If your goal in therapy is to ‘be happy,’ you might want to rethink that. Here’s why.

When I first walked into a therapist’s office when I was eighteen years old, I had one goal and one goal only: “I just want to be happy,” I said.

Up until that point, I couldn’t really remember what that felt like. I didn’t know at the time that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (as it turns out, it runs in the family), and that my near-constant state of guilt, panic, and rumination wasn’t actually the way most brains operate.

I thought happiness was the whole point of this “mental health” thing. So I became something of an emotional hypochondriac — if I wasn’t happy, something was wrong.

Suddenly my very human experiences like sadness, anger, and anxiety were all “problems” that needed to be “fixed.” I had this unreasonable expectation that, if I worked hard enough, I could minimize the presence of every other emotion to become capital-h “Happy.”

That’s not exactly the healthiest mindset, if you really think about it.

Ask anybody what they want out of life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing I told my therapist all those years ago — it’s about being happy, isn’t it?

But happiness is just one emotion. And humans aren’t built to experience one emotion and one emotion only.

So we set ourselves up for failure. We internalize this idea that life is about sustaining something that can’t actually be sustained… but we pretend that, with the right attitude, it can be.

And then we wonder why we keep getting let down. It just doesn’t leave room for the whole spectrum of emotions every one of us is going to feel.

The thing is, if our goals for therapy (or recovery generally, or even life) are setting us up for failure, they aren’t really serving us. In fact, they’re probably going to discourage us. This becomes doubly true when we’re talking about marginalized people, where societal circumstances basically make it impossible to be happy all of or even most of the time.

And if your goal for therapy is impossible? You might give up before you ever get to the good stuff.

The really paradoxical thing about mental health recovery is that the goals that lend themselves to happiness usually aren’t about happiness at all, at least directly. A lot of people find that the less they focus on “being happy,” the more they’re able to make changes that contribute to their happiness.

Being happy with greater frequency and intensity just becomes this weird (and totally cool) side effect. At least, it was for me.

So if you’re not going to therapy or living life to become happy, what’s the point? I started asking the same thing. And what I learned along the way kind of blew my mind wide open.

If you’re wondering what might be helpful to work towards (whether it’s with a therapist, a life coach, a spiritual guide, in a support group, or even as prompts for your journal), that’s what I’m here for.

Here are five goals that I’ve found to be especially important for therapy — and why ‘being happy’ isn’t one of them.

1. I want to live a life that feels more meaningful.

Arguably every goal on this list circles back to this one. There’s an awesome TED talk by psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith unpacking this exact thing (I highly recommend it — it’s based off of a book she wrote that’s rooted in her work in positive psychology, pulling not just from research, but also from philosophical and spiritual traditions).

We can’t be happy all of the time, but if we can create a greater sense of meaning, it gives us something even better — a life that feels worthwhile. It can motivate us to invest in ourselves, our communities, and our world in a way that doesn’t depend on whether or not we’re happy in a given moment.

In other words, it’s more sustainable. Smith outlines the key pillars of a more meaningful life by breaking it down into four categories: belonging (feeling affirmed by people around you), purpose (serving others in some way that reflects our values), storytelling (which I’ll talk about a little more below), and transcendence (moments that fill us with awe or wonder).

I personally found belonging by joining groups in my local queer community and purpose by volunteering locally around causes I care about. I’ve found transcendence by going to concerts and becoming a drag performer (music and art have always made me feel like I’m a part of something bigger) and traveling a little more.

It’s worth mentioning, I was able to do this after I found the right balance of psychiatric medications to better manage my obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADHD.

So I do recognize that this requires a strong enough foundation on which to build — luckily, a shift in goals can help us determine what exactly we’re working towards which can inform what kind of support we need.

2. I want to create a better narrative for and about myself.

I’ve heard many times before that who we are is just a compilation of the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves — whether we realize that or not.

For the longest time, I’d written myself off as some neurotic, broken person that just needed to be “fixed.” And that deeply impacted how I treated myself and the choices that I made.

Working with a trusted therapist and even blogging about my experiences helped me construct an entirely different story for myself. In processing and unpacking my life experiences, I could see more clearly that I had done my best, learned from my mistakes, and emerged on the other side a stronger and more determined person.

I realized my identity was simply an interpretation of all the events I could remember. And as it turned out, there were many different ways to interpret those events that I’d never thought of.

Up until recently, I chose to interpret difficult events in my life as a reflection of my own inadequacy and failure, rather than a journey of personal growth and new insight. Practicing this reframing of my life, especially with a therapist, helped me construct a new story and a new appreciation for who I am and who I’ve become.

There’s actually plenty of research that backs this up, too; internalized narratives play a big part in our overall satisfaction with life.

The tricky thing is, we’re not always aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves (the fish in the bowl doesn’t always see the water, after all).

But when we uncover these narratives, and start to question where they came from and what we can learn from them, it can make a big difference in how we perceive ourselves (and by extension, how we feel and behave — cognitive-behavioral therapy, anyone?).

I don’t believe for a minute that we “choose” to be happy or unhappy. I do believe, however, that brains are pretty malleable things — and with practice and support, we can find a different story to tell ourselves and learn to believe in it, too.

And if our identities are really just the interpretation of a life story, those interpretations can change our whole selves.

3. I want to cultivate more intimate, fulfilling relationships.

Our relationships play a big part in our day-to-day. I’m constantly amazed, as I do more work with a therapist, at how often I’ve gravitated towards toxic relationships without fully realizing it.

Many of us have patterns in how we engage, the kinds of people we seek out, and in what ways we invest in others (or don’t). Just a few weeks ago, I wrote about one of my worst patterns as a people-pleaser. I suspect we’d be a lot more satisfied in life if we were more aware of these things, but that awareness takes work.

Being more aware of our relational patterns is an awesome goal, and it can wind up making us happier in the long run. It benefits ourselves, the people we care about, and the communities in which we live.

If you’re not sure where to start, there are some questions worth considering:

  • Who are the people I spend my time with? How do I feel before I spend time with them and how do I feel after? I wasn’t able to answer the second question at first, so I had to start being more mindful when I hung out with people. And let me tell you… it was mind-blowing to see how some of the people I invested in most made me feel worse.
  • How do the people closest to me express their care, investment, and affection for me? How do I reciprocate and how often? This helped me to become more grateful for the generosity that I wasn’t always the best at noticing, and also made me aware of the relationships in which I was giving a lot more than I was receiving. (Relationships are rarely an equal transaction, but being mindful can help us make better decisions around where we want to invest our energy.)
  • Who are the people, if any, that hype me up? And how can I find them or connect with them more regularly? I sat down and thought of three people that consistently make me feel good about myself. And no joke, I threw them in a group chat on Facebook and now we get brunch together most weekends. I even have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the relationships I’m nurturing. I can honestly say that my life improved instantly when I did this.

If you don’t have close friends or loved ones that hype you up or make you feel good, that’s also important to know. It might be time to start expanding your social circle, whether that’s online or off!

4. I want to develop resilience and healthy self-reliance.

I’m by no means saying that pursuing happiness is totally futile! It’s important to do things that you love and bring happiness into your life.

But I also think, along with seeking out joy, it’s a good idea to couple it with learning how to cope with the difficult stuff, too.

Being happy is awesome, but being able to roll with the punches becomes really important at those times in which happiness isn’t feasible or possible (because your boss is the worst, or the president tweets again, or life just happens to suck for a while — it happens!).

When there’s a setback, how quickly do you bounce back? Are there ways you’d like to be able to take care of yourself, but find are difficult to do? In other words, how often do you feel helpless or stuck, and are there opportunities to change that?

