What really happens in therapy? 

Therapy is science’s poetic treatment of a physiological condition. Therapy is equal parts science and art. 

Learning had happened, but healing had not. That realization is what pushed me towards therapy. 

Learning was in place because I could see patterns in my behavior. There were times when I could hold back my reaction to build a considered response. There were times that I got needlessly triggered and felt lost about working on myself. Also, a lot of the past still hurt. I didn’t know where to start, and journaling wasn’t helping. 

What’s of significance is not what exact trauma or suffering I went through. All of us, in some capacity or another, do go through suffering. Suffering is inevitable. But growth is a choice, and I chose therapy as the medium to connect to my growth. 

And so, on the 27th of August 2020, I had my first therapy session. 

I found my therapist through Instagram. I had a check-in call with the person who ran the Insta page, who was also a therapist. She said that I should talk to a therapist and see where that takes me. 

It was a low stake, high impact meeting. 

Let’s call my therapist Z. 

What happened in the first few meetings? 

The first four sessions were rather lukewarm. I spoke about things that I wanted to – things that were on the surface. It was specifically about my relationship with my significant other and how an earlier boyfriend ghosted me. We spoke about triggers in general. What did it mean to give each other space and then to find growth in that space? We talked about how at times, isolation is required to space out our thoughts and be sure of what we are feeling and for whom and why. 

These sessions were good. There was no transformation in me, but the conversations were good. Everything was out on the table, and it felt good to have it out. 

Z is probably the most non-judgemental person that I have met. That could also be because she’s a therapist, but nothing I said or did could surprise or shock her. I didn’t realize it myself in those first few sessions, but I was fighting not to express what I was truly feeling. 

Every time a lump came up in my throat, I would shove it down and deflect. I would talk about general things, side with the person I was discussing, or defend what I did or who I was. Of course, she gave no reason to get defensive. Those were just my insecurities at play. 

And then, one day, the ice gave out. 

The first breakthrough with your therapist is most likely your first breakdown.

I was in the midst of another break from my significant other. This was just so that we could focus on work for five days at a stretch. He had something going on that needed a lot of focus. I was okay with the break. But 1st day into the break and I went into an anxiety spiral. At that time, I didn’t know it was anxiety and that it was a spiral. 

I emailed Z and told her that I’d like to speak to her while this was happening. She immediately organized an emergency session for me. 

It was my first of many affairs with the empty chair technique. I told Z that while I was at peace in my relationship, something inside me was hurting, and I didn’t know what that was. I also told her that I keep having this feeling that he will never call me back if we keep going on breaks. I cried throughout the conversation. I wept. I was just feeling so sad and so weighed down with whatever it was that I had gone through. 

Z is cool. She never labels what I am going through. She doesn’t tell me it is your separation anxiety acting up. She lets me find those erudite, educated words for myself and NEVER uses them. She talks to me like a layperson, and I can’t be thankful enough for that. 

The empty chair technique is a corny, gimmicky technique to the non-believers. It was to me too. Before this breakdown session, I wasn’t a believer in therapy. I was just experimenting to see what I would find. You imagine the part of you that’s hurting to be sitting on that chair. Your therapist helps you identify the part of you which is hurting. (This needs mad skill, guys.)

For me, at that moment, it was my 27-year-old self who had repressed all her feelings after being ghosted on by the ex-boyfriend. She had shoved down everything and made herself believe that she deserved this kind of desertion. That in some way, the boyfriend was justified and that she would take him back without an apology if he would have her. This deep-seated fear and anxiety of being abandoned again were why my 32-year-old self was having an abandonment fuelled anxiety attack in a healthy relationship. 

So here my 27-year-old self was sitting on that chair. My job as the present-day me was to talk to this younger version of myself and tell her that that time was long gone. And that everything was okay now. 

I wept, you guys. I told her all that, and I apologized profusely for not believing in the reality of my loss and grief. He ghosted on me, and though parts of me were angry and humiliated, I was more in the space of “this is my last attempt at ending up with somebody.” I was in denial for over three years. For over three years, I lived with a near-constant headache, and there were days that I felt that life was endlessly stretching out in front of me. And that there was no respite from this pain. I didn’t know then that I needed help. Also, I camouflaged what I was feeling so my near, and dear ones didn’t see through my facade. 

