In this episode, Janice shares about her experiences doing therapy: 1) What compelled her to do therapy in the first place; 2) what it’s been like to work with the different therapists she's had, including the differences doing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) versus trauma therapy with a mind-body approach; 3) what about certain therapists turned her off or made for a not-good fit; and 4) what has been helpful in therapy and even really critical in her healing journey.
Throughout the episode, Janice shares some thoughts on both the stigma and privilege around doing therapy, and acknowledges how uncomfortable it can be to start talking to a therapist! She also shares some general things to consider when exploring therapy, including her thoughts on different types of talk therapy, a therapist’s effectiveness being impacted by their own personal therapy work, and building trust with a new therapist.
This episode is part 4 of an ongoing series on healing trauma.
*Please note that Janice is not a trauma expert or therapist, and that this series shares about her one personal experience of learning about and healing trauma.
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Hey y’all welcome back to the show. I’m your host Janice, and this episode on doing therapy is going to be a long one, ‘cause I have some shit to say, so grab your coffee, put this on during your long drive to wherever or just sit back and relax.
And also, please remember that you can pause this at any point, come back to it entirely another day, especially if your body is telling you, hey, I need a break from listening to this person talk about therapy and trauma. And I will bring up some things related to childhood trauma and other experiences that brought me to therapy, so please do take care of yourselves while you listen in.
Alright, that being said I’m really happy to be doing this particular episode, because we have spent the last few episodes talking about how trauma, how we can continue to get evoked in present-day situations by our past wounds. And today we are going to finally start diving into the trauma-healing part of the journey and exploring that question of: What can we actually do to move forward from some of those impacts of trauma that we may have experienced and may still continue to experience in the present?
And we are starting this part of the series, where we talk about various healing practices, tools, and approaches, with the topic of doing therapy.
So, a disclaimer before we dive in. As I have emphasized several times on the pod and in this series, what I share here is my one unique experience both in terms of the specific adverse experiences I’ve been through in my life, as well as the specific healing journey I’ve been on thus far. And there’s so much I don’t even know yet in terms of all the healing practices and modalities that are out there, because there really is so much.
And I don’t believe the goal is to know everything, or to try everything, because personally I think that’s pretty much impossible given how many different techniques, tools, frameworks, etc, are out there now – and how much time it can really take to just even work with any one of those modalities on a deep enough level where we’re really seeing the positive, long-term effects.
But the point here is to please remember that this is my one personal experience, and what works for me might not be what works for or resonates with you. Also, I am not a trauma expert or a therapist, so what I share here isn’t meant to be professional advice. But I am an expert in my own life and healing journey. And I’m simply here to share my personal experiences with you all, because I really value normalizing the conversation around things like mental health and trauma and healing.
Overview of the Healing Trauma series
So, I want to give you a quick overview on the rest of this Healing Trauma series before I jump into talking about therapy, just so you have an idea of what’s coming up, but also so you can start to get the sense of how holistic and complex that healing journey can really be.
That is my perspective, as someone who has gone through developmental, complex, relational, intergenerational, and other forms of trauma, and has experienced the impacts of those on so many different levels of myself as an individual and then in my life more broadly. My perspective is that that very complex set of impacts requires a complex or holistic approach to healing. It’s not just one thing, there is no one magic bullet or quick fix.
Okay, so in my next solo episode – because I will be having some guests on – I’ll share about my experiences with healing trauma at the somatic or body level, and why reconnecting with our body and our internal experiences can be so important in this healing work. And emotions are really tied into that as well, because emotions are certainly experienced in our body, but I’ll be doing a separate episode on emotions and building the capacity to regulate our emotions, and all of that.
And in the episode after that, I’ll get more into the mind and things like our learned identities and thoughts that can become impacted by trauma, and how therefore healing at that level can then also be really important. And in that episode, I really want to bring the mind-body connection piece together, because for me, that has been one of the most transformational things in my healing thus far – to not just focus on the mind and the way we think as separate from the body, to not just focus on the body aspect alone, but really learning how to bring all of it together.
And in the episode after that, I will talk about certain coping mechanisms that we often turn to in an attempt to relieve ourselves of the pain, the disconnection, that can come along with experiencing trauma, but oftentimes in and of themselves become problematic in our lives, in our relationships, etc. And if you’ve been here with me on the pod, you’ll know that, for me, drinking alcohol was a really big go-to coping mechanism. But there’s other things too, so we’ll get into that.
