And how I evolved from there
This article is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter, The Sunday Soother, a newsletter about clarity, intention, and useful tips for creating more meaning in your life that goes out every Sunday morning. Subscribe here. I am also a coach who works with sensitive people so they can stop second-guessing, make decisions confidently and live the life they’ve always dreamed of. You can learn more about working with me here.
In 2018, talk therapy stopped ‘working’ for me.
(You can listen to this essay as audio here)
I was (and continue to be, in many cases) a big proponent of talk therapy. That wouldn’t surprise you, given as I had been in therapy for 8 years by the time 2018 rolled around. I had started when I was 30, the growing realization that my anxiety and shame, especially in relationships, was slowly overtaking most aspects of my life.
I still remember nervously, secretly, leaving the office one day to place a phone call to a therapist my friend (thank god) recommended. I felt weird; this was 2010, and though mental health was becoming more acceptable to talk about, therapy wasn’t as widely de-stigmatized as it is today. The therapist called back, she was wonderful, kind, insightful, perceptive, I felt safe, and that was it; I was on her couch for the next decade. (What luck I had, I know it’s not as easy a journey for many to find a good therapist.)
My therapist gave me tools and self-awareness I had never considered, from anxiety medication to insight about my upbringing and my struggles with vulnerability and self-esteem. Previously before going to therapy, I 1. had no idea I had anxiety, lol 2. Thought I had great self-esteem, lol 3. Had genuinely spent really no time doing self-reflecting, introspection, journaling, anything like that, lol. I never had thought about patterns from my upbringing, my relationships, what I wanted out of life, really. I was well on auto-pilot conditioning by the time I got into therapy; I was trying real hard to get married and make as much money in my corporate career as I could. My identity was wrapped up in my job and my dating status. I had never spent much time thinking about joy, purpose, intent.
I gained so much insight in that room. I also joined a group therapy session that my therapist held with other patients, a group of about six or seven men and women, and we shared weekly about our own struggles for nearly seven years. Folks came and went in that group, but I was an OG member and was also determined to be the last one standing.
“Therapy is SO GREAT!” I enthused to anybody who would listen. “I AM NEVER LEAVING THERAPY!”
In 2018, I started thinking… um, I think I want to leave therapy.
I couldn’t articulate just why. My therapist was still the same loving, present person, holding up a mirror to me and my experiences and offering alternative perspectives and thoughts. I loved the people in my group therapy, other souls searching for healing and wisdom. I knew I had gained so much insight and self-awareness about my patterns, my tendencies, and my “issues.”
But there was a moment when I started to realize that I’d been going to therapy for nearly 10 years, twice a week with group, and I was starting to feel that all I held in my hands as a result was… self-awareness.
Meanwhile, in the “real” world, the same patterns would play out in my life over and over again. And I would talk about those disappointments, experiences, issues, over and over again, with my therapist. My anxiety came and went; romantic partners came and went; stress and struggles in work, family or friendship came and went.
But I wasn’t doing anything differently. Things still seemed to happen with the same baffling passivity, just outside the reach of my own control. I still felt sort of at the mercy of the universe, watching things unfold in front of me, not as a participant in my own life. I would complain in the room; I would self-pity in the room; I wonder “why me” in the room. And I would wonder why, though I’d been in talk therapy of all sorts for years, though I had more self-awareness than most folks I knew, though I understood my patterns and reasoning behind choices I made… nothing in my day-to-day life was really changing.
I was reaching a critical growth point, looking back: I was finally getting tired of my own bullshit.
But when I wanted to get advice, or insight, or actions from my therapist — but just like, TELL ME what I should do differently??! she, of course, demurred. It is not talk therapists’ job to give advice, in fact, I don’t believe it is generally advised at all for a variety of reasons.
But it was all I wanted. I wanted my therapist to give me different tools, exercises, things to try outside of the room and off the couch. But the emphasis remained very much on the words and thought patterns that I would bring week after week and run through again and again, like a truck driving through a field, creating tire ruts that get deeper and deeper until the truck can’t even drive another path, so deeply is it stuck.
Meanwhile, through my coaching program, I was being opened up to a world of somatic practices, and began deeply realizing how fully disconnected I was from my body and soul. My intellectual head had been in charge for 38 years and was drunk with power, believing fully that all wisdom was to be gained from logic, rationality, analysis, talking, words, thoughts, mental beliefs, decisions, conscious insights.
But I was beginning to immerse myself into the wisdom of my soul and body, dipping my toe into waters long avoided, waters that had been dismissed by myself and others as “over there,” not important, not a source of knowing or exploration, waters that had been dismissed as shallow pools when instead they were deep oceans that could guide me back to myself. I became certified in Reiki and began to understand the power of energy, and energetic blocks, and how those could impact and affect somebody’s life, positively or negatively. I started to realize that I could have all the conscious awareness in the world, but it wasn’t going to help me until I was able to decode the subconscious beliefs and patterns that were really running the show. I began to explore the world of trauma, how we all have it in some capacity, and that emotions, both those of trauma and of joy, live in and are processed and released by our bodies, not in our minds.
In 2019, I gathered my courage and left therapy. My therapist and my group worked to dissuade me from doing this, not in any harmful way, but I think they saw me leaving as deciding not to do personal development work anymore, that I was avoiding further growth, that I was abandoning the path I had built with a lot of determination and work in that room.
But I wasn’t. I was merely shifting gears. I was leaving my deeply rutted lane, getting out of the car, and deciding it was time for me to go swimming instead. The rutted lane was well-worn and dependable and I know exactly where it led, day after day; the ocean was vast and immense and I didn’t know what would happen when I entered its waters, but I trusted myself that I was capable of swimming.
I loved therapy, so deeply. And I am grateful for the experience I had there. It is a deep part of who I am. I was given grace, love, insight and guidance by an extremely talented woman who I came to look upon as a role model for the kind of work I wanted to do in the world.
Therapy helps so many people; it saves people’s lives. There are dedicated, smart, insightful, kind, soulful people doing the work of talk therapy, and every day they are making true impact.
And yet, in the past two years, I came to believe something I cannot dismiss: talk therapy has serious limits for healing. It too often ignores the body and somatic practices. Western talk therapy sometimes (not in all cases) dismisses the potential for healing and growth offered by Eastern approaches. Never once did I explore nutrition in therapy, though I’ve recently learned that mineral deficiencies that many Americans have can deeply affect mental health. Talk therapy often heavily overrelies on intellectual insights for change; for talking as growth; and, in rare cases, I believe can encourage people to get stuck in patterns of thought or narratives that do not serve them for their evolution. Medication is often prescribed as a first stop instead of a last resort. Therapy doesn’t always teach easily available and incredibly impactful tools of how to regulate the body’s nervous system, which is often a driving factor in anxiety. Often it recommends a path of solo healing, instead of one done in community, though the field of group therapy does work to address this. Finally, it can place the onus of power and healing onto the therapist, instead of empowering the patient to understand they are the steward of their own growth; they are fully capable of taking any step they might need or want to, to see change in their world if only they decide to do so.
You may agree or disagree with this assessment, or fall somewhere in between, or just not care. But it’s something I can’t stop thinking about when I see people who remain deeply stuck and in pain despite putting in the work in therapy.
In the next two weeks, I’m going to share a few resources and experiences that helped me in my growth outside of therapy, and that rely more on soul and body work; a more holistic, integral approach. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your experiences in therapy. What has worked for you? What hasn’t? What healing or growth modalities have you explored, or what insights and advice did traditional talk therapy share with you that made an impact? Please share by hitting “reply” to this email, and with your permission, I’ll share those with the Soother community.