Essay deadlines, a global pandemic, and limited social interaction left me overwhelmed … to say the least. Throughout the pandemic, I received news of relatives or friends catching Covid-19 almost routinely. To amplify this, my second year of university had also started. Like many students across the globe, I had to readjust to virtual learning. Although I enjoyed the convenience of zoom classes, the time of socializing between lectures and seminars was now empty. The stresses and anxieties I had pushed to the back of my mind started to occupy this vacant time.
Lucky for me, there was an increase in self-care content on social media, which encouraged me to seek therapy. As an African woman, mental well-being and therapy were never discussed in my community. So, I felt hesitant while contacting the student therapy team at my university. At the same time, I felt like the hero of my own story and looked forward to meeting the new post-therapy me.
Unfortunately, the excitement was fleeting. Throughout my six months of sessions, I discovered that different media skewed my expectations.
I always imagined therapy to be like the scene in Disney Channel’s Freaky Friday. In which, Jamie Lee Curtis’s character (after switching bodies with her daughter) has a therapy client and keeps asking, “How does that make you feel?”
The scene is comical, but it is what I believed attending therapy would be like. A client, lying on a sofa letting out their emotions, and a therapist, repeating the word ‘feelings.
This scene, like many in Hollywood, depicts an automatic comfortability between therapist and client. Vulnerability seems easy within the confines of the session. I soon learned this was inaccurate; I did not find being vulnerable with a stranger anything close to easy anything close to easy, no matter how friendly she was. I have never been someone who finds it easy to talk about my feelings in-depth. Yet, I thought once I was in front of a therapist, my feelings would spill out. But her title and qualification made no difference. It took me a few sessions to become vulnerable. At the time, I thought I was doing something wrong or that therapy was not for me. But I soon recognized it was all a matter of my misconceptions. So, I started unlearning what I thought were the universal truths of therapy.
I realized that the journey transcends the one-hour sessions. This is true in that you must be practical with whatever lessons you learn during the sessions. In addition, it is important to come prepared to be vulnerable during your sessions. I found it challenging to transition from random everyday activities into my sessions. When I was having a good day, I would come into therapy excitable and waste the hour trying to preserve my mood. And it was just that, a waste. Therapy was the perfect opportunity to talk through any troubles from my week, but I was not always prepared to do so. Through this, I found the importance of some form of a prepping routine. I began spending an hour listening to some music, jazz, or reggae, whatever felt natural. In this time, I tried to connect with my emotions and do things that made me feel at peace. I felt ready to open up once my session started.
Another preconception I had to challenge was the assumption that my therapist would be my savior or guardian angel. Countless movies use the narrative of inappropriate client-therapist relationships. For example, in Silver Linings Playbook. The main character Pat’s therapist attends his dance recital and visits his home, extending their relationship outside the office. In real life, this would be unrealistic and unethical. But it depicts the idea of a therapist as a guardian angel, always there for the precious moments of your life.
The phrase “everyone needs therapy” is all over social media. Although well-intentioned, it fuels this idea of therapy as a saving grace and the therapist as the angel on your shoulder. I often approached my sessions as a cure-all. My therapist once mentioned that I spoke of our sessions as though they had a fixed end date. Like I was waiting for the day, I would be cleansed of all stresses. And to tell the truth, I was counting down to the day the therapy finally kicked in.
But I learned that it was a process that relied on me nurturing whatever I discovered in each weekly session. If I had any homework from my sessions, it was my responsibility to make sure I completed it. In the sessions, it was my responsibility to be completely honest and vulnerable. Ultimately, I gained clarity about my therapist’s role as a helper and not a savior.
The biggest thing I wish I knew before starting is that therapy does not feel good. It is self-care like spa days, face masks, and taking walks, but it is not immediately pleasant. If I could change it, I would have spoken to someone with experience. I thoroughly recommend counseling or therapy for well-being. But make sure you do not rely on the media for advice, talk to someone with experience.
My experience was hindered by me comparing my reality to what I had thought therapy to be because of the influences around me. Even so, I hope the conversation around therapy within the film industry and social media becomes more honest.
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