And then, I will talk about healing in relationships and community, because we can do all the work we want to on ourselves, but we don’t exist in a bubble, right? And the relational dynamics we are in, and whatever is happening in our broader community or even globally, will impact us.
And I really do believe that an important aspect of healing – especially if you have been through developmental, complex, and/or relational trauma – is to heal in the context of a relationship or relationships. I often now put quotation marks around the terms “self-development” and “self-work” because while we might be doing a lot of that internal work as part of our healing, it’s really not the whole picture.
And finally, I’ll do a last episode where I just debrief on this whole series, really emphasize some key takeaways, as well as some overall benefits that I’ve experienced doing this trauma-healing work, because I know that this might all be a lot to take in and process.
And as I mentioned, woven into all of these episodes, are going to be a few guest episodes. You know, I really wanted to have at least a couple of guests joining me in this series to share about their own trauma-healing journeys, and I am centering the voices of individuals who identify as Asian women as part of that, and I’m just so excited to bring you those conversations.
So, there’s a lot coming up, and it’s gonna be a really long series – I have no idea why I thought I could do this all in three episodes. But that’s okay if it ends up taking up most of this season of the podcast, because this is really what’s taken up most of my personal healing journey over the past three plus years, so I’m really happy to talk about it and share what I feel comfortable sharing. And I really hope that you do get something out of it and maybe feel less alone in your own journey.
An overview of my experiences doing therapy
All right, let’s dive into the topic of doing therapy. And I got some really great questions on Instagram from folks who had some wonderings about therapy, so I’m going to answer those as best as I can, and from my own personal experience, during this episode.
I’m going to share why I felt I needed therapy in the first place. And what it’s been like to work with the different therapists I’ve had, including the differences I’ve experienced doing the more CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, style of counselling versus a more trauma therapy, mind-body approach. And I will explain what all of that jargony stuff means in this episode.
I will also talk about what hasn’t been helpful or what about certain therapists really turned me off and just didn’t work for me. And I’ll share what has been helpful in therapy and even really critical in my healing journey. And lastly, I’ll talk about just more general things to maybe consider or keep in mind if you are thinking of doing therapy; things that have really helped me in my own therapy journey and will hopefully be helpful to you.
Why did I decide to do therapy?
Okay so first off, what compelled me to seek therapy in the first place? What issues or challenges were I facing in my life, where I was like, I really need professional help to get through this or to change things?
Now, if you have been listening to this podcast for a while, I probably don’t even need to explain why here, because I have definitely shared about a lot of those issues, those traumas, those life challenges in past episodes. But in case this is the first time you’re listening in, some of those challenges have included: experiencing developmental and relational trauma where I experienced a lack of attunement, a sense of really being seen and unconditionally accepted for who I am within my family context.
Again, I will keep repeating this: I really love my parents, I really believe they did the best they could given their capacities at the time; and I can also hold at the same time, that many things that happened growing up had an adverse impact on me, and contributed to a very deeply ingrained sense of not being safe in my relationships, and of feeling that I didn’t belong in this world or with others, and that I wasn’t worthy of having my needs met. And that’s been really important for me to just name and become aware of, so that I have come to a better understanding of what it is that I even need to heal and what I can bring up in therapy as something I want to work on.
So, that’s a big one, which I really have come to understand more recently. Other life challenges that were really present in my life for many years included being in really shitty relationships, one after another, that were essentially just re-traumatizing me and reinforcing certain patterns and beliefs that were keeping me stuck in these cycles of distress. Abusing alcohol – which I’ve talked a lot about in various episodes in both seasons of the podcast. I had terrible insomnia for many years.
I was in really unstable, sometimes even unsafe, housing situations for many years. I went through a lot of financial struggles, particularly starting when I was a teeanger, and then continuing after I moved out of my family’s home as soon as I graduated high school and now I had to completely support myself. And looking back now, at the age of almost 39, I’m like, I was still a kid at that time. But I had so much conflict within my family home during high school, and I really felt that the only way my family relationships were going to survive was for me to leave.
I experienced a lot of sadness and what was probably mild depression – although, of course, it didn’t feel mild to me at all; I just mean mild in relation to the diagnosis of major clinical depression. I experienced a lot of anger when I was a teenager, but I now realize that I had unconsciously learned to really shut down that anger – and I’ll be talking more about that in my episode on emotions, and how I’ve been rekindling my relationship with my anger, because anger in and of itself is healthy emotion and really helps us identify our boundaries.