Rather than becoming unhappy and looking to “fix” it, berating myself for feeling negatively, or getting flustered as I tried to figure out how I got there, I started accepting how I felt in the moment. After all, thoughts and feelings come and go, because that’s kind of how brains work (they are super imperfect meat machines, basically).

So while waiting for the clouds to pass, I started grounding myself in the moment and asking, “What can I do, right now, to make this moment a little better?”

Therapy, for me, has been the best route in learning new coping skills (along with antidepressants, because sometimes our brains need an assist). But I realize not everyone can access super great therapy (a rant for another day).

That’s why I’ve written about mental health apps that can teach you some new skills, shared many of my favorite self-care resources for those that might need it, and am a strong advocate for self-help books, online communities, and support groups. The internet can open up access to a lot of these things. Go forth and educate thyself!

Resilience is an important goal (or process really). It allows us to live in a world that’s constantly changing, and gives our brains permission to be the finicky and unpredictable things that they sometimes are.

5. I want to uncover where I’m making life more difficult for myself.

Everyone on the planet has self-defeating patterns. I mean, I don’t necessarily have any research to back this up, but I have yet to meet someone that doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with some regularity.

Some people with depression make themselves sad on purpose because it feels “safe,” as an example (I explain more about why in this post).

More often than not, the coping skills we developed when we were younger aren’t so great for the adult world. The rules and environment are completely different (and also, we likely just weren’t as skilled in general at taking care of ourselves — wisdom and experience and all that).

Recently I noticed just how much avoidance makes me miserable. I’d avoid things that stressed me out (like going to the dentist or answering important emails), without fully acknowledging that I was only prolonging my pain.

But here’s a fun discovery: The momentary discomfort of facing what stressed me out was a lot easier than the lengthy, drawn-out anxiety attack that occurred while I put things off.

The more I plugged my nose and walked through the stuff that I hated but needed to face, the easier and easier it became to tackle my stress. Don’t get me wrong — I hated every freaking minute of it with a fiery, burning passion… but that misery was temporary. Never addressing the problem, however, was permanent.

This might seem obvious to you (like, hello Sam, you’re how old and just now getting this?), but when we’re in the midst of it, we don’t always connect the dots.

We might also assume that we’re helpless or powerless despite the circumstances of our lives being very different (read about “learned helplessness theory” at some point, it can be really helpful to know about).

And oftentimes, to notice and break these patterns, we need help — because this stuff is ingrained and most likely exists for a very good reason.

In the past, these patterns might’ve made sense to minimize your immediate stress as much as possible. But I think most of us reach a point when those old tricks start to interfere with the longer term stability we’re trying to achieve.

Learning more about these patterns, then, is what can help us start to unlearn them. And honestly? Every single person on the planet could benefit from working on that.

Yes, this is all easier said than done. But that’s why it’s a process!

Remember, the stuff on this list is meant to give you a sense of direction as you work towards mental wellness. They aren’t destinations or achievements — they’re simply part of a larger process that some of us call “personal growth” and others simply call “life.”

It’s ongoing, but in therapy especially, it’s always good to set up some goalposts where you can.

My goalpost of “be happy” wasn’t working for me. But the moment I stopped expecting myself to be happy all the time, my life got a whole lot better (and calmer, really) in ways I didn’t expect. Things like purpose, growth, intimacy, and resilience made a bigger impact than “happiness” ever could.

We live in a world in which happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. But the good news is, we can have meaningful lives — lives in which we grow and connect with others in meaningful ways — without being constantly happy.

Besides… no one needs that kind of pressure!

When we start thinking about happiness as the awesome byproduct of personal growth, rather than making happiness itself the goal that we chase, we wind up with a much stronger foundation for mental health.

And weirdly enough, when we’re not obsessed with happiness and so terrified of losing it, it becomes a lot easier to be happy — and appreciate it, too — than it ever was before.

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7 Signs That Online Therapy Might Be Right For You

There wasn’t anything wrong, really, with my last therapist. He was smart as a whip, caring, and thoughtful. But after more than a year of working together, I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t getting out of this what I needed to be. Something wasn’t clicking.

As someone with agoraphobia, it was already challenging to get to another city just for therapy. The financial impact of a copay, transportation there and back, and the time taken away from work had already added up. If I was already spending that money, why couldn’t I just sign up for online therapy, and get the care I needed without leaving my apartment?

So (shrug emoji) I decided to give Talkspace a try.

I chose Talkspace in particular because I knew from talking to other folks that they are especially mindful of their queer and transgender clients (of which I am both).

They didn’t ask me to review their services, or offer me any kind of incentive to talk about them. This is not a paid advertisement, friends, so you can trust that everything here is my honest opinion!

(This was actually an article requested and funded by my patrons, who were interested in online therapy and wanted my perspective. Hi there, patrons!)

If you’re intrigued by online therapy but not sure if it’s for you, I wanted to create this no-nonsense resource to help you decide.

While Talkspace is the platform that I use, this is advice that I suspect will apply to other platforms as well.

As with any therapy experience, you ultimately get out of it what you put in. That being said, there are definitely some signs to look for when deciding if online therapy could work for you:

1. Paying out of pocket isn’t prohibitively expensive for you.

Between my $15 copay and the Lyft ride to and from the office, paying for online therapy wasn’t actually that much more expensive for me. For $39 dollars a week, I can send unlimited messages to my therapist (text, audio, or video, as lengthy as I want) and get two thoughtful responses per day.

If I need a video call for a face-to-face experience, I can pay extra for that, either as part of my plan or on an as-needed basis.

But I want to acknowledge upfront that not everyone can afford this.

If you have insurance and your therapy is already sufficiently covered, online therapy will not be cheaper. However, if you have travel expenses and copayments (like me), or you’re already paying out of pocket, online therapy might actually be cheaper or at least fairly reasonable.

I still think this is the best $39 bucks I spend every week. But for folks who are low-income, this isn’t necessarily accessible to you.

2. You find yourself wishing you could process in the moment.

One of my biggest issues with face-to-face therapy is that, by the time my appointment rolled around, a lot of the more intense situations or emotions had already passed, or I couldn’t remember them once it was time to talk about it.

I often walked away from my sessions thinking, “Jeez, I wish I could just talk to my therapist when things came up, instead of having to wait until our next appointment.”

I felt like I was wasting time, like our appointments were basically me trying to remember what was bothering me or just filling up our time.

If this sounds familiar, online therapy might actually be an awesome option for you. With Talkspace, I’m able to write to my therapist at any moment, so when situations or emotions come up for me, I can articulate those things to my therapist in real time.

I’ve noticed a difference, too — we’re actually talking about the issues that are most present and important for me, instead of what I happened to remember during a scheduled time.

It’s important to note: If you are the sort of person that needs an immediate response, online therapy might not feel as gratifying at first. It took a period of adjustment to get comfortable with spilling my guts, knowing that I would have to wait to hear back from my therapist.

But I did get used to it! And it’s a format that’s working much better for me.

3. You know or suspect that writing is a great outlet for you.

A lot of my best emotional work happens through writing (this probably doesn’t come as a shock, seeing as I’m a blogger). Online therapy has been like having a diary that actually talks back, compassionately and competently guiding me through my process.

If you know that you’re the kind of person that finds it cathartic to write everything out, online therapy can be an awesome platform for you. There aren’t time constraints or character limits, so you’re given permission to take whatever space and time that you need.

If writing isn’t your thing, you can always just monologue with an audio or video recording. Sometimes you just need five minutes to ramble uninterrupted, and online therapy is great for that, too.

4. You find it easier to be emotionally vulnerable in digital spaces.

I grew up in the age of AOL Instant Messaging. Some of my deepest and most vulnerable connections have happened digitally. For whatever the reason — maybe it’s social anxiety, I’m not sure — I find it much easier to be vulnerable online.

