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'I'm Scared of Therapy'

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Reader Scared Of Therapy writes,

I am a 32-year-old, happily married, mother of two boys (5 and 7months).

My Mum is an orphan, was raised in an orphanage. She suffered sexual, emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her caregivers and didn't escape the system until she was 16 and left, as a consequence she has suffered from severe and treatment resistant depression, anxiety and PTSD my whole life. The most readily accessible memories from my childhood were attempting to escape my mother's unpredictable anger and or insults, a vivid recollection of a consistently unreliable environment -- having to shower at places other than home because the hot water had been shut off, the phone not being connected, arguments about not having enough money to feed the family etc, along with memories of her being incapacitated by depression off and on.

We did have many joyous times and I can recall them too, but not with the same intensity as the negative ones. I have suffered general anxiety, chronic low self esteem and mild depression for what I have recently come to believe for the majority if not all my adult life. I second guess myself constantly, find it very difficult to make decisions, and I have just decided to engage in therapy to begin to address the issues that I have from childhood in order to help me achieve goals more readily and also decrease a feeling of unworthiness that is impacting my marriage, improve relations with both my parents and siblings but overwhelmingly and most significantly my motivation is to provide a peaceful, loving, happy home where my children feel cherished and valued so that I can ensure my boys develop wonderfully strong self esteem each.

How I can select a therapist I am comfortable with so that I can submit to the process as quickly as I can? Do you know of any resources for second generation abuse survivors? What are some probable issues that I will be facing that I could start with to gain some quick wins in therapy? (I think some fast progress and good outcomes may help me trust the process better). And, are there any strategies I can employ to limit the impact the therapy process will have on me so that I can be functional for my children during it? I can't wait until they're older to do the work but I cannot live with the thought of the process impeding me in my pursuit of amazing childhoods for them...

Dear SOT,

All of your questions are excellent indicators that you are spot-on with your self-diagnosis of anxiety. You are so anxious about "submitting" to the process of therapy that you have missed a key fact: therapy may in fact make you feel better! And not just long term, but short-term too. It isn't something to white-knuckle through, and within an hour of the session at most, most client feel ready to continue their day.

Many people who struggle with anxiety are scared of new things, and also scared of their own emotions, especially negative ones; therapy is both new and centered around emotional expression, so I understand why you're terrified and seeking ways to control the situation. Fear of emotions is a hallmark of mental distress; it is called "experiential avoidance" and is linked with a range of negative emotional outcomes, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. Kids who grew up in dysfunctional homes often fear emotion, because it is associated in their minds with a parent's loss of control and scary behavior. You learned that you had to be hypervigilant for the smallest change in your mother's tone or mood, because you wanted to protect yourself in case things went badly. Adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) have similar outcomes as you due to this same unpredictable parent behavior, which is why the best support group I could recommend would be ACOA groups.

Your mother may have suffered from more than depression, which is why it was so treatment-resistant. Specifically, she may have struggled with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is strongly linked to a history of abuse. Read about mothers with BPD here, here, or here, and read the book Surviving a Borderline Parent, which, if you do the exercises, may help you see what therapy may be like.

Don't fear therapy. Often, people feel much better just getting to tell their story, and getting some concrete and helpful feedback. Therapy is a safe space to talk about anything you want, and someone cares about hearing it, and wants to help you. On a deep level, it may be hard for you to trust that the open expression of emotion could lead to anything positive, even though intellectually you know this must be the case, which is why you're considering therapy. But many people with difficult childhoods find therapy to be helpful and even transformational, the first time that they can clearly see links between how they grew up and the issues that currently plague them. In terms of the "right" therapist, this can be hit-or-miss; look for someone whose description and website speak to you, and sometimes it's nice to find someone somewhat similar to yourself in terms of gender and age (and sometimes not- read more here).

Good luck and good work taking yourself out of your comfort zone for the sake of yourself and your family. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, Just Find Someone Good On

This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Learn about Dr. Rodman's private practice here. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.