Last summer, I was talking with my friend Jon, who’d recently launched into private practice as a therapist.
I’d been sharing some worries I had about my kids. “I get really anxious, because we’ve got our fair share of mental health and substance abuse issues in our family,” I’d said, arching my eyebrows.
“Pretty much everyone does,” he said in a kind voice.
“Yeah. One thing I’ve learned working with clients is that people tend to think they’re unique in a bad way, and they’re totally not.”
I leaned forward.
“Since I’ve started working as a therapist, I really wish I could let all my clients know how similar we all are. How much we struggle with the same issues.”
Jon’s words were a tonic. I’m a big fan of therapy—I’ve been going for, well, decades, and have no plans of quitting anytime soon. But I’d somehow never considered that besides their academic training, therapists might be privy to secret knowledge that could be helpful to laypeople. I started wondering what else therapists knew about the human condition that the rest of us don’t.
Here’s what I found out:
You’re not broken.
Because it’s outrageously easy to compare our insides to other peoples’ outsides, we can become convinced that everyone else has their lives together and we’re fundamentally broken. But the truth is, we’re not alone.
“Inside, so many of us at our core are worried that we’re scarred, wounded, and broken, and we’re never going to be healed,” says Michelle Chalfant, therapist and creator of The Adult Chair model. “And we hide it. We wear these masks in order to project who we think other people think they want us to be.”
“I’ve been surprised by how often the same worries, concerns, self-critical thoughts, and sad ruminations come out of different people’s mouths,” says Jon Petruschke, a therapist in Portland, Maine. “We often mistake normal features and behaviors of the human brain for character flaws or personal defects. You’re not damaged or flawed or broken for having these thoughts and feelings.”
Our struggles aren’t that unique.
With clouds of stigma still lingering around mental health issues, it’s easy to feel like we’re the odd ones out if we struggle with anxiety, depression, and other common mental health issues. But often, therapists see these issues in a different way.
“I see a lot of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and major life stressors like divorce and relationship issues,” says Petruschke. “With all of these, people often worry what it means about them, like are they irreparably broken?”
Chalfant sees similar patterns. “The people who come in to see me tend to be anxious, depressed, codependent, or are struggling with low self-love,” she says. “The thing is, we all have one of those issues.” Chalfant frequently works with groups of people, and she notes the power that group work can have on letting people know they’re not so unique. “I’ll disclose something about one of my struggles, or someone else in the group will, and I’ll do a poll in the group to ask who else can relate to the issue,” she says. “98% of the people tend to raise their hand. That’s the power of group.”
Petrushke notes that working with clients has helped him normalize some of his own patterns. “I’m not immune to my own worries and challenges in life. When I hear my own self-critical inner-monologue coming out of the mouths of the people I work with, it helps me,” he says. “My worries have grown quieter as I’ve realized how pervasive worries are, and how they seem to be of the same content.”
We get stuck.
Many of us enter therapy because we feel stuck in some aspect of our lives. We want to make a change in our relationships or our work or our habits, but we’re not sure how, so we enlist the help of a therapist.
Chalfant often observes clients who are stuck because they’re unable to let go of an outdated belief they hold about themselves. “When we get stuck in our old story, we can’t bounce out of whatever we went through. If we’re pointing in the direction of what happened to us earlier in our lives and are stuck in that story, we can’t bounce out of it,” she says.
Petruschke also witnesses clients who struggle to break out of a certain way of viewing themselves or the world around them. “Sometimes we end up in a tricky spot of desperately wanting a pervasive worry or sadness to go away while inadvertently holding on tight to the feelings because we’re certain they’re true,” says Petruschke. “Our brains and hearts don’t have on/off switches. And science shows the more we struggle and engage with distressing thoughts and feelings, the worse they get.”
We’re not our thoughts or feelings.
Because we only live inside of our own minds and experiences, when we have upsetting or even frightening thoughts, we can convince ourselves that we’re damaged.
A good therapist can help us see that we’re not the sum of our thoughts or feelings. And a really good therapist can help teach us why we’re anxious, vigilant, or suffer from catastrophic thinking. “I really wish everyone knew that you’re not flawed for not being able to completely control all of your thoughts and feelings and your internal state, and that nobody is walking around completely happy all the time,” says Petruschke.
He explains that evolution plays a strong part in some of our thoughts. “We have brains that have evolved to expect the worst. When we were first on this planet, people who were really good at expecting the worst more often survived by avoiding potential threats and predators. The presence of such vigilance is not an indication of being broken. On the contrary, it means we have the standard human equipment and it is operating consistently with evolution.”
As humans, we endure a lot. Some of us go through unimaginable tribulations; all of us experience grief and change. Ending up in therapy isn’t a sign of weakness, though—it’s a sign of strength.
“I’m continually inspired and amazed by the resilience in the folks I work with. Many of them have been through so much, and they don’t let that stop them,” says Petruschke. “I think anyone who steps up to go to therapy and really look at themselves and talk about the parts of themselves that they most want to ignore is pretty damn brave.”
Chalfant agrees; “My clients are the bravest people—because they’re coming in to get help.”
I find great comfort in knowing that whatever problems we carry, no matter how unique or dark they feel to us, we’re not alone.