I think online therapy is the best possible platform for folks like me, who simply find it easier to be honest when there’s the safety of a computer or phone screen between us and our therapists.

In just a couple of weeks, I disclosed more to my Talkspace therapist than I had with my previous therapist that I’d worked with for over a year. Being online helped me access emotions that I found it difficult to tap into in a face-to-face appointment.

(I think it helps, too, that this is therapy that can happen in the safety of my apartment, whenever I’m ready, while I’m hanging out in my pajamas and hugging my cat and eating nachos…)

5. You feel like you’re texting your friends a little too often.

I’m the kind of person that, when I’m overwhelmed with my life, I find myself texting or messaging my friends, sometimes with a frequency that makes me feel a little annoying.

And to be clear: It’s absolutely okay to reach out to someone when you’re struggling, as long as those boundaries are negotiated between you!

But what’s great about online therapy is that I now have a safe space to express myself at any moment, without the fear that you’re “too much” for that person.

If you’re an “external processor” like me, where nothing feels resolved until you’ve actually gotten it off your chest, online therapy is actually awesome.

I feel like there’s more balance in my relationships across the board, because every single day, I have an outlet for what I’m thinking or feeling that doesn’t rely exclusively on my friends and partners. That means I can be more thoughtful and intentional about who I reach out to and why.

6. You have other clinicians on your team that can help during a crisis.

A lot of reviews I’ve read talk about how online therapy isn’t designed for folks with severe mental illness. But I don’t actually agree with that — I just think that folks like us have to be mindful of what support systems we put in place, and when we use them.

Every person with severe mental illness should have a crisis plan. This is especially true for those of us who use online therapy, which means we won’t always get an immediate response when we’re in crisis.

I use online therapy to explore my trauma history, manage my OCD and depressive symptoms, and navigate the daily triggers and stressors in my life. However, I don’t use online therapy exclusively.

I also have a psychiatrist that I see regularly, support groups that I attend on an as-needed basis, and I can also contact my previous therapist if I’m suicidal and need to be referred to local crisis resources (like outpatient resources or hospitalization).

My Talkspace therapist knows that I have a history of suicidality and self-harm, and we’ve talked about what steps we would take if I were in crisis again.

I think online therapy can be a great option for folks with severe mental illness. (For me personally, I feel much more supported checking in with my therapist ten times a week online, as opposed to seeing them just once a week, if that.)

The key is that online therapy should never be the only option, and you and your therapist should work out a crisis plan upfront.

7. You have very specific therapeutic needs that you’re having trouble meeting.

My therapeutic needs were a bit… complicated.

I’m a queer and transgender person with a history of complex trauma, struggling with depression, OCD, and borderline disorder. I needed a therapist that can handle all of the above, but trying to find one who was up to the task was daunting, to say the least.

When I signed up for Talkspace, I first talked with a consultation therapist (kind of like a clinical matchmaker) who would help me find my ideal therapist. Upfront, I gave them as much information as I could, and they gave me three therapists to choose from.

One of them was a trauma-informed therapist who was also queer and transgender, who was well-versed in the disorders I was dealing with. We also came from a similar perspective, valuing a social justice-oriented and sex-positive approach.

Talk about a perfect match!

I think that one of the benefits of online therapy is that you have more options. Rather than searching for someone within a reasonable distance, you can connect with any therapist that’s licensed in your state. This widens the pool of available clinicians, and ideally connects you with a therapist that meets more of your needs.

(The great thing, too, is that switching therapists on apps like Talkspace is super easy — and those therapists will have access to your previous conversation logs, so you won’t feel like you’re starting all over again.)

If you’re a marginalized person that needs a therapist from your own community, your odds of finding the right therapist are much higher with online therapy. To me, this is by far the best part of the process.

There are definitely some valid criticisms to keep in mind, though.

I’ve loved my online therapy experience, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention these. Some of the common issues that people encounter with online therapy, summarized for quick reading:

  • You need to be 18 or older: As far as I know, for legal reasons, it’s not available to folks under the age of 18. Be sure to investigate this before signing up if this applies to you.
  • It’s a different pace: Responses are “asynchronous,” meaning your therapist responds when they’re able to — it’s a little more like email rather than instant message. For folks who like instant gratification, this will take some getting used to. If you’re in acute crisis, this shouldn’t be your primary support system.
  • There’s no body language: If you’re someone that is a little more withholding, and therefore you need a therapist to be able to “read” you, this can be an obstacle. If you’re someone that has difficulty interpreting emotion and tone through a text, this can also make things tricky. (Video calls and audio recordings are still options, though, so don’t hesitate to switch things up if you’re finding the text-only format to be tricky!)
  • You have to spell things out (literally): Your therapist won’t know if something isn’t working if you don’t tell them directly (they can’t exactly see if you’re uncomfortable, or bored, or annoyed, for example), so be ready to advocate for yourself if you aren’t getting what you need.

Alright, so what should I know before I get started?

Online therapy is really like any form of therapy, in that it only works if you show up. Here are some quick tips for the best possible online therapy experience:

  • Be as specific as possible when looking for a therapist: Better to tell your “matchmaker” too much about yourself than too little. The more you advocate for yourself, the better your matches will be.
  • Disclose, disclose, disclose: Be as open, vulnerable, invested, and honest as you can possibly be. You will only get out of the experience what you invest into it.
  • Talk about therapy in therapyTalk with your therapist about what’s working and isn’t working. If something is helpful, let them know. If something isn’t, be sure to say so. If something needs to change, it’s important that you communicate that to get the best possible experience!
  • Customize it: Online therapy has a little less structure, so be sure to talk with your therapist about how you can create accountability and a format that works for you. Whether it’s homework assignments, assigned readings (I like to share articles with my therapist on occasion), scheduled check-ins, or experimenting with formats (text, audio, video, etc), there are tons of different ways to “do” online therapy!
  • Set some goals: If you’re not sure what you want out of the experience, take some time to think about it. Creating goal posts can be helpful in guiding the process, both for you and your therapist.
  • Be safe: If you have a history of suicidality, substance abuse, or self-harm — or any kind of disordered behavior that could lead you to harm yourself or someone else — make sure your therapist knows this, so you can create a crisis plan together.
  • Anticipate an adjustment period: I felt weird about online therapy at first. It feels distinctly different, especially in the absence of body language and the delayed responses. Give yourself time to adjust, and if things feel off, be sure to let your therapist know.

So is online therapy a good option for you?

Obviously, not knowing you personally, I can’t say for sure! But I can say with certainty that there are definitely folks out there who have benefited from it, myself being one of them.

While I was skeptical at first, it turned out to be a great decision for my mental health, though I recognize its limitations. Like with any form of therapy, it largely relies on finding the right match, disclosing as much as you’re able to, and advocating for yourself throughout.

Hopefully this guide gives you all the right information to make a decision that’s right for you. I’d also encourage you to research more on your own (I am by no means the ultimate authority on therapy!). As the saying goes, knowledge is power!

Hey, fun fact (added some time after I published, once I found this out): If you sign up with Talkspace using this link, we both get $50 dollars off. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If you’re on the fence, give it a whirl!

If you found this guide to be helpful, please hop on over to my Patreon and consider becoming a patron! Through donations, I’m able to create free and thorough resources like these based on your recommendations.

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5 Ways to Lovingly Support Someone With C-PTSD

I was watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I felt myself starting to panic.

Right from the start, seeing Quasimodo be the recipient of so much gaslighting – being told that the world wasn’t safe, that he would never be accepted or loved, that Frollo had only his best interest at heart – struck a jarring but familiar chord with me.

