I am a huge advocate for psychotherapy (talk therapy) because it changed my life. Before therapy my self-image was in the dumpster. I had a journalism degree and worked as an administrative assistant by day and a waitress at night. I was in a friends-with-benefits relationship that was painful for me, but I didn’t end it. I ate too much. I wanted to get my master’s degree but didn’t think the university would accept me because I was an average undergrad.
I put myself down and couldn’t look anyone in the eyes for too long. I’d hand over my self-worth to other people, so if I had a bad phone call with my parents, or a bad day at work, my self-image plummeted and I felt like a loser. I had little ability to comfort myself.
When my depression got so bad that I couldn’t stop crying and I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed, I found a psychologist. I credit him for changing my life. Of course, if you asked him, he’d say I’m the one who changed (shrinks!). Still, I'm not sure I would have changed without his wise counsel. At the time, I was in my early 20s, but he wasn’t the first psychologist I ever saw.
Just like anything in life, sometimes you’ve got to fail before you can succeed. And what I know now is this: In order for talk therapy to work for you, you’ve got to find the right psychologist. Here’s what to look for to find the right fit for you.
1. Look out for red flags.
When I was in high school I felt this overwhelming emptiness that made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. I walked up to my parents as they were doing dishes and asked them to find me a psychologist. It was hard to ask them because I knew they were the reason I needed to see one. And I knew they’d take my request to see a psychologist as validation that I was the problem child in our house. I was angry and rebellious and they blamed it on me being adopted (faulty genes).
The psychologist they found me helped me in the sense that he was an adult who validated my view of things at home — the distant relationship with my parents — but he had lousy boundaries. My appointment time was around dinnertime and sometimes he’d take me to this restaurant called The Brooklyn Pickle. We’d get food and bring it back to his office. Sometimes he’d get angry at me if I was late to an appointment or missed an appointment, not realizing my mom’s drinking was the reason I couldn’t make it consistently or on time (I didn’t have a driver’s license, so my mom had to drive me). If you sense something isn’t right, it probably isn’t.
2. Find the right fit for you.
I saw one psychologist for two appointments. He wanted to do EMDR therapy with me. It stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Basically, (from my experience) it’s a machine you watch with different lights, beeps and tones, that’s supposed to help you forget or take the sting out of traumatic events. (That’s my layperson view, anyway.)
I couldn’t wait to get out of my chair and never return. I don’t care what clinical studies say, it wasn’t for me. Plus, I believe every memory shapes us and adds wisdom and insight to our lives. Why would I want to go blank on even painful experiences? I wanted a permanent fix. Coming from a house where no one really talked, I knew I’d prefer talk therapy — a safe environment where I’d finally have a voice.
3. Be ready for help.
When I finally found the psychologist who was right for me, he was a combination of serious, empathic, blunt, sarcastic and funny. During our first appointment he said he had to first determine if he could help me. Apparently, there are people he won’t accept as patients because they are so mired in denial they are beyond help. Thankfully, he decided that wasn’t me.
I saw him weekly for several years to overcome chronic depression and abandonment issues. Through conversations in two comfy chairs that faced each other (forget the stereotypical image of a client lying on a couch and the psychologist with a clipboard) I learned empowering new insights and life skills. I’d go home from those appointments and write everything down so I could study what he said and get better.
He taught me there’s a difference between getting better and feeling better. Getting better can be uncomfortable but it’s often what it takes to permanently improve your life. Feeling better is often what we choose to do to avoid pain. For me, staying in a bad relationship felt better than being alone, but alone is what it would take me to get better.
Going through intense talk therapy can be totally uncomfortable at times, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong psychologist for you, it can mean you are on the verge of real and lasting change. Your gut will probably tell you when you found the right psychologist for you.
The most important thing to remember is that it’s courageous to get help if you need it. Lots of people go through life broken, never getting the help they need, and it alters the kind of life they live. Post-therapy, I still made some blunders (with how I treated myself), but I’d revisit what I learned during those years or think about what my psychologist would say to me, and I’d get back on track.
Getting over depression isn’t perfectly orderly, but with an arsenal of tools, awareness and knowledge, I never hit rock bottom again. I feel strong, resilient and happy. I know how to self-comfort and I have this incredible clarity I never had before. I’m a totally different person today and my life is vastly improved.
Deciding to take responsibility for myself and finding the right psychologist are the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. If you think you need help, I hope you make the choice to get it.