on a doorstep, asking for help. I am about to learn a huge amount.

Tears are useful

As I sit down for my first session, I notice a box of tissues on a table within arm’s reach. I get through a lot of them that afternoon. The release of talking, of being listened to, is an emotional experience.

We sit in a book-filled room; I am on a comfy sofa, my therapist is on a chair. Light pours in. Over the years, I can almost memorise the titles behind her, so long will I spend gazing at them when stuck for words. Likewise, the tree outside her window becomes as familiar as the view from my own flat: I will witness its full cycle – from summer fullness to bare winter branches – many times over.

In these early weeks, I do a lot of talking as my therapist gets to know me. When she speaks, it is often to affirm what I’ve said: “It sounds like you’ve always … ” or, “It’s OK to feel … ” At first I sit upright; as I start to feel more comfortable, I sometimes curl my legs under me.

My therapist refers to the talking we do, week in, week out, as “work”. There’s a reason for this – it’s hard. Many sessions, particularly in these early days, are emotionally battering, tearful, and leave me feeling wrung out for days.

But therapeutic tears feel different from normal-life tears. They often appear out of the blue. They are real, but they are confined to the session, leaving me feeling a little shellshocked afterwards: “Where did that come from?” I think. When I sob about something, my therapist is sympathetic, but instead of comforting me, she is detached enough to be curious about my tears, what they reveal. They are like a truth-seeking missile, a direct line to what really matters.

It is during one of these tearful moments that I acknowledge how much I want to be a mother, despite the fact that I am single. And so we start to talk about what I could do. She challenges me: is it that I don’t believe I could cope as a single parent, or is it that I feel I must fit in with society’s norms? Do I want to wait until I’m in a good relationship – which could take years – or does this feel more urgent? Over a period of months, my ingrained prejudices start to shift, and my perspective changes. I take a few baby steps – an appointment with a fertility clinic; a checkup with my GP – telling myself that, at any point, I can pull the plug. I never do: nearly two years after our first session, in April 2014, I give birth to a daughter. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

Proper change takes time

I assume I might have a few months of sessions over the summer to iron out some issues, then call it a day, like taking myself to a garage for an MOT. But because I haven’t sought out therapy after a big T trauma – a divorce, a bereavement, a breakdown – I realise that, after nearly four decades of ingrained behaviour, there is no sudden U-turn; rather, I’m like a large tanker slowly starting to alter its course. By autumn, I realise I may be here some time.

The early weeks zip by; I feel euphoric, my sessions filled with wave after wave of insights, revelatory eureka moments of “so that’s why I’ve always done that!”

But then things quieten down. Sessions sometimes feel like a waste of time; I feel grumpy and frustrated. This, I’ve read, is when the hard, unsexy work happens. A therapist is part detective, part archaeologist, scratching at the surface, finding something of potential interest and digging a little deeper. These quieter, less emotional sessions are where the deep excavation takes place. We start to work as a team, trying to piece things together, make connections.

Meanwhile, in the real world, life starts to get a little easier. One day, I ask for something at work that, almost overnight, makes my job more interesting and rewarding. This real-world application of my therapy makes all the hard work feel worthwhile.

I learn never to second-guess a session, however. Out of the blue, I have one that leaves me feeling not just that a weight has been lifted, but that a large blockage inside me has been surgically removed. But then I realise that, of course, these breakthroughs come out of all the plodding, apparently unsatisfying work of the previous months.

The past holds clues

Before I start therapy, I am vaguely aware – from TV shows, from the little I know about Freud – that most therapists root around in your past. I am sceptical about this: how relevant can it be? I want to dive straight into my pressing present-day issues. Delving into my childhood feels distracting and time-consuming.

Yet, from our very first session, my therapist and I start to make connections between how I experienced the world as a child and how I experience it today. Surprise, surprise – they aren’t too dissimilar. We survive (in the broadest sense) our childhoods by figuring out how to fit into our families, our roles, our small world; we learn about relationships from our parents. We then carry these ways of being into our adult lives where, in many cases, they are no longer useful, or relevant. To me, this joining-the-dots seems like magic. To understand that there is a sound reason why I behave a certain way is revelatory, exhilarating and a huge relief: it’s like finding a key for a door that has been locked your entire life.

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An example: I wonder regularly why I have often been unsure how I feel about things. It’s frustrating: feelings should be instinctual, clearcut – yet I have always struggled to articulate and trust mine. We realise they weren’t discussed, taken seriously or explored, growing up. It’s hard work challenging this deeply held belief.

… but don’t blame your parents

I mean, absolutely do, at first – Philip Larkin was right, they fuck you up. So every frustration at my behaviour, every flaw in my character, every life skill I feel I lack, I lay the blame at my parents’ door. It feels good at first, as it lets me off the hook; I don’t have to take responsibility for my failings. But after a while it starts to feel a bit pointless, a bit immature. It’s a therapeutic dead end.

As time goes on, I realise something blindingly obvious: my parents had to make do with their parents. Perhaps I should have recalled Larkin’s second verse: “But they were fucked up in their turn/By fools in old-style hats and coats.” I loved my grandparents, but they didn’t arm their children with the skills and language to navigate the world of emotions.

Once this truth is established, it leads to more interesting conversations. Understanding that I’m not flawed – or, more accurately, that we all are, so get over it – and that I must dictate what shape my life takes gives me the freedom to think about the choices I could make in future.

I’m lucky to have the parents I do. But they are too emotionally involved to be objective about me. A neutral, professional therapist is a great counterpart. I hope to arm my daughter with as many life skills as I can, but I’ll no doubt screw her up in my own special way.

