Following is the full text of clinical psychologist Dr. Emily Anhalt’s talk titled “Why You Should Try Therapy Yesterday” at TEDxBoulder conference.
Dr. Emily Anhalt – TEDx Talk transcript
In 2009, when I scheduled my first therapy session, it wasn’t because I thought I needed it. I wasn’t in crisis. I had no pressing mental health issues that I was aware of. If anything, I fancied myself a particularly self-aware individual. People came to me for advice.
So no, I scheduled that first session, because I was starting grad school to become a clinical psychologist. And I figured I should probably sample the product that I was training to sell.
Therapy felt useful to me pretty quickly. It was nice to have a place to vent, but it didn’t necessarily feel like a lot was changing, because after all, I didn’t have a lot to work on.
But about eight months in, I had my first big epiphany. I’d spent the past several sessions agonizing over a big choice I had to make, going back and forth for weeks, when finally my therapist said, “Emily, what if there isn’t the right choice. What if there are just choices here? And no matter which one you pick you’re going to gain something important, and you’re going to lose something important.”
Something about this idea legitimately blew my mind. But it wasn’t until later that I remembered that she had said this to me already months before, when I was debating some other choice. I just hadn’t been ready to hear it then.
My biggest fear in life is loss, and I do a lot to avoid it. It took me eight months of therapy to build the strength to accept that every choice I ever make will require me to mourn the loss of every choice I can no longer make as a result. It turns out that growth and grief are deeply intertwined.
But this realization gave me faith in the process of therapy. So I decided to commit myself to it in a new way. Rather than feeling like I didn’t have anything to work on, I started trying to figure out what role I was playing in my own life.
I learned my patterns. I uncovered buried emotions. And I accepted that I am the common factor in all of my life circumstances.
And then several years into therapy, I looked around and realized that everything in my life had shifted for the better. My relationships were healthier. I was being clear with my needs and boundaries. I was more resilient when tough things happened to me. And the voice that I used to speak to myself was more compassionate and kind.
People in my life noticed and asked for help finding their own therapists. And all the while I was in school learning about how and why this even works. I was learning about how powerful it is to have a trained objective person to help you understand the most beautifully complicated thing there is: your own mind.
Now being in therapy for several years might sound like a long time, because our culture is kind of obsessed with the quick fix. If you want to ride to the airport right now, you can get it. But the hard truth is a shift in our emotions is not as easy to manifest as an Uber.
We need to stop trying to find easy solutions for complicated problems. And so much of what we do in life is an attempt to find shortcuts to relief.
The trouble is so often those shortcuts end up exacerbating the problems they’re trying to avoid. Disappointment that isn’t expressed calcifies into resentment. We numb emotions we don’t want to feel with substances which leads to a whole new set of problems. We avoid discomfort in the short term at the expense of our long-term health.
Now self-care is kind of having a moment right now. And I think that’s wonderful. But self-care is supposed to mean making thoughtful compassionate choices for yourself. And these days it’s kind of used as an excuse to do whatever the hell we want.
So even though having a glass of wine in the tub with Netflix looks lovely, I don’t know if I’d actually say that mixing alcohol, hot water and electronics is that great of an idea.
Real self-care, and specifically, real therapy comes in many different forms and can be described different ways. But the approach that resonates with me the most is called Psychoanalytic Talk Therapy. This type uses the relationship between the therapist and the patient as a microcosm to understand all of the patient’s relationships. It’s meta… the things you most need to understand about yourself will start to happen in the therapy.
So for example, a person who tends to pull away from people when they get close will inevitably at some point start to pull away from their therapists. And at that point the therapist might say, “Hey, let’s look at what you’re doing right now. I think this is something you do with people. Let’s understand it together.”
For me, I remember being in my therapist’s waiting room waiting for my session, and I heard my laughs really loudly at whatever the patient before me was saying. I remember my feelings were really hurt. I thought “How dare you laugh at someone else’s jokes? I’m the funny one.”