How does the therapeutic relationship therapize you after the first breakthrough? 

This phase is more demanding than the breakthrough. I had become wiser to my emotions now. I had understood two things – 

  1. Emotions don’t understand the passage of time (that’s why my 27-year-old version was still hurting)
  2. Just because I feel it doesn’t mean it is real and in the moment 

As my emotional barriers abated and I realized that this was a safe space with Z. Dead bodies began to surface. No honestly. There were things that I had forgotten about that began to emerge. I would remember a childhood incident with astonishing clarity, and I would be able to self-help in that regard. Since the first empty chair session, Z and I have done many to help my many hurting parts. 

There is a consistent focus on the here and the now. The sessions made me aware of behaviors that are inhibiting my growth rather than driving them. For instance, I was working on my book, and I spoke to Z about not getting enough of it done. 

I was working a job and co-managing my content agency. 

I was working out and eating healthy. 

My dad was just recovering from heart surgery, and I was helping out at home. 

There was quite a bit going on in my life, and I was highly critical of myself. This self-criticism wasn’t helping me move. When I did get to writing, I was frustrated that I wasn’t writing well enough. In all her excellent humor, Z said, so we discovered the child parts of your, the hurt parts, the parent and manager parts, and so many others – where was the critique hiding? And that put in context this crazy self-censoring behavior that I had. 

While we were working through my many parts, the most fragile part of me was exposed. It was the most fragile bit, also the most powerful one. The scared part. The part that was constantly scared of 

  • Not living up to people’s expectations of me
  • Not being enough 
  • Not being chosen 
  • Being abandoned 
  • Being broken (again)
  • Being phony 
  • Being judged 

Fear in your psyche can manifest in so many ways. Every reaction that you have, every trigger that gets activated, is perhaps the best way to identify what needs to heal and what needs to recover more. 

What after the breakdowns and the diagnosis? 

I have been in therapy for almost seven months now. In some sessions, we talk about what was the latest to get triggered. In others, we reminisce about how far we’ve come and also almost speak nostalgically about the days when it was so bad. 

Every session is an attempt to come clean to yourself. It is an attempt to take a step back from what I am feeling and working through the why’s of it. 

All of that seems decidedly preachy during an anxiety attack, but when the attack recedes, and I find my space, I can go back safely to what got triggered. 

I have realized that – 

  1. The scared, critique, hurt, confident, safe, happy, progressive parts of me can co-exist in the same mind
  2. Emotions aren’t always a choice between the extremes
  3. We all have finite emotional energy, and it is on us to decide what we want to spend it on. Only self-care ups the energy tank

That said, 

What to hold yourself accountable for during therapy? 

Of course, Z does her best in each session every time. But a lot of the healing and processing happens in isolation in my mind. In that case, there are a few things that I have promised myself- 

  1. I will manage at least three sessions every month 
  2. I will be honest about what I am feeling to myself and Z
  3. If I am not ready to talk about something, I will not deflect but tell Z that it is not time yet 
  4. I will not lull myself into a sense of fabricated safety, and I will build that safe space for myself
  5. I will not shy away from claiming my share of the universe’s love, affection, and empathy 

Therapy ensures that self-work starts. It is perhaps the first step to filling the void that we have within us. The void that manifests itself painfully in tough relationships, breakups, accidents. Therapy helps to fill that void with you. The end game is to understand that while you always need your tribe, you need to have an army within too. Therapy is you enlisting yourself as a soldier in your army. 

I have an army in my soul, 

Every soldier, every machine has been carefully painfully curated over all my years, 

Some battle scars I carry from when I did not know what battles were, 

Some scars are well worn, 

Some are new, and some are scabbing. 

I have an army in my soul, 

There were times when we were at war with everything outside, 

But the greatest one was within.

As scars heal, you learn what you ought not to have done, 

And only through the process of pain, what not to do, 

That you learn eventually and if you are lucky enough, 

What you should do. 

This army has seen it all, 

It has felt it all; it has stuck by me, 

It has raised its soldiers from the dead, 

And it continues to be your person throughout. 

I have an army in my soul. 

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