Growing up, I thought therapy was something that you only do when something's wrong, or when things are bad and people who do therapy were somehow mentally unstable or emotionally unwell. The truth is, while therapy is definitely important for clinical cases of depression, anxiety and other issues with mental health, I've come to learn and appreciate the fact that it's perfectly normal for someone not diagnosed with those illnesses like myself to see a therapist. Further than it just being normal, I'd even recommend it if you've never tried it before and today I'm going to explain why. I'm not embarrassed to say I've seen a therapist, and furthermore it's not something that should worry anyone close to me. It doesn't mean something's wrong - in fact, I'd argue it means that something's right.
I started therapy in February of 2023 when I got back to Cornell after being away from campus for ~7 months and my whole experience studying abroad in Spain. It was a readjustment to life in Ithaca - life in the "frozen tundra" as we fondly call it sometimes, and there was a real lack of sunshine, coupled with other things on campus that weighed heavily on me at the time. Especially after being in Jamaica, New York City and Spain throughout the rest of 2022 with sunny weather for the whole time, it took some readjusting to the cloudy, depressing weather in Ithaca, in addition to navigating new social environments (a campus without all the seniors I knew and one where I'm the one about to graduate for example) and relationships that had changed in the time that I was away.
Therapy was something that I'd always wanted to seek out, not necessarily because it was something that I thought I "needed" per se, but rather because I know that it's something that could benefit me in the long run. I also knew that under Cornell Health, I had an opportunity to do therapy at a subsidized cost and in an environment that's supportive of my mental health. I did tele-health appointments through video chat, and met with my therapist every 2 weeks. My last appointment for the semester was this past Tuesday.
Through being in therapy, there are 3 main things that I took away that I wanted to share. More so for myself to put them into words, but also to help anyone whose on the fence about starting therapy to get a first hand account of what my experience was like.
Those three lessons are:
The first lesson I learnt from therapy is that there's a difference between ranting and processing how I feel.
Oftentimes, when something bothers me, I'll call my best friend and rant about it to her just to get it off my chest. Usually, she knows most of the context of what's going on and will side with me based on our biases against whoever I paint to be the villain in the story. Honestly, ranting is therapeutic in a way, because it allows you to get emotions out, but what therapy taught me is that telling those stories and complaining about scenarios to my best friend is not the same as processing a given situation. By this, I mean that it's important to release emotions too, but equally important is learning the ability to understand why things make you uncomfortable, angry, upset, sad or bothered, and then moving past them by accepting, forgiving or even ignoring.
For me, therapy is important because it's a space where I speak to someone who is completely removed from the situation and so I have to explain every nook and cranny detail to them to paint the picture of the story I'm telling. As I tell a specific story to my therapist, I would begin to recognize my implicit biases against whoever or whatever I was complaining about, and to an extent, start to "hear myself talk" from another perspective. This question of "how do I want to present this to a stranger" comes up, and I think that third-party listener perspective that the therapist provides is so useful because it forces you to consider what you want that person to think about you in the situation, but furthermore what you want them to think about the situation you're talking about.
For example, if you go to a counselling session and begin to tell a story of how a partner treated you poorly in a certain scenario, you'll begin to realize something like "hey, I don't want my therapist to think I hate my partner, because that's not the case at all. How do I tell this story without absolutely villainizing my partner since it's someone I love?" That, in turn allows you to think about the story that you're telling more objectively, and process each feeling - whether it's love mixed with anger, or sadness mixed with happiness. I learnt that it's important to take a step back from ranting sometimes and give yourself the space to actually process.
And that brings me to the second lesson I've learnt, which is give yourself space to process and to feel uncomfortable.
When I show up to my counselling sessions, there's things I know my therapist is going to ask me. And some of those things, oftentimes are conversations that I'd either rather not have or have decided to avoid with other people. I think the fact that I can expect to be asked uncomfortable questions in therapy has helped me, because it's made me realize that it's important to give myself space to process and sit in discomfort.
