Recently, I’ve been on the hunt for a new therapist. Unfortunately, in my move to Ontario, I had some benefits changes and now need to find someone located in the province to receive coverage. In the process of looking for someone new, I’ve been thinking about all of the things that I want this person to have – qualifications, approach, and more. While doing so, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my past few years of therapy and considering everything that I’ve learned. I thought now was the perfect time to share some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from therapy.
***Trigger warning: discussions of mental health, anxiety, self-worth, suicide, and grief. Please only read if you feel comfortable doing so. If you are feeling suicidal, please skip to the end of this post and contact the national helpline for immediate assistance!***
Start with your basic needs first
One of the first tips is to start with your basic needs first. These include sleeping, eating, moving your body, and connecting with people. When things get overwhelming, my therapist always reminds me to go back to the basics. You need to have your basic needs met before you can do ANYTHING else. Starting with being in a supportive and safe space is so important – always remember that there is nothing more important than your well-being.
Honour yourself and where you are at
Honouring who you are and what point you are at on your journey is absolutely necessary. This has been one of the biggest learnings for me. Being honest with how you are feeling and not sugarcoating your situation can be really important to recognize where your mental health is at, and how much help you may need. You need to prioritize yourself and what feels best for you, rather than others. Learning to accept that bad days and good days will come, and being grateful for the good days when they are there, is also key.
In the same vein, you can challenge the perspectives that don’t serve you. You don’t have to give in to things that don’t make you feel good, and you don’t owe anyone anything. You are the only one who can determine what makes you happy, and you have to make decisions for yourself – no one else can tell you what feels good for you. It is equally important to recognize that however you are feeling, you are not weak, you are not a burden, and we don’t have to deal with everything on our own.
Keep your anxiety in check
Anxiety has been one of the big mental health challenges I’ve had to deal with, and I’ve learned a lot about it throughout my time in therapy thus far. Here’s some of the key takeaways, in no particular order:
- First and foremost, anxiety has to go somewhere, so it’s a lot better to get it out rather than let it build inside of you. It’s helpful to have outlets for anxiety and for your emotions in general – whether talking with someone, writing or journaling, or exercising.
- Second – we often think about the worst-case scenario when we are anxious, but try to imagine the best-case scenario instead. What if everything works out better than you could have imagined? Though it might not sound realistic at the time to you, it is a very real possibility. An additional way to combat this thinking is asking what the evidence is? Likely, you will find that there is very little evidence to support whatever negative outcome or thought you may have.
- Third – you can challenge your negative self-talk with positive affirmations. Such as, “I am choosing to do this” rather than “I have to do this”. If you can’t get there, try to just challenge it with a neutral such as “I’m doing the best I can.” On a related note, instead of using “all or nothing” thinking, try for more of a middle ground.
- Fourth- we may want to “do more” to feel more in control and be less anxious. This tendency to over-function is a trauma response, by wanting to do more to protect yourself, so try doing less. For me, this shows up a lot in my work, and my therapist always reminds me that doing “more” is not the way to prove yourself – you can simply do enough.
- Fifth – when life gets more stressful, you need to add in more self-care things. It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When stress goes up, your self care should go up even higher. Remember, the more we self-care, the stronger we are to show up for people.
- Sixth – thoughts are not facts. Remind yourself of this. Even if you had an experience once, it doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. Know that we will always experience ups and downs, and it is normal to have mood fluctuations, so practice taking it one day at a time.
Prioritize work-life balance
Prioritizing work-life balance is HUGE. As I transitioned from being in university to working full-time (being a real adult y’all!), this became even more important. I tend to be someone who is very invested in my work, but one thing I have learned from my therapist is that our work isn’t always going to fill us up, and we need hobbies (and a life outside of work) that we enjoy too. Finding areas outside of work that give you worthiness and not letting work consume you is absolutely necessary. One part of you is not your whole identity, you are a multi-faceted humans who can love doing lots of different things!
In high-pressure work environments, it’s important to practice realistic thinking and focus only on the things you can control. Not everything can be a high priority, so spend time differentiating between needs and wants. You are also not responsible for picking up the slack. You are allowed to slow down, and taking breaks for self-care is very important. Try not to bury yourself in work, and allow yourself to lean into your feelings and perhaps lean into other areas of your life as well.
This is where boundaries come in. Whether you are trying to achieve more of a work-life balance or simply lean into more hobbies outside of work, boundaries are absolutely essential to do so. Boundaries allow you to maintain your commitment to different areas of your life, without one overtaking the other. This is something I have struggled with a lot in the past but am slowly getting better at! My recent job change has played a big role in this, and with a new role can come the negotiation of new boundaries. Remind yourself that there will never be a perfect time to make a change, and changes don’t necessarily have to be forever – ask yourself what feels fulfilling right now, and chase that.
Focus on relationships that feel fulfilling
I have struggled quite a bit with relationships in the past, especially friendships, and I think a lot of it comes back to boundaries. I’m going to share some of the biggest tips I’ve learned in regards to friendship, and relationships in general!
- If you want to reach out to someone, just do it. Don’t overthink it.
- People are not mind readers, you have to communicate your needs. Expressing your needs is not a bad thing! If you are truly asking for too much, then they should tell you and also be able to express their needs. On the flip side, you don’t know what’s going on with other people until you ask either, so don’t make assumptions.
- Friendships should be 50/50. If you find yourself putting in more than 50% then you might want to take a step back. If your friendship goes away, then maybe it wasn’t really there to begin with. Fulfilling friendships have equal effort!
- It is not your job to help someone to change. They have to take responsibility for that. There is only so much you can do as you can only control your 50% of the relationship. If it’s not a two-way street, then it might not be worth your time.
- Self-reflection is also important. Consider what is the most meaningful in friendships for you, and go from there.
Allow yourself to fully process grief
Fully processing grief, and feeling your feelings in general, is soooo important. After losing a loved one to suicide just over a year ago, I’ve been processing a lot of grief in the past while, and have discussed it at length with my therapist. One of the most important takeaways I’ve had about this subject is that there is no time limit on grieving. Hearing this from my therapist, over and over, has felt healing in itself for me – also at times distressing because it feels like it will never end. In some ways it does, and in other ways, it doesn’t. It is true when they say: your life grows around grief. You will definitely still have hard days, and they will likely hit harder than your good days, but be grateful for those good days regardless.
Another thing that happened while I was grieving is feeling like all of the progress I had made so far in terms of my mental health had gone away. My therapist was kind to remind me that even when we have set-backs, we never go back to ground zero. We can get back into it and we are allowed to take our time. She also reminded me that losing someone can make you re-evaluate your priorities in life, which I definitely felt. I wanted to feel as fully alive as possible in my life. It was suggested that the best way to feel truly alive is to listen to your body and give it what it needs. Being present in the moment is a big part of this, so I try to stay focused on the present rather than thinking about the past or the future.
Final thoughts on therapy
This blog post may have been longer than I intended, but when I take the chance to reflect on everything that I’ve learned, I realize that it’s been a lot! It makes me feel really proud of how far I’ve come. I know I will always have a ways to go, but having all of these tips I’ve learned in one place feels surreal. I am sure that therapy will continue to be a positive tool for managing my mental health. If you are considering whether or not you need/want therapy, take this as your sign to do it! I truly believe everyone can benefit from therapy, and I encourage you to find what works best for you.
***If you are feeling suicidal, please also know that you are not alone, and contact the 24/7 help line for immediate assistance in Canada: 1-833-456-4566****