And some of the ways I had come to view myself, oftentimes at a really subconscious level, was to feel like I did not belong, even with my closest groups of friends, certainly not in my family. I had for many years felt like I didn’t even truly belong on this planet. I felt like I was the problem child; I always referred to myself as the black sheep. I was the one causing chaos in the home with my emotional outbursts and rebellious behaviour.
I felt at a very deep level, even though I might not have always been conscious of it, that I was unworthy of being loved, that I was never going to be good enough for someone I was in a relationship with, which left me feeling very, very insecure and always terrified of being abandoned.
And there's probably more things to add, but I’ll just cap it there so we can move on to talking about how I have addressed some of those things through therapy.
So, just to give y’all a really quick overview of my personal experience with therapy: I have had three therapists in my life with whom I have done more than one session with. There were a couple of others who I just did an initial session with, and that was it.
And overall, taking all my therapy experiences together, I can say that I have found therapy to be helpful for me. But as I reflect back now, I can very clearly see how certain therapists and certain types of therapeutic approaches were more effective than others for my personal healing. So I’m gonna talk about all that right now.
Seeing a counselor in high school
So first off, I actually apparently saw a counselor when I was 19. And I don’t have any recollection of that now, the only reason I know it happened was because I found a journal entry about it. And what I wrote was: "I’m going to a counselling place next Monday to see if I can find someone to talk to. I know I have a lot of issues that I haven’t wanted to face for a long time. ... I’m scared, I feel weak, but I know I have to try for my own sake."
So at the time, I was at the end of those many years of conflict at home. I was about to move out shortly after I wrote that journey entry. I was already into using alcohol as a coping mechanism and developing an addiction to it. As I mentioned, I didn't have good experiences with guys. I was financially unstable. I was depressed. I cried a lot.
And it’s interesting to me that I knew at that age and at a time when therapy wasn’t as big a thing as it is now that counseling was maybe something that’d be good for me. And I was curious to know what I ended up learning in that counselling session, but the only thing I wrote afterward was: "Counselling was okay. [The counsellor] was really nice. We talked a lot about rebellion vs. self-confidence."
My first therapist: Mismatched personalities
So, the next time therapy came up for me was many, many years later. I was 27. A former professor who I had become friends with, and who I had shared some of my struggles with – like, having recently been in a really verbally and emotionally abusive relationship. And now that I was in a new relationship, I was really struggling with trust issues, which I had had with guys for so many years, even though this new partner was really wonderful, very secure and kind and all that stuff. And this professor suggested I do therapy and get some help, and I was really open to that idea.
So, I think I had a mostly positive view of therapy and counseling, because I did my undergrad in sociology and criminology, and then a Master’s in Criminology. So, this idea of counseling and therapy and mental illness and all of that stuff became really normalized for me through my studies, and then most definitely through my work in the criminal justice field, which is very interconnected with social justice issues, with community services.
And the issue of there being stigma around these topics was something I learned about fairly early on, so I had a critical lens on that stigma and the silence that often surrounds the topic of mental health. And I’m really grateful for my education and work experience, because otherwise I think the idea of therapy would have maybe taken more getting used to.
So, anyways, this professor actually recommended a therapist he knew, and I went to see her for a first session. And I want to speak to one of the questions I got on Instagram, which was: From your experience, did it take many sessions with the therapist to figure out if you found a right match? And in general, in answering that question from my own personal experience, It has really depended. But in this specific case, I felt after that very first session that this was not going to work out. And for me, it was mostly based on what I felt was a huge personality mismatch.
So, I remember coming into her office, and she kinda like immediately backed up into the wall or like her desk that was against a wall, and her body language just read to me as so uninviting. And I remember when I was speaking with her, I still felt this bit of a wall up, and like I had to be really proper, maybe because she was an older lady, and because of her own mannerisms.
And at the end of it, I was like, if I can’t say the word “fuck” to my therapist, I don’t think it’s gonna work. And it’s not so much that I have this crazy need to swear. But I saw that as a reflection of my discomfort in being able to really express my true self. And yes, swearing is one of the ways I express myself and my feelings. But in general, I felt like there was this really big wall that just seemed it would take so much effort to break down. So I never went back after that.
Now, if I had given it another try, who knows? Maybe she would have turned out to be the best therapist ever. With my current therapist, who I love, I also didn’t necessarily feel a hundred percent sure and at complete ease the first time I met her. There was that bit of awkwardness. There was me not fully knowing, can I trust this person? Can I be really comfortable with her?
