When I was a kid, I believed that anything I tried had to be done perfectly from the start. There was no room for being bad at something — no room for growing and learning and getting better. In my ideal world, anything I tried I would do first while no one was watching. If I felt like I was good enough, then I might venture out to let others see what I was up to. This was safe. No one would see my worst failures, and I wouldn’t have to endure the feelings of inadequacy I always experienced when I messed something up — when I wasn’t perfect.
The problem is, this approach to life leaves no room for real learning. The way we all naturally learn is by doing. We try something. It either works or it doesn’t. We investigate and explore why it worked (or didn’t). We get feedback from parents, teachers, and others with experience; then, we jump back in and try it again. Real learning is an interactional and relational process.
And, of course, you can’t perfect your life before you live it. That’s why life gets messy sometimes: we’re all just trying to practice and get better at the things we didn’t get quite right the last time we tried them. Trying this time to avoid yelling at your spouse or partner about dishes in the sink. Trying this time to be calmer when your kids are acting up at the end of a long day (instead of accusing them of ruining your life!). Trying this time to remind yourself to breathe deeply (even though your insides are overwhelmed with anxiety).
I get scared when it comes to starting new things. How about you? And there are few things scarier than starting therapy. When we finally make the call to ask for help, we’re acknowledging that we can’t figure this thing out on our own. We’ve concluded that what has worked so far doesn’t seem to be working anymore, and we’re out of ideas about what to try next. We may have worked hard on our problem in private, where no one could see, hoping to figure out a solution and present the final product to the world. We may have taken the advice of friends and family only to feel like we’ve let them down when their advice didn’t work.
But therapy doesn’t have to be the last resort. In many ways it’s about returning to our natural way of learning. Within the four walls of the therapy room you are given permission to be as honest as you wish to be, to make as many mistakes as you need to make, and to investigate and explore what is and isn’t working in your life. At the same time, you have the benefit of a therapist who walks along side you through the process, providing guidance when able, asking questions to help you think, and challenging you to embrace new ideas about how to deal with life’s challenges. Best of all, this process occurs in an environment free from judgment and shame. Here, you are just a person trying to figure out life, and I am just a person trying to help you figure it out.
Choosing your therapist is an important decision. Many factors come into play when it comes to deciding who to work with, but my recommendation would be to find some one who views therapy the way I’ve described it. It’s within the easy give and take of the relationship you have with your therapist that you begin to learn, grow, and change. Of course, the most important step is to get started. Once you’re on the path, momentum for change will build.