Quasimodo’s isolation in the bell tower, unable to leave or connect with the outside world, eerily mirrored the control and entrapment I’d experienced years before.

“Hey,” my partner said softly, pausing the film. “Sam, you’re safe. It’s okay. But if this is too much, I’m more than happy to watch something else.”

In the midst of an emotional flashback, my fears were disrupted by my partner’s tender assurances. I could only nod. Without another word, my partner put on Steven Universe – my go-to show, having watched every episode at least three or four times, its familiarity and charm never failing to calm me down.

And I breathed (slowly and deeply) as I was lulled back into a sense of calm, my partner sitting quietly beside me. Sometimes seemingly “little things” can stir up something in survivors that becomes difficult to process in the moment.

But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that sometimes our greatest healing can happen when we allow ourselves to love and be loved.

When my therapist told me that he believed I was struggling with C-PTSD, countless pieces of the puzzle rapidly clicked into place for me. The flashbacks, the fear of abandonment, the hypervigilance, the distrust, the dissociation, the deep and abiding emotional pain that I could swear I was born with – with one diagnosis, all of it seemed to make so much more sense.

Complex trauma, while not officially listed in the DSM-5, is still widely recognized by clinicians and survivors alike as a form of PTSD that occurs due to prolonged exposure to trauma – particularly interpersonal trauma, in which there was abuse and/or neglect that led to a significant imbalance of power.

Many culturally competent clinicians and survivors alike extend this framework to include the oppression that marginalized folks face, which can so often be traumatic.

My understanding of C-PTSD is largely influenced by the work of Pete Walker, a psychotherapist and survivor of complex trauma, whose words and affirmations helped bolster my own recovery (his book on complex trauma in childhood is a must-read).

While I am in a much better place with my trauma history, my loved ones – especially close partners who don’t share this kind of history – sometimes struggle to know how best to support me. I’ve had time to read, engage in trauma-informed therapy, and connect with community around these issues, but my loved ones haven’t necessarily done that work.

Friends and family of folks with C-PTSD don’t always have the same level of education and understanding that survivors do. That’s why I wanted to create this quick resource – to serve as a jumping off point to how to better support trauma survivors.

If you aren’t sure how to support a loved one with complex PTSD, here are some suggestions to start with.

1. Recognize That We Don’t Always Know Our Triggers, Either

Whenever I disclose to someone that I have C-PTSD, they often try to support me by asking, “What are the triggers I should know about?” I think this is a great question to ask if a survivor is aware of what can cause a flashback, but the reality is that many of us can be triggered on a level we aren’t even aware of.

That’s why it’s good to not only ask what triggers us but to ask what you can do if we find ourselves triggered.

What does your loved one find helpful? Is there something you can say, a kind of safe touch they want from you, or something else that’s comforting?

I use this guide to manage my flashbacks, and I think it’s a good point of reference for anyone who wants to help someone work through a particular episode. Give it a read, and invite your loved one to share what’s useful to them and what isn’t – assuming that this person is ready and able to have the conversation with you.

2. Encourage Us to Express Our Grief and Anger

A lot of trauma-informed therapists will say that survivors have a difficult time grieving the trauma they endured, and sometimes have difficulty expressing anger.

One of the best things a loved one can do is hold the space, then, for survivors to experience these emotions and express them in healthy ways.

Not sure how to do it? Here are some suggestions:

  • “I noticed that this conversation is bringing up a lot of anger for you. Do you want to share why?”
  • “What happened to you is absolutely unfair and unjust, and I’m open to hearing more if you want to talk about it.”
  • “If you need to cry, that’s okay. I can stay with you or I can leave if you need privacy. Just let me know.”
  • “Your feelings about this are absolutely valid. I hope you know that you’re safe now, and you’re allowed to feel those feelings.”

The key here is to (1) validate those emotions as real and understandable, and (2) open up a space in which those emotions can be felt and expressed more deeply.

Sometimes these conversations will happen when the trauma is referenced directly. Other times, a seemingly unrelated event can trigger a flashback. In both cases, it’s important to give survivors the space to navigate their feelings without judgment.

3. Let Us Vent Without Trying to Fix Things

One of the biggest mistakes that my loved ones made was that every time I tried to process aloud what I had been through, they would interrupt with advice on how to “fix” things.

In my recovery, I’ve found that coping with C-PTSD is not so much about fixing something. For me, a big part of the work has been about breaking through the denial of what I’d been through, and learning to love and protect myself in a way that I’d never believed I could.

I didn’t need to change or “fix” my relationship with the people who’d hurt me – more than anything, I needed to work through the ways I internalized that harm so I could, in turn, address the ways I’d been hurting myself.

More than anything, I’ve needed to be able to talk about what happened and feel seen when I did, so that I could begin to process what I’d been through and treat myself with more compassion.

And while every survivor’s recovery will look different, remember that when we want advice, we’ll ask for it – but what we need more than anything is your compassion.

4. Give Us Permission to Be Imperfect

For a lot of us with complex trauma, we struggle with perfectionism. Pete Walker calls this the “inner critic,” which so many survivors grapple with in recovery.

For some of us, perfectionism was a coping mechanism run amok, in which we desperately tried to better ourselves to “earn” the love or attachment that we lacked by correcting our supposed shortcomings. (Spoiler alert: No amount of perfecting ever changed this, but we continued trying anyway)

This “inner critic” can also be the voice we internalized, like when “you’re a bad child” suddenly becomes “I’m a bad child.” The external criticisms or neglect we endured suddenly became the mantras we took on as we were further and further traumatized.

Which is to say, a lot of survivors who are dealing with complex trauma really struggle with being imperfect.

For me personally, I believed for a long time that if people truly got to know me, they wouldn’t be able to love me. So I spent a good amount of time trying to make myself “better,” with the hopes that I would someday be “good enough” for the people in my life.

I think this is why it’s powerful when our loved ones give us permission to be imperfect. Some examples:

  • “You don’t have to be perfect for me or for anyone else. I’m going to be in your corner no matter what.”
  • “It’s true that you make mistakes. But you always work hard to make things right, and that’s what matters.”
  • “In my eyes, you’re already lovable and you’re already worthy.”
  • “Trust me. If something’s wrong, I’m going to tell you, and I promise we’ll work through it.”

An important thing to remember is that you’re responsible to your loved one, but not for your loved one – so their perfectionism, self-esteem issues, and unresolved trauma aren’t yours to fix.

Instead, support your loved one as they do the work to untangle those issues for themselves. That begins with simply letting them be human – creating the kind of space where you can both show up as yourselves, without the “all or nothing” expectation that the only people worthy of love are perfect people.

5. Educate Yourself About C-PTSD

Not sure where to go? A great place to start is this FAQ about complex trauma. While it’s written with survivors in mind, it’s still extremely useful for loved ones who aren’t sure what this C-PTSD stuff is all about.

I also think that this Wikipedia article on C-PTSD is one of the better online resources, along with this book that I mentioned earlier on in this piece.

Ask your loved one if there’s a particular resource that they’d like you to familiarize yourself with, or if they’re open to having a conversation about how complex trauma affects their life and relationships. If they’re interested in a conversation, make sure that you’re committed to holding the space for whatever emotions might arise, and that your approach is validating and compassionate.

Pete Walker also has a great resource on the concept of “co-counseling,” which offers a nice structure on how to have these conversations in a productive and safe way. I’d highly recommend it. You can also reach out to a therapist to facilitate this conversation between you if more guidance would be helpful.

Part of supporting a survivor is being open to learning and realizing that this learning is an ongoing process, rather than a single event. There’s no singular article or resource that will give you the expertise needed to support someone – rather, in the process of building trust between you, you’ll teach each other how to create a mutually safe and supportive space.