So with her, determining that she was actually a great fit for me took a little longer. But not that long, I’d say. Maybe just two or three sessions, even. And then, of course, I’ve been with her now for almost three years now, so the nature of that relationship has grown and changed a lot.
Anyways, with this lady that I couldn’t swear with, I think because money was such an issue for me, I didn’t really have the luxury to just spend hundreds of dollars on doing sessions just to keep trying and hoping it’d somehow work out. I wanted to have at least a moderately strong sense from the get-go that this was someone who, yeah, I’d have to spend time building more of a relationship with, but it was someone who I could at least imagine eventually sharing my deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings with. And it just wasn’t there at all.
And you know, I think something really important I want to just emphasize is that if you do feel that you’re not clicking with a therapist that you see, whether it’s that first session or the fifth session or whatever, that that’s not uncommon at all – and it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that therapy is ineffective altogether.
In my mind, what creates a good match with a therapist can depend on multiple things. Such as the personality piece of it, as I just talked about. Also, gender, race, those kinds of things can absolutely play a role, even if it’s at a subconscious level – you know, a person of colour may feel way more comfortable speaking with a therapist who is also a person of colour, or even more specifically of the same race or culture. Whereas, a person of colour working with a white therapist may be impacted by that difference, because inherent in that relationship, before anything is even said, a power dynamic that’s going to be present.
That’s just the way it works in these systems of oppression, right? Same thing can be said gender-wise – personally, at this point in my life and journey I don’t know that I’d feel as comfortable speaking with a male therapist versus a female one. That’s just me. It might be completely different for other folks. And all of these different factors intersect with each other, so it really is an individual, case-by-case basis.
And I also think that another factor that can influence whether a therapist is a good match is the type of therapeutic modality they have trained in and therefore use in their approach to working with clients. And I’ll get more into this later on.
My second therapist: Therapists aren't a blank slate
Now, moving along, my next therapist was a man. And I think I saw him not too long after the lady therapist. And at that time, I had finally landed a job that paid me a salary and came with benefits. And as part of those benefits, I had some money that I could put toward a limited amount of therapy sessions. So I decided to use those benefits and do therapy, because I had a lot of issues that had still gone unresolved and I wanted to address.
And I want to take a moment to just acknowledge that therapy is absolutely a privilege to be able to access. Therapy is in general quite expensive for a lot of people. And given that therapy really is meant to be a longer-term thing – certainly not a one-session cure, and now all your problems are solved – it takes time, and therefore, several, sometimes many, sessions.
And for someone to have benefits in their workplace that enable them to access therapy where all or most of it gets covered, that’s a privilege too, to just even have that kind of job. I worked in jobs for many, many years where there were no benefits of any kind, including paid sick days and vacation days. And I would have most definitely sought therapy way sooner than I did, if I had those benefits, because I did not have money to pay out of pocket.
And it’s really unfortunate that a lot of people who might need therapy the most are oftentimes the ones who have a lot of obstacles in accessing that type of care. And so, I’m always really careful to not just say as a blanket statement that people should do therapy. Even if I believe that therapy has the potential to help every individual, if it’s the right fit, if it’s the right timing, people may not have the financial means to access therapy, and so I think it’s important to be sensitive to that.
But anyhow, I do also want to just point out that your workplace might provide you with these benefits. And it’s not something to feel guilty about, because of what I just said, but I’m pointing it out in case maybe you didn’t even realize that. It could be an avenue to check out, if therapy is something you’re curious about.
Now, this next therapist, I found through a Google search, and on his website he said that he worked really quickly with his clients, something like, I don’t know, three to four sessions, and he was super direct and got straight into the heart of the problem, and got to the solutions quickly.
So, because I had a limited number of sessions I could do with my benefits, I was like okay, great. I’m gonna see this guy so I can get the most bang for my buck. Which, of course, in hindsight, I realize that my particular issues and healing things like developmental trauma, complex trauma, that takes way more than just three to four sessions.
But anyways, at that point, I still had a whole host of issues, some of which I’ve mentioned, that I was still dealing with. But I was like, what’s just one thing I can focus on right now, because there’s no way I can work on all of them at once. And so one thing I brought up with this therapist is that I had been having these recurring intrusive thoughts where I would have these violent imaginings, almost like daydreams, but they’d often just sneak up on me very sporadically throughout my day, and I’d suddenly be off in space thinking about some violent scenario where I was either being killed or assaulted or pushed in front of a train.
