Tara Fass: Why Is Therapy Like a Toxic Dump?

What is therapy? As a therapist in Los Angeles, I’m asked this a lot. One patient likened therapy to “emotional vomiting.” Another likened it to cleaning out her “junk drawer,” another to “connecting the dots” on his life and yet another to a “dress rehearsal.”

Kidding aside, may I also suggest that therapy is a place to unload a “toxic dump” in the office and, by doing so, clear your path in the real world? Therapy is not to be confused with mere complaining. What you can more safely experience in the office (that which feels broken and unsafe outside) and leave it between us, therapy then becomes a safe place and a bridge to new ways about thinking and feeling, instead of just reacting.

Whatever rift was created in your relationships must be repaired through tolerable interactions with another human too, in this case your therapist. That’s why in-person therapy is by far the best mode of contact, though other modes of communication such as the telephone, texts, email, etc. are also handy. There is a quality of being “all in” by meeting in person for therapy sessions, which is not to be underestimated.

Weeping, breaking down and muddling through your complaints in the presence of a third-party trained to help you pull it together again can be highly rejuvenating and refreshing. Yet finding the right one can be challenging. When reaching out to therapists you may want to work with keep in mind a few practical considerations in addition to their theoretical perspective and training: Do you want to commence therapy with a man or a woman? What age range do you want your therapist to be?

You may have some rather unconscious criteria too that may sound outlandish stated out loud, such as: Are you afraid of or looking to feel you’re with an idealized version of your mother or father? Is there a desire, perhaps, to fall in love with your therapist? Does a therapist’s voice or photo repulse, thrill or scare you? These are emotions and questions that might come up in you to pay attention to.

Maybe you want to choose a therapist who might be tempting in these or other ways. In any case, to keep it interesting (and if your therapist doesn’t pick up on it first and address it) see to it that you bring all of this into the treatment room as soon as possible. The experience of therapy will be compromised if what feels forbidden or poisonous is avoided and suppressed. Remember, thinking and talking about what is awful is okay in a way that acting out in shameful ways is unacceptable.

How fast should a therapist call back after you make the initial call? It’s simple: the sooner probably the better, even with a second call-back in round two of telephone tag. You want a therapist who is flexible and responsive, and one who also holds strong boundaries.

Think about how the professional makes you feel personally. Rarely does anyone reach out to a therapist expecting a day at the country club. You are likely up to your armpits in deep suffering. Previous attempts at figuring out your issues have not been working, even though you may be meditating, going to yoga, reading all sorts of self-help books, and talking endlessly with close friends and family. You’re still a hot, melting-down mess, longing for resolution and somewhere safe to unload a toxic dump.

Is there a real person — a therapist — who you can make a connection with and who is trained to help you squeeze through what feels like a dark and narrow passage? Though this entire blog post may sound like advice, good therapists strive to steer clear of giving advice. They help you sit with discomfort and contain your symptoms long enough — whether it is anxiety, depression or obsessions and compulsions — to make it possible to feel and think rationally so that you can sort out what is going on, heal and self-correct.

The benefits of therapy are nice “work” if you can get it. The effort to figure out your conflicts and motivations on a comfortable couch in a nicely-decorated office with one other person, rather than unloading on your loved ones and friends, may be well worth the effort.

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