Now of course I didn’t want to tell her that I had this thought. But if there’s one thing I knew about therapy it’s that if you really don’t want to tell your therapist something means you probably should.
So I sheepishly told her about it and as tough as it was to admit, it led to this beautiful discussion about what I believe I bring to my relationships and my wish to be important to people and how I need to be received by others to feel loved.
As a therapist, I’ve also gotten to experience this from the other side of the couch. So there was the patient who would always try to take care of me instead of focusing on herself. Together we realized how responsible she feels for everyone around her even when it’s to her detriment and she practiced finding balance.
There was the CEO I worked with who picked little fights with me all the time and then worked really hard to resolve those fights. Over time we came to understand that he unknowingly creates problems with people because fixing those problems makes him feel wanted and important.
And then there was the patient who despite being very wealthy paid for his first session with nickels and then never came back. So that one remains a mystery.
So I love psychoanalytic therapy but any type of ongoing work that improves your mental health is therapeutic. Anything that helps you become more comfortable being uncomfortable.
The main point is it won’t be quick or easy and it’s pretty tough to do alone. No world-class athlete has ever achieved their full potential without the support of a coach. Why do we expect to reach our emotional potential by ourselves? Having that trained objective person to reflect you back to yourself is a game changer.
What I see is most people using their friends and family for this. And my pro tip here is while your friends and family are so important, they’re not trained and they’re definitely not objective.
Now at this point if you’re sitting there listening and thinking that I’m not really talking to you, I hate to say it but I’m especially talking to you.
There is so much you don’t know you don’t know, and we’re really good at hiding things from ourselves. So unprocessed pain and unhealthy ways of relating get passed down from generation to generation.
But here’s the thing: so does healing. By doing this work on yourself you are breaking the cycle. Have you ever wished that your family had done the work to build better tools, or that your boss was a little more self-aware, or that your partner was a better communicator?
Well, the pure magic of it is as you did this work on yourself, things will change around you. As you get healthier, healthier people will just start to show up. Instead of I’ll take care of you if you take care of me and our relationships, we should be thinking, I’ll take care of me for you, if you’ll take care of you for me.
I’ve seen what’s possible when a person commits to this and the ripple effect that it has. The ways in which it will affect everyone who cares about you, everyone who comes after you, everything you touch, everything you create, everyone who you interact with in any way will be positively impacted by the work you do on yourself.
I want to acknowledge that therapy requires time and money and that can be a prohibitive factor. And there are sliding scale clinics in every major city and in my experience time and money tend to shrink and expand in relation to priority. The amount of time you spend preoccupied by all that’s on your mind vastly outweighs the time therapy takes.
So start now. Strengthen your resilience muscles while they’re healthy enough to be flexed. Issues are so much easier to prevent than they are to fix.
The term mental health has become equated with mental health issues. But instead of just mental fixes we should be thinking about mental fitness. You don’t have to be broken. You don’t have to be desperate. You don’t have to be anything but curious and ready to level up and move closer toward the version of yourself that you want to be.
When people ask me why therapy is worth doing, they’ll often say, “Well, is it just that it’ll make me happy?”
And I usually say, “No, it’s not that it’ll make you happy. It’s that it will drastically increase the depth and authenticity of your happiness. And it will honor the cathartic beauty of your sadness and it will make the profoundly necessary space for every feeling that lives in between.”
We live in a culture that fetishizes happiness. We’re made to believe that something is wrong with us if we’re not thrilled in every moment. But happiness is not a sustainable end goal. Happiness is only one of many healthy useful important emotions. And in therapy, you have the permission and support to feel the full range of human emotion instead of just one small slice.
It might be difficult to understand how transformative that is, until you see the magic it can spark in your life. I know I didn’t get it until I tried it myself.
But with all that said, this kind of deep meaningful experience is better felt than explained. So go feel it.
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