And that’s OK.
I’m not going to say that you shouldn’t be afraid of therapy.
You are meeting for the first time some stranger who, let’s be honest, you may or may not like. And you’ll probably talk about things you don’t really love talking about. (Yes, let’s dig into my crippling anxiety, please.)
And all of this is built on the hope that therapy will make you feel better. But what if it doesn’t? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Some of us are afraid to see a physician, but at least we know something about them. We have faith that they will check our symptoms, take tests, and provide medicine—things we can count on regardless of whether or not we like them.
It’s different with therapists. While therapy is similarly predicated on making the patient better, therapy usually isn’t quick.
But then again, how could it be? You’ve felt a certain way for years—if not decades. And working to understand and change those deeply ingrained patterns takes time.
Therapy is fraught with uncertainties and anxieties, and sometimes these are so strong that people don’t give therapy a shot to help them. It’s hard to give yourself over to a process that takes time, involves someone with whom you aren’t too familiar, and doesn’t always include the guarantee of feeling better.
However, there’s another factor that I haven’t mentioned which I think makes people afraid of therapy. In addition to being afraid that therapy won’t make them feel better, I think people are afraid of what therapy will make them feel, in general. That therapy might be too powerful. That therapy might make them feel too much.
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the possibility of people having a “fear of breakdown.” A patient may have an unconscious fear that therapy could stir up feelings within them that will upset their normal functioning.
Think about it: despite the fact that your anxiety and depression are intolerable, right now you are, more or less, keeping the pieces of your life together. You might even feel like your life is hanging on by a thread, but you are still hanging on.
What if therapy takes away what I know, and doesn’t give me something better? Or, more what more frightening, what if therapy makes me worse? What if therapy makes me feel some dreadful thing?
And on some level, your mind fears that therapy might disrupt this comfortably uncomfortable state. Your mind fears that therapy, instead of bringing light, will bring darkness. A breakdown.
And this is where things get interesting. For a moment, imagine something in the world that you fear. Let’s say spiders. How did you become afraid of spiders? Most likely, you developed this fear as a response to some real event. You didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “You know what, my life is missing something and that something is a fear of spiders.” Your fears are usually based—at least in part—on real events.
The same holds true for the “fear of breakdown.” Just like with the spiders, is it possible that you have some fear of breakdown because it is related to something you’ve already experienced. Maybe you are afraid that you will become so sad that you won’t be able to stop crying. Or that you will become so unlike yourself that you will lose your identity.
But while you’re wondering about this, take a moment to realize that here you are. As you read this, you are not crumbling into pieces, you are not weeping uncontrollably.
You are on some level afraid of re-experiencing something that will utterly destroy you, and yet you have survived it already.
Isn’t that something?
In addition to the “fear of the breakdown” telling us that we are afraid of what therapy might make us feel, it also tells us that we have survived these breakdowns before. We are afraid that therapy will make us feel those enormously scary feelings again, and that we won’t be able to endure them. But you have already endured them before.
And if you still have some doubts about your ability to survive these feelings that therapy might make you face, think of it this way. When you first went through this highly-feared breakdown, you may have had to do so alone. But this time around, you will be going through it with a therapist, who cares about you. A therapist who will be there with you every step of the way.