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When my partner paused The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was a simple but important gesture that said to me, “Your trauma is not a burden. I’m here to support you.”

More than anything, I think survivors withhold a lot of what they’re going through for fear of being “too much” – but when invited, we can find the kind of safety necessary to open up and allow our relationships to truly grow.

If you’re looking to support a survivor, it can be as simple as noticing. As simple as validating us. As simple as saying, “I believe you.”

All I really wanted was someone to believe me. And every time someone does, I can feel a part of me learning to trust again, learning to love with abandon and without fear.

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9 Affirmations You Deserve to Receive If You Have a Mental Illness

Originally posted at Everyday Feminism and shared here with permission.

The image features two people smiling at each other - one holding a coffee cup, the other holding a book.

“You are doing a good job.”

I remember the first time my therapist told me, “Sam, you’re doing a good job.”

I remember how overwhelmed with emotion I was. I had worked so hard to keep myself steady and had spent so much time just trying to survive, but I never got any credit for this invisible battle that I was fighting every single day.

For a moment, I couldn’t catch my breath as I repeated the phrase – you are doing a good job – in my head a few more times.

When she saw me – really looked at me and saw my pain, my struggle, my willpower – I felt like my whole soul was being nourished. I was being given something I didn’t even know that I needed until that moment: validation.

People with mental illness don’t get enough credit, enough affirmations, enough love. More often than not, the words we get can feel a little hollow.

In a world that tries to tell us that we are too crazy, too much – in a world that says we are less than in so many ways – I just wanted someone to say to me, “You are exactly enough, and yes, I see how hard you’re fighting.”

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you need someone to acknowledge you, especially when things get tough. So here are some of the affirmations that I wished I had, and that every person with a mental illness (or illnesses!) deserves.

1. You Are Worthy of Love

Yes, even on your worst days, you are absolutely worthy of love, care, and compassion.

Sometimes it can feel like the folks in our lives are doing us a favor by loving us, but this stems from a really problematic idea that we aren’t worthy of love in the first place.

Bullshit. We are. Struggling with our mental health doesn’t make us unlovable, no matter what our exes or so-called friends say.

That’s not to say that we’re perfect. No one is. But perfection is not a requirement for love. We have trauma to work through by virtue of the difficult journey that we’ve been on. But many of us, whether we have a mental illness or not, have things that we need to work on.

Just because you’ve got work to do, it doesn’t mean that you should deny yourself love, or goodness, or happiness.

Mental illness does not make you unlovable. Mental illness does not mean that anyone who loves you is doing you a favor. Mental illness is just one layer of a complicated, beautiful, and whole person.

2. You Are Enough

Struggling with your mental health can sometimes make you feel inadequate as a person, like this so-called weakness makes you less than everybody else. If you’ve ever felt that way, I’m here to tell you something: You are absolutely, positively enough – exactly as you are.

No matter where you are in your recovery, no matter what struggle you’re dealing with, and no matter how many times you’ve broken down, I need you to know that you are enough. You don’t need to do anything extra or change who you are to be worthy of good things in your life.

Mental illness doesn’t mean that you’re somehow less important, less worthy, or less remarkable than other people.

I find myself beating myself up at times, wondering why I can’t get my shit together, wondering if these disorders say something about my character. I wonder if it’s a sign that I’m defective somehow. I wonder if it says something about my shortcomings. I wonder if my mental illnesses are a shortcoming.

But you and I are not defective. We are just people, with our own unique journeys and the struggles it took to get here.

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3. You Are Strong (Even On the Days When It Doesn’t Feel Like It)

You’re fucking tough. You know how I know that? You’re still here.

Don’t believe me? It’s summed up best by this Mary Anne Radmacher quote:

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’”

Every day that you choose to keep fighting is a testament to your strength. Every day that you keep trying, even when everything in you is resisting, is proof of your courage.

Every small victory – getting out of bed, making that phone call, preparing a meal, doing a load of laundry – is yet another example of how strong you are, despite the relentless grip of mental illness.

Give yourself some credit. You deserve it.

4. You Are Not Damaged Goods

Back when I was dating and I wasn’t open about my anxiety or bipolar, I felt like I was carrying around an enormously shameful secret. I felt like I was defective and that, sooner or later, the people that I cared about were going to discover that I, Sam Dylan Finch, was “damaged goods.”

But here’s what I’ve learned: Every one of us, in some way, is “damaged.” And moreover, those struggles, while they may have shaped who we’ve become, are not the entirety of who we are.

And whatever those struggles might be, they certainly don’t depreciate our value. We aren’t meat sitting in a freezer, slowly expiring until we’re tossed aside. We’re people – people that, like anyone else, have had our fair share of challenges to get to where we are today.

Anyone who says we’re less valuable because we’ve struggled in the past does not deserve a place in our present.

Besides, let’s be real. Deciding that someone is less worthwhile because of their disability? That says more about their lack of compassion than it does your value as a person, no?

5. You Don’t Need to Run Away

Sometimes when I’m scared that I’m too much of a burden for the people that love me, I feel this intense urge to just run away.

To turn off my phone, catch the next train and take it up the coast, to don a red trench coat and disappear a la Carmen San Diego. (Yes, this is a fantasy that has run through my head many, many times – and yes, I own the red coat.)

Years ago, I used to disappear abruptly for a day or two, sometimes even weeks at a time, much to the distress of my loved ones. I believed that I just wasn’t good company. I thought I only deserved to have friends when I was feeling good, and if I wasn’t, I deserved to be alone.

Let me save you the time (and money): You don’t need to run away. You are not a burden.

Your friends are your friends because they care about you, not because you’re a circus performer that exists solely for their entertainment. Friends are there on your good days, your bad days, and all the days in-between.

And it’s their responsibility to make sure they’re taking care of themselves, and that they communicate when they need space. It’s your responsibility to trust that, if they need space, they’ll take it.

Instead of running away, just be open about how you’ve been feeling. Give your friends the chance to prove you wrong or to take a step back if they need it. You don’t need to run away just to see who’s going to follow – all you need to do is tell them what’s really going on.

You’re not a burden. You’re a human being who has struggles from time to time. That doesn’t make you undeserving of friendship – if anything that means you need your friends now more than ever.

If your friend was going through a difficult time, I imagine you’d do your best to stand by them. Why is it so hard to believe that someone would do the same for you?

6. You Didn’t Do Anything to Deserve This

Sometimes my twisted bipolar brain would convince me that I somehow brought these illnesses onto myself, or did something to make them happen.

Gentle reminder: It’s not your fault.

And again, for emphasis: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.

If you had caused this, wouldn’t you have done everything in your power to undo it? Wouldn’t you change this if you could? And wouldn’t you have done that already?

I don’t know why mental illness likes to tell so many lies (what a jerk, right?), but take it from someone who knows: Mental illness doesn’t happen because an individual magically makes it so. It’s a complex combination of psychological, social, and biological factors.

Nothing you did on its own created this monster, I promise. Your first diet or binge didn’t “cause” your eating disorder. Your first cut didn’t “cause” your depression. Your disorganization didn’t “cause” your anxiety.

A dysfunctional response to stress is evidence that the problem existed long before you responded to it. Okay?

So don’t dwell on what you could’ve, should’ve, would’ve done. Instead, focus on your recovery. Be kind to yourself and be gentle.

7. Do Something Nice for Yourself

Self-care is vital. And if you aren’t making time for yourself, it’s time to make time.

Setting aside an intentional moment or two to nourish and take care of yourself isn’t just a luxury – it’s necessary for our mental health.

I wrote an article specifically about self-care for folks with anxiety, talking about how self-care is one tool that I use to help manage the distress that accompanies generalized anxiety, and what steps I take to practice self-care as a person with mental illness.

