Takeaways from trying out therapy for the first time and how it changed me
Ever since my freshman year of college, I’ve been interested in mental health and mindfulness. However, even knowing therapy is an option amidst all the mental health resources available at USC, I’ve never really considered going because I didn’t feel like there’s a need to.
This March, USC Taiwan office organized an alumni career sharing event with a Trojan Therapist. We learned about how therapy works and her story of starting her counseling center. Hearing stories of her clients got me intrigued about what I’d find out about myself after going to therapy. Around that time, I was pondering some life questions on career, identity, and relationships, so I thought why not give it a try?
Disclaimer: This is my personal experience and not meant to be any sort of professional advice.
- 🧠 Mindset for therapy: it is a journey with your therapist
- 🪞 Therapy is like getting a look in the mirror of your current state
- 📣 Paying attention to the “cues” in daily life
- 💭 Discovering that I haven’t been addressing my feelings
- 🐌 Slowing Down…
- 🔎 Finding Clarity
- 👀 Process, process, process
- 🤓 Conclusion: what I think about therapy & when to go again
🧠 Mindset for therapy: it is a journey with your therapist
In the beginning, I was expecting my therapist to just tell me what I should do and answer my questions about life. However, she reminded me, again and again, her job isn’t to tell me a fixed answer nor decide what I should do. It’s a co-creation process that involves two of us working together and uncovering insights about myself, so I can find new ways to look at things. The analogy she used was “it’s as if you are asking a therapist how a nuclear bomb works. The human mind is complicated with your emotion, history, personality, cognition…etc, so it’s impossible to know the answers.”
🪞 Therapy is like getting a look in the mirror of your current state
After my first session, I was blown away by how my therapist was able to easily capture my state of mind, which I’ve found it hard to put into words. Sometimes it’s hard to get an objective look at the situation we are in when we are experiencing it first hand. This is where a therapist comes in. Based on the conversations, the questions you ask, and your reactions, a therapist could paint a vague picture of who you are at the moment: what your personality is, what your goals are, what headspace you are in at the moment. It’s as if looking into a mirror about your mind and getting an objective sense of how you are actually doing. This shed new light on how I see myself. I’ve even learned about hidden motivations I didn’t notice previously.
📣 Paying attention to the “cues” in daily life
The therapy process involves discussing the struggles you want to “solve” by analyzing how you react to different stimuli — events that happened, things people said, how emotions fluctuated. My therapist would start each session by catching up on these “stimuli” since we last spoke.
This practice helped me become more mindful of my day-to-day moods and allowed me to give it some space before reacting to it. For example, whenever something feels off, I would write the trigger in my journal and try to dig deeper into the root later that night. Taking a step back also helped me find new ways to interpret the trigger afterward. The simple act of recognizing the subtle “cue” allowed me to find clarity amidst moments of mental discomfort.
Side note: I’ve also found my mindfulness practices helpful throughout the process!
💭 Discovering that I haven’t been addressing my feelings
Cognition, behavior, and emotion are the three pillars that shape our minds. However, my therapist pointed out that I’ve mostly relied on my cognition and behavior but not my emotion. For example, when something upset happens, I’d only use my cognition to try to make sense of it and use my behavior to cope with it, without addressing my feelings in the process. This is problematic because I’d lose touch with my emotional self and the messages it’s telling me: why it felt disturbing, why I wasn’t enjoying an experience…etc. If we suppress our feelings, we are blocking an important channel to get in touch with our intuition.
🐌 Slowing Down…
The homework I got from my first session was to spend at least 10 minutes every day doing literally nothing: no meditation and anything productive. After a couple of days, I started noticing how often I fill up my time and run on “autopilot” mode. It seemed moments of stillness were rare. This little act of “10 minutes of doing nothing” changed my perspective on living life.
I started finding out new things about the familiar world around me: how there are shops I didn’t notice on the way back home, how the sidewalk’s pattern looks interesting, how my desk is kind of messy… These little moments of joy made me feel content in the present moment. I realized it’s really easy to breeze through life with a packed schedule and a mind constantly stimulated by screens, but if I’m not taking the moment to savor the process, what’s the point?
🔎 Finding Clarity
One of my biggest takeaways from therapy was finding clarity about the kind of lifestyle and goals I actually want. Before therapy, I wasn’t exactly sure what I’m working hard for, and I was just mindlessly optimizing everything to get the best result. In the process, I’ve had existential crises and self-doubts about what I’m working hard for. However, I didn’t acknowledge those moments and just resumed my “just hustle and we’ll find out” mode.
Therapy forced me to take a hard look at what I was doing and ask myself if I’m actually enjoying the process. I realized I was too fixated on goals I thought I wanted that were just there because of lack of reflection and convenience.
👀 Process, process, process
As cliche as it sounds, it’s more about the journey, not the destination. Towards the end of the therapy, it became clear one of the biggest traps that I tend to fall into in life is being too goal-oriented. Being goal-driven helps in executing your plans and optimizing ways to get to your goals. However, it’s also easy to be on a hedonic treadmill and lose sight of the beautiful views along the way. It’s important to recognize this trait as part of me and remind myself to slow down. Why rush through life with stress when you can enjoy it with fun?
💁🏻♂️ Sharing my therapy experience to people around me
I think there’s a stereotype especially in Asian culture that going to therapy means you are in a dire condition. However, like how you could go to a hospital for a health checkup for your body, you could seek out therapy even for self-exploration.
As I shared my therapy experience with friends and family, people were surprised at how open I was to talk about it. I thought I was comfortable enough sharing my experience and it has sparked a lot of interesting conversations about others’ therapy experience that people normally wouldn’t mention. Therapy is nothing bad and I hope the more I talk about it to the people around me, the more I can normalize what people think of it and make it more accessible as a tool when anyone needs help.
🤓 Conclusion: what I think about therapy & when to go again
Therapy is a good tool if you feel like there’s something you want to figure out in your life but you are struggling to get anywhere on your own. Therapy helps give you a look at where you are right now, discover the bottlenecks you might be having, and find a direction to figure things out.
It’s also important to point out the quality of your therapy depends on the relationship and dynamic you have with your therapist. Each therapist has a different style, method, and specialty, so don’t give up on therapy if you couldn’t find a therapist that matches you on the first try!
Going to therapy helped me learn more about the state I was in, reexamine my life outlook, and recalibrate my lifestyle for the goals I actually want. It provided me with the mental models and frameworks I could use when life challenges arise. Life is not easy but there are a lot of tools we can use to live a life we enjoy! 🙌🏼
Professional therapy might not be a viable option financially for everyone, so you could also check out free resources from your school’s health center or local health agency. There are also a lot of resources on the topic of mental health and virtual therapy services available on the internet!
Here are some books that gave me a better understanding of therapy and related ideas:
- Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: recommended by a colleague, a therapist shares her experience with different cases and her own therapy journey. It’s filled with a lot of interesting and touching stories and gives a great overview of what the therapy process is like and the therapist’s perspective (the author also has a great column on Atlantic called Dear Therapist)
- The Child in You: recommended by my therapist, about the concept of “inner child,” how every adult has an inner child shaped by our childhood, and he/she comes out of our subconscious every once in a while and tells us messages through our emotions
- The Courage to be Disliked: read this when I was in the army, a great introduction to Adler Psychology. The conversations between the young person and the wise elder remind me of therapy — how questions were answered with questions
Hope you enjoyed the read! Let me know if you have any thoughts or feedback and feel free to reach out to me directly! :)