Ask Polly: Why Do You Always Tell People to Go to Therapy?

By
Photo: Purple Collar Pet Photography/Getty Images

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

Hi, Polly,

Thank you for continuing to give thoughtful, awesome, and entertaining advice every week. I find something to help me through my own life regardless of the topic, every time! However, the column brings up a question for me each week that I hope you can answer. For every person who writes in, you recommend therapy. That’s great and I can understand that in a very vague and general sense — however, what exactly does therapy do?

I’ve only gone a few times in my life (I was raised in a household that rigorously and aggressively denies the usefulness of therapy) and have found it helpful in the specific, crying-endlessly-in-public kinds of moments when I end up verbally dumping a whole lot of ugliness on whatever poor emergency therapist happens to be available. Cry, dump, relief! However, my few attempts to go more regularly don’t seem to do anything beyond making my schedule/life more stressful; perhaps because I’m lucky enough to have a large group of supportive friends who already listen to me talk about the good and bad of my life.

Also, when I ask regular-therapy-going friends about their experiences, it often seems as though their conversations are pretty much the same as the ones we have — only more one-sided and with less honesty. And I find myself wondering, Was it really worth beaucoup dollars to complain to yet another person about your boyfriend?! That sounds much snottier and more judgmental than I mean for it to, but it’s the same question I’ve asked myself … After my last session (there were only three or four total) I felt like a selfish jerk for taking time off work to have somebody sit silently across from me as I ran my mouth for an hour.

Polly, I trust you. If you say that therapy is necessary for everybody writing in, I believe you. But a little more information on just why it’s helpful would be great.

Hopeful Future Therapy-Seeker

Dear HFTS,

I’m pretty sure I don’t recommend therapy in every single column. Then again, I did recently claim that I rarely write about how great my husband is, and that elicited a whole flood of chuckling, head-shaking emails: “Oh you poor sod, you mention your precious husband with every other breath.”

So here I am, vigorously interrogating myself and others every single week for hours upon hours, deep-diving into the dark undersea caves of the modern psyche (Christ, I’m making my job sound adventurous and brave right now), yet I’m still shocked when someone makes a simple observation about the things I do. See how easy it is to be a therapist? Your client walks in the door, sits on a couch next to a box of Kleenex, and his or her mere proximity to Kleenex inspires a solid 50 minutes of emotionally overwrought stories ALL OF WHICH INEVITABLY REVOLVE AROUND THE SAME THEME. You might imagine that your stories are as disparate and unique as snowflakes, but no, they are more like a clone army, marching in time to one very repetitive drummer. Within a few hours, a smart therapist can simply point at the drummer. ET VOILÀ, EPIPHANY!

Obviously, it’s a little more complicated than that. The point is that JUST having an objective observer there — not a friend, not a sister, not a co-worker — makes a difference. A therapist has no stake, no prejudices (theoretically!), no past issues with you. He or she is there to listen closely, and then occasionally point out the 3,000-pound gorilla in the room. You don’t need a supergenius to do this (although it does help to find a therapist who seems smart). What you need is someone who listens deeply, empathizes, points out running themes, makes gentle suggestions, and maybe occasionally nudges you to try to shift your experience of what’s happening around you.

That said, therapy is a slow process that’s very difficult to describe. It’s tough to explain or even justify the time or expense of any one given therapy session. Maybe you talk for an hour and it feels like you might as well be talking to Siri. Maybe you weep for an hour straight and drive home in a bleary haze, wondering what the point of all that crying was.

It’s hard not to feel suspicious of therapists. It’s unnerving to pay so much just to develop this odd, intimate-yet-professional relationship with a complete stranger. I grew to love my first therapist over the years, but I was still suspicious of his ability to “act” concerned when maybe he wasn’t, and also suspicious of myself for paying someone to listen and care, presumably because I was too tedious for a mere (unpaid) mortal to listen to me. Some days my therapist would say something earnest and geeky and I would look at his expensive snakeskin cowboy boots (they were DARK GREEN, for fuck’s sake) and I would think, THIS is the human being I pay to listen to me? This dweeb whose idiotic boots suggest untold delusions of grandeur?

But see, that also says a lot about me back then. I had a major superiority complex. I was nihilistic; nothing added up to anything as far as I was concerned. I saw other people as manipulative. I didn’t know how to open my heart and accept someone for who he was, cheesy snakeskin cowboy boots and all. I also struggled to trust that someone else could listen and legitimately care about me. I suspected that anyone who seemed to be doing this was only pretending. I had never opened my heart and given love to someone who wasn’t “deserving” and charismatic and attractive (i.e., someone with something to offer me), so why would anyone else do that for me?

Therapy is primarily an emotional experience, one that involves learning things in your cells that your mind could never parse or even catch up to if it tried. The feeling of being heard, understood. The feeling that you will arrive at this place and this person will give you his or her full attention, and he or she won’t walk out halfway through or quit or back away. The feeling that you can say or feel anything you want. The feeling that you deserve that. You deserve to be who you are and feel what you feel. You don’t have to put on an entertaining show. You can cry like a baby. You can sit in silence. It’s your choice. You don’t have to play a role or meet expectations like you do everywhere else.