For many folks with mental illness, self-care is an invaluable coping tool to keep ourselves afloat.

You deserve nice things. You deserve to treat yourself and nurture yourself. The everyday wear and tear that comes with mental illness means that we have to invest in ourselves and our wellbeing. We need to make sure we’re taking care of ourselves to mitigate the impact that mental illness can have on our health.

And yes, even when we’re feeling great, we have to keep investing in our self-care to keep it that way.

Self-care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary. And if you haven’t been putting in the time, now is as good a time as any.

If you aren’t sure where to start, check out this amazing video and take a look at this list of articles here at Everyday Feminism!

8. You Don’t Have to Pretend to Be Okay

I spent so much time trying to hide what I was going through. I locked myself away and I kept people at an arm’s distance for so many years; I thought that I was protecting the people I loved, but in reality, I was hurting us both.

I was hurting them because, in truth, they wanted to help me. They were more hurt that I didn’t trust them or ask them for help when I needed it. And I was hurting myself because it meant that I was battling these illnesses alone – something that I just couldn’t do by myself, no matter how hard I tried.

I’m going to issue a challenge to you: Stop pretending to be okay when you aren’t. You don’t need to be “okay” all the time or even most of the time.

I’m giving you permission to struggle. I’m giving you permission to be sad. I’m giving you permission to be angry. Feel whatever it is you’re feeling, and let the people in your life who want to be there for you actually be there.

Let people in. It’s okay to not be okay. You don’t have to do this alone.

9. You’re Doing a Good Job

You knew I was going to say it, and here it is: Yes, you’re doing a good job.

Living with mental illness(es) can be hard work. And we seldom get any credit for the work that goes into keeping ourselves alive.

On the outside, it seems like what we’re doing is very simple – getting out of bed, cooking ourselves a meal, and maybe dragging ourselves to work. But with disabilities like ours, simple tasks can require a monumental effort.

I see that effort. I know that it’s hard work. And I want to tell you that you’re doing a good job. You’re doing an amazing job. Despite every obstacle that is standing in your way, you’re still doing the best that you can.

I am so, so proud of you for the work that you do, day in and day out, to keep going.

If I could, I’d teleport over to you right now and give you a trophy. I’d also bake you a cake. And then we’d watch Netflix together – because who has the energy for anything else?

I know that it might not always seem like you’re making much progress, especially on the days when you can’t do much other than sleep (I’ve been there, trust me). But even on those days, knowing what you’re up against, it’s a miracle that you’re still around and I’m so happy that you’re here.

Keep taking it one day at a time. And every step of the way, don’t forget to pause and acknowledge the hard work that you’ve done to get where you are.

If you can’t, just tweet me and I’ll do it for you (seriously).

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It’s Been a Year Now and I Still Miss My Old Therapist

The image features a single white flower standing tall beside a window.

“I count myself lucky to feel this kind of sadness.”

This is one of those “I’ll write this article and assume that I’m not the only one” sort of posts. I’m going to pretend that at least one other person out there is still hung up on an ex.

An ex-therapist, that is. Because I have to confess this: I miss my old therapist.

Veronica* was an extraordinary therapist. When I met her, I was seventeen years old and, let’s be real, I was the poster child for Mental Health Crisis. She was compassionate, non-judgmental, sensitive, and perceptive in ways that I had not expected.

I spent three years (and a half, to be exact) in awe of her calm, even when I sat curled up on that couch, describing my depths of my suicidality or my utter despair for things ever improving. She created a safe space for me to explore the darkest parts of myself, with a passionate and relentless commitment to my well-being.

The cherry on top: Despite not being a gender specialist by any means, when I came out as transgender, she told me it was her responsibility to provide the best possible care. She educated herself, sought out resources and guidance, and did a damn good job at helping me embark on my transition.

By the time we parted ways, I had gone from being completely despondent to being the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. It’s no coincidence that some of my most important realizations and growing happened under her care.

So I’m not sure that anyone can blame me when, in the midst of a crisis, I find myself thinking, “Ugh, shit. What would Veronica say? What would Veronica do?”

Followed by an ever-so-small part of myself still grieving for this person who was so significant and yet, for professional reasons, is completely gone now from my life.

If this sounds anything like your own experience, I suspect we aren’t alone in this. When you spend a good amount of time with someone, divulging difficult experiences and intimate secrets, an attachment happens whether you mean it to or not.

I certainly never meant to get so attached that I would actually miss my old therapist. In fact, when I entered into therapy as a depressed teenager, I was convinced nothing could help me. Oh, how wrong I was.

I like to think that the occasional sadness I feel for not having Veronica as my therapist means that she did something incredibly right. It means that I felt supported and cared for, but not so much so that I couldn’t move forward without her.

In fact, the happiness that I have now is fostered, in part, by the many tools and skills that I learned during our time together. Whether or not I understood it when I first left, I was ready for this next chapter, and our sessions laid the groundwork for the life that I’m leading now.

Nonetheless, the sadness still comes around once in a while.

I count myself lucky to feel this kind of sadness. Lucky because it meant that I was one of the fortunate ones who could find a therapist that had such a profound impact on me. A therapist who could disarm me, who could provoke such unwavering optimism in me, and could create a safe space when it was difficult just to feel safe inside my own head.

Finding a therapist can sometimes feel like a cruel game show, auditioning total strangers with the hopes that you can trust them with the deepest and most important work you’ll ever do.

But if we’re lucky, really lucky, some of us are able to find the Veronicas of the world – the therapists whose empathy and validation convince us that there is, indeed, some good out there – and we trust them with this work, forging the kind of bond that’s needed so the real healing can begin.

I am the person I am today because there was a therapist who believed in me. I can honestly say that, even at my worst, there was never a moment when Veronica seemed to doubt my potential to do something meaningful, to do something important with my life.

She was the first to hear my authentic voice and to teach me of the power that my voice really had. In a way, the work that I do now was made possible by her conviction that my voice mattered.

If you haven’t found this therapist yet, fear not: They exist. They’re out there. Sometimes it requires jumping through obnoxious hoops and navigating a health care system that doesn’t look too fondly on us neuroatypical folks. Sometimes it requires paying out of pocket and dealing with an empty wallet at the end of the week. Sometimes it means getting yourself out of the house when you’d rather hide under the covers.

Whatever it takes, if you can, find the person who deserves your trust. Find the person who deserves your time. Find the therapist that is worthy of taking this journey with you.

And years down the line, when some smashing opportunity arises and you decide to move to California or something equally spontaneous, you’ll have that moment when everything goes awry and you start to think about them. You’ll start wishing they could offer just one more bit of advice or lend their ear, calmly reclining in their chair as you rant and rave about the way that things never go as planned.

Because, oh man, do they ever go as planned?

You’ll miss your old therapist and, like me, you’ll be glad that you do.

*Editor’s Note: Names have been changed to protect the identities of those mentioned.

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I Believe in You: An Open Letter to Teens with Mental Health Struggles

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Photo: unsplash.com

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my battle with mental illness began, but I do know that by the time I was a teenager, it was in full swing.

I can also say that when I was fourteen, I started to question if I wanted to be alive anymore.

Though I haven’t been a teenager in some time, I can still remember what it felt like to be that young and to be struggling with mental illness. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever gone through.

I won’t claim to know exactly what you’re going through. I don’t know all the details and I don’t know what the outcome of all this will be. But as someone who was a teenager in the grips of mental illness, I wanted to write a letter to the folks who may be going through something like what I’ve been through.

Because, first of all, being a teenager struggling with a mental illness of some kind can be the loneliest feeling in the world.

Some of my friends told me I just wanted attention. Some of them told me I was “playing the victim.” Some of them told me I was crazy. Most people, though, told me that I was too young to know what mental illness was, too young to know what suffering was, too young to know my own reality.

