The increase in the importance of self-care has given rise to a variety of Instagram influencers, self-help gurus, and trendy hashtags, shows and songs, making a mental health journey seem like the greatest thing to ever happen to your life. And it can be! But it can take lot of self-work to get to the point of a life-changing breakthrough.
“Everyone loves thinking about the sort of a-ha moment,” Natalie Burns, a clinical social worker in the Department of Psychiatry and the Department of Social Work at the University of Michigan, told HuffPost. “I don’t necessarily believe that it’s one a-ha moment that sort of says now everything’s fine. I think it’s more common that it’s the product of a lot of hard work, a lot of self-reflection, a lot of curiosity as to why we do the things we do.”
What people don’t often tell you is that therapy, while transformative, can be really hard. Healing is not going to happen overnight and the life-changing lessons and breakthroughs that we’re looking for aren’t always going to feel good. In fact, sometimes things are going to feel worse before they feel better.
“People engage in habit; life and habits are hard to change,” Burns said. “Therapists offer and suggest trying new ways of coping, but the reality is that they’re not going to feel as good or work as well in the beginning. We have to give it time to work.”
However, if you have just entered therapy ― or you’ve been on your journey for a while yet you aren’t seeing any progress ― don’t get discouraged. HuffPost asked people to share their therapy breakthroughs to show how varied they can be over the course of several months (in some cases years!) in therapy.
Below, seven people share the best advice and most important lessons they’ve learned in therapy and how they try to continuously apply it to their lives. If you’re feeling discouraged or unmotivated, their stories may help you stay the course and keep doing the work. Because the work to manage your mental health will not always be easy, but it’ll be worth it.
‘She was able to lead me to understand that it was my anxiety that made me upset.’
“During one of our sessions I was discussing how a situation made me very upset, and she was able to lead me to understand that it was my anxiety that made me upset. She gave me two sheets of papers on how I can 1.) deal with the situation and 2.) how to take myself out of that feeling so I can work on myself and then come back stronger. I noticed I wasn’t getting angry as often, and it really helped my anxiety. I would get so anxious about school, but now I noticed that my anxiety has decreased because of those sheets. I read them over and was able to apply them to stuff I do in my daily life. Also, it’s nice to just have someone to talk to. Of course, I have great friends and a wonderful boyfriend, but sometimes you need an unbiased person to just hear you out. That’s what I like the most about having a therapist. I can really see improvements and when I see it, it’s such a great feeling.” - Kenosha from Maryland, in therapy for one year
‘The therapist told us this little tidbit that gave us the courage to make a life together.’
“Early in my relationship with my husband, I went to his therapist with him. He was worried about starting a new relationship with me because he’d been divorced and didn’t want to make the same mistakes. We were (and are) very much in love and showed up holding hands and giddy with our delight in each other. The therapist told us this little tidbit that gave us the courage to make a life together: ‘Love is liberating. It frees each of you to be your authentic selves.’ And so, 27 years later we find ourselves still holding hands and free to be exactly who we were meant to be. We have both blossomed.” - Katie from New Mexico, in therapy for one year at the time
“I’ve learned a lot through therapy that has really helped me process the trauma that I endured my whole life, and those lessons have really allowed me to actually live and be okay with being my own person.”
‘I learned that my mom being emotionally abusive wasn’t because she didn’t love me, but rather due to the emotional abuse she endured.’
“One of the most significant lessons I learned was that my mom being emotionally abusive and neglectful wasn’t because she didn’t love me, but rather due to the emotional abuse she endured by her Holocaust survivor parents during her own childhood, which led her to the toxic, verbally, emotionally and physically abusive relationship with my dad. I’ve learned a lot through therapy that has really helped me process the trauma that I endured my whole life, and those lessons have really allowed me to actually live and be okay with being my own person.” - Rebecca from Philadelphia, in therapy for six years
‘I learned that anger is a useful tool. It moves you to action’
“I learned that anger is a useful tool. It moves you to action. It shows what’s important to you: You don’t get angry about things you don’t care about. And righteous anger can be very helpful to create real change. I lose my temper fast and hard. I used to complain to my therapist all the time about this until she pointed a few things out. I almost always lose my temper standing up to a man who has treated me or women in general badly. My anger has done a few things. Firstly, it challenged the man on his point of view (luckily I’m articulate even in anger). Second: It made me stand up on behalf of women who don’t feel as entitled to speak up as I do (hey white privilege!). Lastly, it shows women who have been thoroughly gaslit and may not believe their own feelings that I’m thinking the same thing as them and shouting it loudly. So while I do need to work on my anger issues, I can recognize the positive aspects of it and be less angry with myself for my anger.” - Mimi from South Africa, in therapy for 10 years
“My therapist challenged me asking: ’Do you think you’re operating out of fear or operating out of faith?'”
‘I replaced negative self-talk and self-deprecation with positive self-talk and gratitude and my life hasn’t been the same.’
“My biggest lightbulb moment was learning to never tell myself anything I wouldn’t tell my best friend. I replaced negative self-talk and self-deprecation with positive self-talk and gratitude and my life hasn’t been the same in the best way possible!” - Cassandra from Maryland, in therapy for eight months
‘I learned not to take things personally.’
“I struggle with anxiety and depression, and I don’t know what other issues I have. I take rejection very hard, and I can’t often get out of bed with the depression. I tended to see [things] from my perspective only. I learned not to take things personally. Often it’s not about you but a whole lot of other factors.” - Sonia from New York, in therapy for 15 years
‘My therapist understands, she never shuts me down and she always gives me a new perspective.’
“When I met the Black woman therapist I’m seeing now I asked her, ‘Can you tell me what your definition of intersectionality is?’ She said, ‘I can’t quote the exact definitions but what I do know is you’re Black and you’re queer and you’re oppressed on both fronts and my job is how do I help you heal through both sides where you’re oppressed?’ And she does, she just gets me.
For the past few years, I’ve been dealing with imposter syndrome. Feeling that even when I make a huge accomplishment, I have to do something else to top that. And she challenged me asking: ’Do you think you’re operating out of fear or operating out of faith? Do you believe that something good can happen to you, and you don’t have to fear that it will be taken away?′ The way I saw the world was jaded because of trauma, because of the unique family history that I have as a Black person in this world. She understands; she never shuts me down and she always gives me a new perspective.” - Jon from California, in therapy for 14 years
Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.
You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.