‘My therapist knows my darkest fears.’ Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Hair and makeup: Alice Theobald at Arlington Artists using Albiva skincare, Guerlain cosmetics, Bumble and bumble, Mavala nails

Self-acceptance is actually a thing

This phrase is bandied about so freely in self-help articles and on fridge magnets, it has almost lost its meaning. But for me, it is core to it all. I have always felt unfinished, not-yet-perfect, and that if I could become a bit more confident, a bit less self-conscious, then I would be ready to launch into the world, fully formed – and then I would find contentment, fulfilment and love.

As I half-suspect before I start therapy, it turns out I’m spectacularly misguided about this desire for a wholesale personality transplant. At the end of our first session, my therapist asks me if I’d ever considered that someone – a partner, a parent, a friend, a boss – might accept me exactly as I am, flaws, insecurities and all (I call this the Bridget Jones school of therapy). I never have. It is a revelation.

Ask yourself the right questions

The cliche goes that therapists nod their heads wisely and say: “And how did that make you feel?” They do say this sometimes; and in fact, when no one has ever asked you this question before, it’s extremely powerful when they do, repeatedly. This repetition, in my case, starts to have an effect: it makes me see that my feelings are valid; they aren’t right or wrong – they just are.

But my therapist rarely asks that question, mostly because it is implicit in everything we talk about. Instead, she regularly asks a more powerful one: “What’s that good for?”

At first, I don’t understand what she means. What is choosing an unavailable man good for? Well, nothing, obviously. But what she actually means is, what purpose does it serve? He’ll never commit to a relationship with me, I venture. And what’s that good for, she asks, half-smiling. It keeps me from having an intimate, grownup relationship, I say. Which keeps me from risking being hurt by someone I actually care about. And so on.

Today, I ask myself this question all the time. What is keeping quiet about a work frustration good for? It stops me having to push myself, and potentially make higher-profile mistakes. What is my insistence that my daughter clear her plate good for? It makes me feel I can control her – and therefore feel in control as a parent. There’s always an explanation.

Don’t be afraid of silence

If a therapy session is a mirror of the outside world and how we exist in it, then I clearly don’t know when to shut up. A therapeutic silence is worse than a real-life silence – it is unnaturally awkward sitting opposite someone while they stare at you, waiting for you to speak – so I fill all of them.

Of course, this is a trick I know from my own world: silences are often when the juiciest things come out, as any journalist who regularly does interviews will tell you. But it takes courage to sit with it. If you are constantly filling silences to avoid their awkwardness, you are, I’ve learned, avoiding something else – an intimacy, a genuine thought, an ability to feel a little exposed.

The hardest silences in therapy are those at the start of each session. It’s an unspoken rule that you, rather than your therapist, start off. Often what you first say is revealing – and can dictate that entire week’s conversation. For me, this pressure feels unbearable. So I mitigate it by trying to turn up “prepared” – with a good yarn, or running through our last session in my head, planning what to say when I arrive.

My therapist challenges me on it: what might happen if I don’t prepare and instead just see what happens? What’s my biggest fear? That I will say something trite or embarrassing, I say. That I’ll be “found out” for being stupid, or for not having done my homework. Do you often feel like this, she asks – needing to be the good girl, for fear of what people might think of you? You bet I do.

Check in with yourself (every now and then)

Sometimes, of course, I am just stumped for words. I stare out of the window; I fidget; I smile apologetically; I talk about the weather, or I compliment my therapist on something she’s wearing. It is agonising. She nods politely, quietly scrutinising me.

After a while, she puts me out of my misery and says: “What’s happening for you right now?” It’s a question we don’t often ask ourselves, checking in with the present moment, and it’s surprisingly helpful. The first few times she says it, I talk about something that happened in the week, or a future plan. When I do, she stops me gently and says, “No, right now. What’s happening for you right now?”

The truth is, I often don’t know, because I don’t think about it. But when I do speak honestly, what I say usually surprises me. “I am really, really pissed off,” I say. I am shocked. Once it has been voiced, we work backwards to figure out what I’m so pissed off about.

You have to know when to stop

It’s been 10 years since that warm June afternoon. After a decade of talking with my therapist, my life has changed immeasurably for the better. I’m a mother, I’m more confident and fulfilled at work than I’ve ever been, and I’m more than 18 months into a stable, loving relationship with an exceptionally good man. A lack of self-worth, a fear of taking up too much space, a fear of expressing how I feel, that have all accompanied me since girlhood, have lifted. Some of this is the simple fact of ageing. But mostly it is thanks to the power of my weekly conversations.

But I am stopping. Therapy is a powerful means to an end, and it has armed me with the skills, in effect, to be my own therapist.

As we wind down, I am curious to see how I feel, and what I will miss about it. My relationship with my therapist is a strange, one-sided one: I know almost nothing about her, yet she knows everything about me, from my darkest fears to my most shameful thoughts. I am forever amazed at how much she remembers – stories I’ve told her, the names of obscure family members. We are close, in some ways, but it’s not a friendship. I wonder aloud if she will miss me; she volunteers that she will. We are human beings, too, she says.

Therapy hasn’t “fixed” me, because I wasn’t broken. It has helped me access and make sense of my thoughts, feelings and actions. Now the end is approaching, have I run out of problems? Will I never again suffer moments of self-doubt, or get tongue-tied in intimate conversations? Of course not. But my therapy has helped me confront and understand them – and given me the tools to tackle them.

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