I want to tell you that your suffering is real, and I believe you when you say that you are hurting.

There may be people in your life who are in denial, or who simply don’t understand what you’re going through. And I’m sorry that those people don’t get it. I want you to know that there are people who do get it, people like me and many others, too, who have lived through this to tell the tale.

As difficult as it is to face people who refuse to listen, refuse to hear you, refuse to acknowledge your struggle, I can promise you that there are people out there who understand.

When I was a teen, I started to experience deep, agonizing sadness. I didn’t know exactly where it came from. I just knew that I felt heavy and I felt hurt. Sometimes I cried for hours, and sometimes I cut myself. Sometimes I did both. And throughout these depressive episodes, I couldn’t explain why I was in so much pain. It seemed like pain had become my default setting.

And even though I felt all of this pain, I didn’t reach out for help for years. I didn’t want my parents to know what was happening to me, because I didn’t trust them. When I did have the guts to share, most people brushed it off, and told me I was being dramatic, or that I was too young to know what depression was like. A lot of people didn’t believe I could have depression if I didn’t fit their definition of what a depressed person looks like.

But we know ourselves. And we know when something is off. We may not be able to articulate or explain what’s happening inside, but as the experts on our own bodies and minds, we can tell when something isn’t right.

I want you to know that I believe you. Your pain is real, and no amount of denial from anybody else can change the fact that it’s really there.

Whether it is anxiety, depression, numbness, mood swings, whatever your struggle may be – I believe that it’s real, that it affects you, and that you aren’t making this up.

After one too many nights of self-harm, depression, and hopelessness, I decided to go to a teacher at school. She took me to a crisis counselor, who helped me find a therapist and other resources. The great thing about the crisis counselor was that she wasn’t required to call my parents, so I was able to talk to my parents in my own way, when I was truly ready.

Getting help was the best decision I ever made, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. I felt like I’d squeezed all the toothpaste out of the tube, and I’d never be able to put it back inside again. At least with my depression, I knew what to expect. It was predictable. But now I was going to have to learn to live my life another way. I was going to have to learn how to cope and get better. This was a big deal and it was scary.

But you know what? It was also worth it. Because eventually, I did start to get better. I also got a diagnosis – bipolar disorder – which helped me understand exactly what was going on. With a therapist and psychiatrist in my corner, and eventually family and friends, I was able to start putting the pieces of my life back together.

If I could say anything to teenagers with a mental health struggle, it’s that you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to suffer in silence. You have choices, even if it feels like those choices are too difficult, too scary, or too risky.

I am here to write this letter because I made those scary choices. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be alive to tell the tale. There is no doubt in my mind that, if I hadn’t gotten help when I did, I would have taken my own life.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t understand that the pain wasn’t going to be forever. Back then, I thought I would always be depressed, and that there wasn’t a future waiting for me on the other side of my illness.

But I was wrong. I pulled through. And I would like to believe that we all can pull through, especially if we look out for each other. I want you to know that I’m looking out for you. I want you to know that you are valuable and worthwhile. I want you to know that you belong here, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

Most of all, you need to know that your life can change at the drop of a hat. Everything you thought you knew could be proven wrong next week. Your life could change. Your life could change completely. And you deserve to stay alive to see it.

In the time since I was a teenager, I went to and graduated from college. I moved to California and became a writer. I got engaged to the love of my life. And along the way, I had the amazing privilege of touching hearts and changing lives in ways I never thought I would.

The amazing thing about our struggles is that we all have the potential to make something meaningful come out of them. Our journeys may not look identical, but I believe that we all have something special inside us that we can tap into to make this world just a little bit better.

So if you haven’t already, reach out. Keep searching for that someone who will understand, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Hang in there, and remember that the life you’re living as a teenager will likely not resemble the life you will live as an adult – you just have to hang in there.

I’m so glad that you’re here to read this letter – and I want you to be alive to write your own in five, ten years, even twenty.

I hope you know that I believe in you, and I want you to get through this. And even if it seems impossible, I hope you know that there are so many others who have struggled and have made it through. You can be one of them. And I believe that you will be.

RESOURCES:

Don’t be afraid to call a hotline if you need someone to talk to:

If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

If you are planning on taking your own life, please call 911. I can’t lose you.

If you are an LGBTQ teen who needs someone to talk to, please call the Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386

Check out these great websites, specifically for teens and young adults:

Teen Mental Health

Strength Of Us

CopeCareDeal

Here are some other articles I’ve written about mental health:

From One Survivor to Another: An Open Letter to Suicide Survivors

So You’re Bipolar: Advice for the Newly Diagnosed (Useful advice for anyone with a mental health struggle, not just bipolar.)

8 Things That I Learned in Therapy

Feel free to share more resources, ask questions, offer advice, or write your own open letter in the comments section!

Sam Dylan Finch is a freelance writer and queer activist, currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a queer and feminist perspective on current events and politics. His twitter can be found, unsurprisingly, at @samdylanfinch.

Visit his official website: www.samdylanfinch.com

8 Things That I Learned In Therapy

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Illustration by Jessica Krcmarik.

Therapy didn’t result in a singular epiphany that changed everything for me. There wasn’t a light bulb moment when I realized that everything stemmed from some childhood event, or that my “issues” began when a bully threw my Popsicle into the sand box. When I began therapy at the age of 17, though, that’s what I imagined it would be.

During my years of therapy, it was subtle realizations through guided dialogue — not one big AHA! moment — that challenged a lot of my unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, and ultimately, changed my life.

What I thought would be a couple months of counseling turned out to be five years — five years that taught me so much, lessons I’ll never forget.

Therapy was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. And although the impact is still being realized every single day, I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the many ways it has been a positive force in my life.

1. My inner critic isn’t so rough and tough after all.

At first, I didn’t even realize that I had an inner critic, but it became obvious through our conversations that I was incredibly unkind to myself, and had a lot of judgmental thoughts. I was, by far, my own worst critic. Nothing I did seemed quite good enough, and I always had a way of picking apart everything that I did and said. I was putting myself down, and not always in obvious ways. Therapy shed a lot of light on that critic.

The important thing about dealing with a tough inner critic is not silencing it, but rather, getting a dialogue happening, and challenging what’s being said. My therapist would often identify when I was being critical of myself in ways that weren’t fair, and offered a counter-narrative to all of the negative thinking. Overtime, I could anticipate these responses, and the dialogue began to happen in my head.

It was like magic.

I could “catch myself in the act,” and identify when I was being unfair in my self-reflection. And without realizing it, I started to shift the dialogue. I was such a– well, maybe that’s not fair. I was just doing the best that I could…

Eventually, the inner critic, who had manifested as unconquerable and unkind, began to shrink. I began to evaluate myself in a more balanced way. It made a huge difference in my self-esteem and in the choices I made for myself.

2. Coping with mental illness is a learned skill — not an innate one.

I assumed for a long time that, if I didn’t know how to deal with my bipolar now, I would never be able to. What therapy taught me is that coping skills can be learned, and that we aren’t born into this world with every possible resource and skill that we need.

It’s okay if, even after ten years, twenty, even decades of struggling with an illness, you feel stuck. Personal experience, though it is helpful to have, is not the only way that we gain these coping skills. Sometimes these skills are taught, whether we do the learning in therapy, in a support group, reading articles online, or elsewhere.

Living with a disorder doesn’t make you an all-knowing expert, and I wrongly assumed that struggling with the disorder meant that I should inherently know what to do.

Similarly, just because you can drive a car, it doesn’t mean you know how to get to Vancouver. Sometimes you need a map. Sometimes you need directions. Sometimes you need a GPS.

I didn’t know everything there was to know about my disorder, and thank goodness for that.