I think the bottom line is that most of us need a lot from other people, but we don’t always feel like we deserve much. We feel spoiled and we also feel boring. We’re furious at ourselves, furious that we can’t just enjoy what we have (the privileges we have, the embarrassment of riches around us!), furious that we can’t just join the team and play our roles enthusiastically. Why don’t I like my amazing job? Why don’t I feel connected to my caring friends? Why don’t I love my nice boyfriend?

Talking to friends or family is not the same. I had a lot of friends when I started therapy in my late 20s, and we all loved to analyze our feelings. But we rarely cried, and we rarely listened patiently if cold beers were on offer elsewhere. Even if my friends did listen patiently back then, I wouldn’t have trusted their patience. I felt that my most-tragic stories needed to be entertaining and hilarious if I wanted anyone to listen.

When I started therapy, I imagined that my therapist was very entertained by me. I saw myself as his star student. I laughed at every tragedy. I thought this would make him marvel at how strong I was, how well I had put my sadness into perspective. I was honest with my therapist (people who don’t tell their therapists the truth might as well throw their money out the window), but my central goal was to turn my damage into a song and dance that would beguile and charm him. I would recall something tragic from my past and then laugh and my therapist would say, “Is that funny to you?” and I’d think, Oh fuck, of course it is! Get a sense of humor, dummy.

At the time I believed that I deserved nothing. I didn’t deserve to be heard. The only good things about me were my insights and my sense of humor. Everything else in me was ugly and needed to be hidden from view.

But something came loose when I started to cry in therapy. My cells were learning something that my mind didn’t understand. I would walk out the door, my eyes still red from crying, and I would see people on the street — old, young, ugly, pretty, smart, stupid, rich, poor — and I would worry about all of them. Were they happy enough? Were they struggling? I felt sorry for old ladies and I also felt sorry for douchey-looking dudes in shiny expensive cars. I felt worried for moms and children and homeless guys and cocky teenagers alike.

After an hour of crying, I could feel that we were connected, that we ALL mattered. I mattered and they mattered. Our looks, our charm, our ability to tell a good story — these things didn’t hold any weight. There was no easy sorting system to keep us safe and unfeeling and disconnected. We were all the same. We were all trudging uphill, sometimes feeling tired, sometimes feeling invisible.

When you know in your cells that your feelings matter, your world is transformed. But you have to feel that way often. If you’re a smart person, if you’re an anxious or a depressed person, if you’re a control freak, if you’re neurotic, if you were neglected, even if you just feel confused by the modern world, you will revert back to a place where FEELING NOTHING seems like the obvious, right answer. You will relearn this WRONG answer over and over again. I CAN THINK MY WAY OUT OF THIS, you’ll tell yourself, and your thoughts will swim in smaller and smaller circles, and you’ll be exhausted instead of refreshed, more confused instead of calmer. And 20 years later, you’ll wonder why you all of your choices look like they were designed to ensure your unhappiness in retrospect.

We are a culture that believes in solving puzzles. Act I: The hero hears the call! Act II: The hero struggles with a Rubik’s Cube for four decades straight! Act III: A sudden rush of regret and then, DEATH. Good therapy is like throwing the Rubik’s Cube out the window and taking a deep breath and asking yourself, “What do I feel like doing right now?”

It’s amazing how infrequently most of us ask ourselves that question. We don’t deserve to follow our feelings anywhere, or we confuse feeling alive with indulging too much in booze or food or escaping into a make-believe narrative where our real feelings will be channeled through the feelings of some gorgeous protagonist (and therefore rendered safe and NOT WEAK).

Almost every single person who writes to me is trapped in his or her head and wants to break free. You really can’t be reminded to step back, away from the little trivial puzzles of life, enough. You need some kind of a process that connects you to yourself, to your feelings, to a brilliant, full-color world that you deeply deserve but can’t touch or taste yet.

There are other ways of feeling your feelings besides therapy. There are other ways of allowing space, every single day, for your true self to shine through and be accepted. But personally, I needed proof that I could show myself completely to someone else and have that person accept me and actually value those parts of me that were undervalued — the crying, worried, jittery, scared parts. I needed to watch my therapist’s face cloud over when I made jokes, and empathize when I wept into my own hands. That was a lesson I felt in my cells, the exact opposite of what I knew before that. I wasn’t going to feel that on my own. I wasn’t going to dare to make real connections with other people, and trust that they would accept me for who I really was, without an extended practice round.

But ultimately, what I’m saying when I say “Go see a therapist” is “Make sure you take this seriously” and “This is a slow process that will take time” and also “Your whole worldview could shift dramatically and your experience of the world could change completely, but you have to work hard first.”

What I’m saying is no matter what you do, lean into your damage. Lean way the fuck in. It is horrifying and tedious and pathetic and scary and it really, really helps. And when you wake up two decades from now and you look at your life, you will not say, “Oh my god, how did I get here?” You’ll say, “Wow. Just look at how far I’ve come.”

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

Get Ask Polly delivered weekly.

By submitting your email, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy.

All letters to askpolly@nymag.com become the property of Ask Polly and New York Media LLC and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.

Ask Polly: Why Do You Always Recommend Therapy?