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Are You a Therapy Virgin?

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Dr. Wendy Walsh: Times are tough. Between recession stress, the rising rates of postpartum depression and the epidemic of cheaters who are crumbling marriages everywhere, there's no better time than now to vent in an office to an empathetic listener.

Woman with therapist
I'll never forget the first day I entered psychotherapy. I was four months pregnant and reeling from a cocktail of pregnancy hormones that had me stumbling through life like a weepy drunk. And I was mad. Mad at the world. Mad at the television industry that (back then) discriminated against pregnant on-camera babes. Mad at my romantic partner, who seemed hell-bent on winning the Most Unhelpful Father in the World trophy. Mad that the outcome of years of pumping at the gym had been erased in a matter of months. One day, my now-regular gush of tears made a unwelcome appearance at my monthly obstetrics appointment -- and my doctor ordered me into therapy. 

I entered the therapist's office apologizing for my tears. I assured her that I was normally quite a together woman. She was kind, empathetic and made me promise to stop apologizing for myself. (It's a Canadian tradition, so I still do it sometimes. Sigh.) Like most people, I expected to have a couple of quick sessions and be dry-eyed and beaming within a few weeks. Little did I know that I was embarking on a tender journey toward the center of my earth. I didn't know that what I was experiencing was an identity crisis, some delayed grieving for the deaths of my parents and, yes, some prepartum depression. In the end, I became so fascinated by the process that I spent six years in graduate school studying psychology myself! Clearly, I had found my bag -- and along the way, I learned a few therapy myths and methods that someone who's never been in therapy might not know. Here's a starter list:

Getting Therapy Is Normal 
Like many newbies, I was cautious early on about who I shared my news of being in therapy with. I still had the idea that therapy was for "crazy" people. The fact is, though, that most of us could really use an observing eye to help us make sense of some of the painful lessons we've learned, and the thoughts in our heads that stop us from being the best people we can be. When I finally started sharing my experiences of therapy with others, I found out that nearly everyone -- especially the most successful people I knew -- had been or still were in therapy. I felt behind the times! 

The Range of Therapists Is Large
Most people choose a therapist based on a referral, having no knowledge about their psychological orientation or education. To break it down, therapists can be drug-prescribing medical doctors (a.k.a. "psychiatrists"), clinical psychologists with Ph.Ds, marriage and family therapists, social workers, religious counselors, drug and alcohol counselors or life coaches. Some are licensed. Others are being supervised by someone with a license. Still others are unlicensed laypeople. But all have a capacity for care and are doing what they do because they have a lot of empathy. Many have recovered from some major emotional wounds themselves, so they may have personal insight into what you're going through. It's perfectly acceptable to ask a therapist about his or her credentials and treatment plan. But know this: No matter the therapist's level of education, it is the therapeutic relationship itself that heals. It's the consistent caregiving that becomes the catalyst for growth. 

Boundaries Protect YOU 
At the beginning of therapy, new patients are often taken aback by the abrupt way that a therapist may end a session at exactly 50 minutes, refuse to disclose personal details about his or her own life, charge you even when you don't show up, say no to extending the length of a session when you get stuck in traffic and/or refuse to take friends of yours on as patients. These practices are part of what's called the "therapeutic frame," which is designed to keep you safe. Imagine the hurt you'd feel if a therapist let your session bleed into 60 minutes one week, but not the week you were in the most pain. Or the feelings of jealousy you'd experience if your therapist seemed to be more helpful to a close friend of yours than he/she is to you. Therapists rigidly stick to the 50-minute hour and/or insist on a set weekly appointment because your brain responds to consistency of care. In the safety of that weekly 50-minute frame, you have the complete freedom to vent, knowing that the therapist will never inject his or her needs into your time. 

Therapy Can Feel Like Love 
Imagine having a person focus entirely on you, being all eyes and ears during weekly sessions for months on end. Imagine that they have compassion and empathy and truly understand what you are going through. Now imagine that this kind of attention and safety brings forth emotional communication that you've never even been able to express to your real-world intimates. Yes, therapy can feel like love, because it is a kind of love. But it is a nonsexual love (as it must be!), and it is a "false love" in the sense that you never have to deal with your "lover's" problems. Given the setup, it is perfectly natural to have deep feelings of love for your therapist, but in the psychological process, these feelings will eventually transfer as you learn to love yourself and others. At no time should a therapeutic relationship become a dual relationship with real-world connections. A dual relationship has too much potential to injure a patient. 

I'll end this blog with a story I heard recently about Carl Jung. Jung was one of Freud's disciples who broke off to form his own theory of personality. (I hope this story is true, because I love it!) Supposedly, Jung was once asked, "Why would anyone ever want to enter therapy? Why would they want to put themselves through the psychic pain of revisiting all the hurts of their childhood, or retelling their worst nightmares?" Jung seemed surprised by the question and responded with, "Well, you certainly shouldn't, if you don't HAVE to!" 

P.S. I have opened a new private practice in Los Angeles and am taking clients whom I do not know in the real world.

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