3. I have triggers, and awareness of those triggers can make a difference.

When I first came into therapy, I was convinced that my moods were random, with no clear cause or catalyst.

Truthfully, I think I was afraid to admit that there were things in my life that were stressing me out; I thought that if there were triggers, or outside factors that influenced my moods, I would be told there was nothing wrong after all and I was just overreacting to life circumstances.

It was my therapist that explained that triggers are an important way of managing the impact of mental illness. If we can identify what exacerbates our moods, we can begin to arrange our lives in a way that limits our exposure to those triggers, and anticipates them whenever possible.

They don’t invalidate the existence of bipolar. Bipolar is often defined by a dysfunctional response to stress, rather than a functional response. Having stress doesn’t undermine bipolar’s existence. I can have triggers and causes for my moods, and still have bipolar.

An example that I mentioned in a previous article: Taking on a huge course load at university has always been a major trigger for me. So I decided, when looking at graduate schools, that I would apply to programs that allowed me to go part-time, or to reduce the amount of classes I took each semester. This made a huge difference for me, and it’s a skill that I learned in therapy.

Once I understood that triggers did not negate the existence of my illness, I could finally identify different factors in my life that would aggravate my depression or mania, and work to mitigate the impact or, in some cases, eliminate the stressor altogether.

4. Safe spaces can make a serious impact on our mental health.

I didn’t know that having a therapist to talk to could make me feel better. I figured that I had friends, really great friends, and that a complete stranger wouldn’t be able to comfort me the way that my loved ones could.

I was wrong about that.

Having someone who doesn’t judge, who offers really solid perspective, and who isn’t emotionally entangled in your life makes therapy a really safe space for many folks. You don’t have to worry about being a burden on your therapist and you don’t have to worry about your “baggage.” You can just put everything on the table, dive into the scary stuff, and leave after an hour knowing that you can resume your normal life, and that what happens in that space will stay in that space.

You can be brutally honest, and the impact doesn’t extend beyond that room.

That being said, it takes a really good therapist to maintain the safety of that space. I lucked out and managed to find a fantastic therapist on the second try. If you feel unsafe, I would encourage you to seek out another therapist — it’s not uncommon to switch a few times before you find the right fit.

5. The worst case scenario doesn’t usually happen, and if it does, it’s not game over.

I had this tendency to catastrophize everything. I assumed the worst possible scenario was going to happen, and that the stakes were much higher than they actually were. Having a therapist to bring me back down to planet earth was one of the best parts of the experience.

My therapist also had a great way of pushing back when I talked about how doomed I was. I remember when I was failing my Spanish class back in undergrad. “And I’ll completely fail if I don’t pass this exam!” I told her, desperate and despondent. She shrugged, looked at me and said something I’ll never forget.

“So what?”

I was speechless. So what? I looked at her and, as if she hadn’t comprehended what I said, I repeated, “I’ll fail!”

“So?”

I began to realize that even the most terrible things I was imagining were not, in actuality, all that terrible. I eventually retook that Spanish class that I did, indeed, fail, and although it was inconvenient, it wasn’t the end of the world. I needed perspective, and therapy offered me that. I began to learn how to tell the difference between what would have a lasting impact on my life, versus what was just a shitty, temporary situation.

And having this kind of perspective made coping with stress a lot easier. Overtime, it wasn’t my therapist saying “so what” — it was me.

6. “Should” is a deceiving word and “should” be banned.

I had a bad habit of using the word “should” where it didn’t belong. I should be doing well in school, I should be graduating on time, I should be a better partner, I should be working more hours, I should be feeling better by now, I should know what I’m doing with my life, etc etc.

I used the word “should” to judge myself and judge where I was in my life, and therapy really brought that into focus for me.

Often times, I made these judgments based on cultural and societal attitudes that dictated how I “should” and “shouldn’t” be living my life. I realized that, in my use of that word, I was relinquishing my happiness and my self-determination. I was succumbing to really dated notions about how young adults, and people in general, should conduct their lives.

I was trying to follow a script that society wrote for me, instead of doing what actually made me happy and healthy. I was prioritizing the judgments and attitudes of others over my own desires.

When I realized the way I was using this word in reference to myself was problematic, I was determined to be more cognizant of the ways in which I measured my success and my happiness. I could graduate on time, but wouldn’t taking more classes jeopardize my mental health? I could be a better partner,  maybe, but isn’t it true that I’m doing the best I can? I could get straight A’s, but why is that important in the first place?

The word “should” also has this tendency of placing things in an “all or nothing” sort of framework. I was either doing it right, or doing it wrong. Life is much more complicated than that.

When I heard myself “should” and “shouldn’t”-ing myself, I learned to push against that, and think critically about where those judgments were coming from.

7. It’s not “attention seeking.” It’s trying not to disappear.

When I came into therapy, I, like many folks, was nearing rock bottom. I wasn’t looking to “recover” because it never crossed my mind that that was possible in the first place. At that time, I believed that I would die in the next three years.

I just wanted someone to listen to me, and validate that what I was going through wasn’t make-believe. I wanted someone to acknowledge that my pain was real.

And of course, that validation happened, and it was powerful. Someone finally saw me. I didn’t feel invisible anymore.

I’ve been accused, as many folks with mental illnesses have been, of “playing the victim,” “complaining too much,” or “trying to get attention.” But these illnesses seek to make us shells of ourselves, threaten to eat us alive. Every day we nearly disappear beneath the stigma, the shame, and the agony. And we question our sense of reality, wondering if we still exist beneath all of the pain.

And if I did something to make my pain visible? To be known? To be seen? It was an attempt at saving my own life, before I disappeared, before no one could reach me or help me.

I don’t believe it’s “seeking attention” so much as it is trying not to disappear. And I believe that it’s a show of strength and not weakness. And through therapy, I came to realize that what others labelled “attention seeking” were genuine displays of courage.

Once my pain was visible, and someone took the time to acknowledge that I was suffering, it was only then that I began to heal. Trying not to disappear is a survival instinct. And that’s what folks with mental illnesses are trying to do — survive.

8. I am not my illness.

Bipolar was the only thing I knew for such a long time, so much so that aspects of the disorder appeared to me like aspects of my personality, intrinsic characteristics that I would always have.

I assumed, for instance, that I was just a negative, cynical person, rather than understanding I was depressed. I thought my rapid thoughts and grandiose ideas were just my whacky creative self, instead of indications of mania. I thought the constant worry I felt was “just stress,” instead of it being very serious generalized anxiety.

And while someone can be negative and cynical without it being a disorder, or filled with worry and grandiose thoughts, the big difference is that these aspects of my experience led to an enormous amount of dysfunction in my life. I also realized, after going through therapy and getting treatment, that these “quirks” had disappeared.

I emerged on the other side of therapy and treatment as an optimistic, generally upbeat, sincere person — rather than the sarcastic, bitter, depressed, occasionally “wild” and reckless person I was prior.

I got to know myself for the very first time, without the illness as a mask or a barrier that didn’t allow me to see myself clearly. I was able to realize who I was apart from this illness — and that the illness didn’t define me, but rather, I defined myself. It was empowering to realize that I was someone separate from my struggles.

It was like encountering an old friend — a familiar and beautiful reunion. I was shocked as I began to learn new things about myself, and realized that who I was prior to treatment was not at all the same as who I was after treatment.

I truly believe, having gone through this experience of self-exploration and discovery, that this is who I was supposed to be all along. That’s the power of therapy, I think. We don’t just learn about the illness — we learn about what endures when you take that pain away.

And of everything I learned in therapy, I am most in awe of the fact that what endures beyond the pain is someone who is so much more vibrant, and so much stronger than I ever thought possible.

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