Having anxiety about therapy doesn’t mean that therapy isn’t “for” you or that you can’t benefit from it. Instead, it might be a fear you can change by adjusting the way you approach your sessions.
We often focus on the role of the therapist and how well we connect with them when talking about how to feel comfortable opening up in therapy, but we don’t often examine our expectations of ourselves. Self-criticism and high expectations had me feeling anxious about therapy until I changed the way I thought about myself as a client.
When I decided to start going to therapy in college, I was apprehensive about having to do the classic back-and-forth discussion with my chosen therapist. In fact, I’m still not always keen on it. But the expectation that I held for myself – that I would sit down and spill my guts and cry and reach some kind of catharsis every week – did not pan out. The more accurate picture was (and sometimes still is) one of me sitting down, saying I’m okay, shrugging a lot, and forcing my therapist to sit in silence with me while I wrestle with my thoughts.
I thought for a long time that I was bad at therapy. I was very critical of myself for inadvertently shutting down. Sometimes, I still feel guilty because I perceive my excruciating quietness as a waste of my therapist’s time.
Shifting My Perspective on Myself in Therapy
The longer I’ve stuck with it, the more I can see that this perspective of myself as something like a student who is expected to achieve success is preventing me from recognizing the progress I’ve made. As a perfectionist, I’m prone to thinking that no amount of improvement is good enough, and if I’m not meeting my own expectations, I must be failing. Perhaps even more importantly, my anxiety about therapy gets in the way of me focusing on what I can get out of the process despite and because of my difficulty with certain topics.
I have been trying to shift my perspective on my role in therapy to be more like that of an explorer or some kind of self-ethnographer. I go to therapy, I do my best to talk, and I observe whatever happens. I’m there to be curious, and if talking about something is suddenly challenging, that in itself is interesting information.
Why Go to Therapy if It’s So Uncomfortable?
I learned early on in my experience with therapy that although talking about myself is deeply uncomfortable, it feels worthwhile. I have always been quiet and reserved, and I tell myself that it’s a preference. But, finding myself unable to answer personal questions in therapy taught me that I have less control over it than I wanted to believe.
To Challenge Myself
When pushed to discuss something I’m uncomfortable talking about, I simply clam up. It frustrates me because it does not feel like a voluntary reaction. Obviously, I go to therapy to talk about myself – why can’t I override my tendency to shut down? It’s like a drawbridge lifts in front of me, and I can no longer get my words across the gulf between myself and my therapist.
To Practice Being Vulnerable
Ultimately, therapy led me to the realization that while staying quiet is comfortable for me, it is also lonely. I don’t intend to change my natural tendency to be reserved, but I do hope that by practicing being open about difficult things, I can allow my reservation to be a choice, not a barrier.
Everyone has secrets, and it’s perfectly okay to keep them private. But there are times when it’s good to share personal information, especially if it’s going to help you overcome a challenge in your life. Holding secrets out of an inability to put them down can be a deeply isolating experience.
Finding Ways Around My Anxiety About Therapy
I’ve gotten better at talking about myself in therapy, but it’s still hard. I still have sessions where I can’t seem to find the lever to lower the drawbridge and let the words out, and that’s okay. My therapist knows that I stay quiet not out of disinterest in the process but because it’s hard for me to engage in it.
On days when I don’t say much, I go home and write her an email with all of the words I couldn’t set free. It gives us somewhere to start the next time and lets me communicate in a way that’s easier for me. I still challenge myself to talk, but I know that I have a backup line of communication if I need it.
Whether I choose to discuss something or not is up to me, of course. My therapist is there to guide me, even push me a little, but ultimately, I decide what to talk about or not. If I want to set aside a more difficult subject in favor of discussing something easier but still meaningful, I can do that.
Considering the Therapeutic Relationship
I have found that for me, viewing a therapist’s role as that of a knowledgeable partner rather than an authority figure helps me stay intrinsically motivated and makes me more willing to push myself. We’re exploring my brain together, and I know that if I don’t accomplish something I set out to do, I won’t be “in trouble” with my therapist the way I would think I were if our relationship were less equal.
It’s a strange relationship to navigate — one that is inherently unequal in more than one way. You go to a therapist for help because they have knowledge and a perspective you don’t. You pay them, and you probably defer to their expertise. They are in a position to set expectations and try to interpret the implications of what you say or don’t say. It’s easy to start seeing your therapist as someone to impress, especially if, like me, you’re a chronic people-pleaser.
At the same time, clients have the option to stop going, the freedom to ask for adjustments in their treatment, and the potential to view themselves as indispensable experts on their own experiences. It can be motivating to think of therapy as something you get to take part in with your therapist rather than something you have to go to. Ultimately, I think the dynamic of a partnership makes me less likely to fear that my therapist might disapprove of or be disappointed in me for not achieving something or even for not talking enough.
I’m still trying to let go of my self-imposed pressure to be a wonderfully verbose client. I go to therapy to work on my depression and anxiety, and part of that involves being less critical of myself. I used to think I was a bad client because of my anxiety about therapy. Now, I think I struggle to talk about myself, and that’s part of why I’m in therapy.