The one hour session that I have with my therapist usually is a space for me sit in discomfort about things that I experienced and find ways not to go around it, but to go through it. For example, two nights ago, I felt really overwhelmed by the end of classes and the beginning of the countdown to the end of college, and I couldn't focus on anything I had to study. So instead of putting on Netflix to numb my brain, or scrolling TikTok (which admittedly I was for a few minutes), I decided to just put my phone on DND and lay on the ground in darkness. Kinda strange eh?
What did that mean for me though? It didn't mean I was gonna sit there and cry, nor did it mean I was gonna just give up on studying, but rather I decided to lay there and just think. I thought about what it was that made me feel overwhelmed, why I felt unsettled and I came to the realization that I shared with you. For me, that was an instance in which I gave myself space to process. I laid there feeling uncomfortable - jittery almost - until I began to think clear thoughts and process. And that was something that therapy taught me to do - is to tackle emotional discomfort head on and go through it, allowing yourself to be human and feel things rather than pushing emotions to the side.
The third lesson that I've learnt is that all feelings are valid.
Sometimes in my counselling sessions, as I speak to my therapist and tell them a story about something that bothers me, I'll feel a sense of "am I allowed to feel that way?" One example (that I'll probably talk more about in the future) is when I told my therapist the story of when I lost a friend in my freshman year of college. His name was Antonio Tsialas and he sat beside me in my Freshman Writing Seminar in Fall of 2019. He passed away after a hazing incident with a fraternity on campus, and the last time I saw him was in class the same day that he passed away.
In that situation, I knew Antonio wasn't my best friend, and in fact, it happened in October of 2019, so I had only known him a little over a month. But it still traumatized me, and I still to this day think about him and feel an emotional toll when the topic comes up. What made it even worse though, was thinking that I wasn't allowed to feel sad or publicly grieve his death because there were people who were closer to him than I was. A lot of people didn't even know we were friends, so this feeling of invalidation came over me whenever I would well up in tears over his death. We weren't the closest of friends (and I really mourn what that friendship could have been) so what gave me the right to be publicly sad about it?
But I've learnt that all feelings are valid, and it's so important to validate your feelings when they come up.
By that I mean quite literally to allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to be sad. Allow yourself to be upset. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable. Allow yourself to be happy, and allow yourself to be excited.
My therapist would oftentimes remind me that even though at times I felt like I shouldn't feel a certain way about a certain situation, the fact of the matter is that I do, so avoiding it and invalidating it doesn't help me to process it and go through it to get out the other side. For me that means acknowledging emotions and even more importantly, naming emotions. The question my therapist would often ask me after I tell them a story is "How does that make you feel? What emotions does that evoke?" Those questions force me to confront each emotion and process my feelings one by one rather than being overwhelmed by them all. That for me is super important.
After 4 months in therapy (and with the sun coming out more often these days too) I can honestly say that I'm in a much better place mentally and I can feel an improvement in my emotional maturity from when I started in February. I've realized that as much as I consider myself to be mentally "normal" the idea and conversation around mental health is so much more important than the world gives it credit for. It's good that there's been a lot of movements amongst youth towards acknowledging the need for attention to mental health, but for me, experiencing first hand the benefits of paying attention to my mental health with a professional has really opened my eyes to the lack of emotional maturity and emotional attention that exists in people and relationships all around me.
So am I an advocate of therapy? Yes.
Let me caveat that though, by saying you have to find someone that works for you. You might not click with your first therapist or your second, but when you find the person that can help you to process all the emotions that life has to offer, I promise you you'll be much more at peace with yourself and more in tune with each and every experience that you have going forward.
By the way, Happy Mother's Day if you're a mom reading this!
To my mom (who I know reads this every Sunday) - I love you so much more than you know. I know I'm not always the best at expressing it, but you are so loved. There's no need to worry about me being in therapy. I'm okay. A special happy mother's day to you and a big hug all the way from Ithaca to Jamaica.
Until next Sunday,