And I believe I actually shared about this way back in Season 1, Episode 3, which was about courage and fear. And obviously these were pretty distressing and disturbing thoughts on one hand, and I’d go through all of the physiological fight/flight/freeze responses in my body while I was imagining these violent scenarios, and feeling those intense associated emotions, but there was something about me continuously turning to these violent daydreams that was clearly doing something for me. Because sometimes I would even choose to think about them.
And so I felt that this therapist actually did give me a helpful way to approach and look at this situation. Instead of just simply viewing myself as being totally messed up for imagining such disturbing shit. But he kind of opened up an alternative perspective, in turning my attention to the possibility that there was some underlying reason for me having those thoughts. And I came to observe, through doing homework that he had assigned me, that every time I had one of those intrusive violent thoughts, that would be preceded by some kind of experience or thought that made me feel insecure or ashamed or a sense of low self-worth.
And, to be honest, I can’t remember if we really talked about what the explicit connection there was. But I think for a long time I assumed that me, say, dying in my violent daydream was a way for me to escape those feelings of shame. That there was still some kind of feeling – I don’t know of relief or control, perhaps – that I got to somehow have imagining those scenarios.
And I do think this is one of the ways in which therapy can be helpful, which is to just open our minds to different possibilities when it comes to the very ingrained negative stories and beliefs and ways of seeing ourselves that we’ve carried around with us for so many years that aren’t actually based in reality, but might have developed due to trauma and feel very real to us.
And so, therapy can be a space where we might be able to share about some of these very deep, sometimes painful feelings and beliefs that we often go through alone, and clutch closely to our chests because it’s too hard to talk about with others.
And in that therapeutic space, we might find we are able to let someone else in, to help shoulder that load, to really listen to our burdens with compassion and non-judgment, and then to perhaps offer a different way of viewing the things we’re going through, as well as different ways to maybe approach things when challenges come up, when we get triggered or activated by past stuff, as we talked all about in the last episode.
Now, I did only do a few sessions with this therapist. And I can’t remember if it was because I ran out of my benefits, or if it was something else. But something happened that has made me look back at this therapist in not such a great light. And that is that at one point in a session, I mentioned to him my mom’s religion, and he said something like, “Well, no wonder blah, blah, blah,” like something really critical toward her and how that now explained why I had certain problematic family dynamics.
Now, it is the case that I have been through lots of challenges around the issue of religion within my family. But for my therapist to say that about my mom in the way he did, and he kind of kept bringing it up in this very dismissive, almost sarcastic kind of way, and that was a big “no” for me. That really broke my trust in him and made me shut down. I mean, you’re still talking about my mom, dude. And me, as her daughter, I am going to have a biological pull to feel defensive about her and shut down in wanting to talk about her in the future with my therapist. Which is really not conducive to my healing.
And maybe other therapists wouldn’t go so far as to blatantly reveal their biases the way he did, but this is a great example and reminder that therapists are absolutely human. They are not this neutral, blank slate where they take in whatever you say and then they respond in this completely impartial manner that is solely informed on like untainted research and therapeutic knowledge.
Like, no – therapists absolutely have their biases that come from their own experiences, their own traumas, their personal perspectives and beliefs, from the privileged and oppressed identities they hold, and so on. And all of these things express themselves in one way or another, however explicit or implicit. It is a big reason why it is so important for a therapist to be doing their own therapy work, including, I would argue, their own anti-racism and anti-bias work.
Because there is no way that you can really do anything meaningful about them, unless you are actively working on that shit, and becoming aware of your biases, your triggers, your traumas, and the ways in which they tend to express themselves in unconscious ways.
And so, one thing I really wanted to say is that if you have ever been in, or ever find yourself in, a situation with a therapist where you feel like they said something that really hit you the wrong way, or the way they treat you doesn’t sit right, I just want to say that it very well could be that it’s because that therapist in fact did or is doing something that is causing harm, even if they don’t mean to intentionally, and I’m sure that oftentimes it isn’t intentional at all.
But I think this is important to note, because sometimes we can have this perception that therapists are above us. That they know best. That they are experts. And so if we’re having an off reaction to something in that therapeutic relationship, it must mean something about us. And no, your off feelings about the situation are absolutely worth exploring and getting curious about.
It might be that the therapist is not a great therapist, period. Unfortunately, those do exist. It could be that the therapist hasn’t worked through some of their own shit and that’s now coming up in how they interact with their clients. It could be that they’re human and they made a mistake, and maybe it’s something that’s redeemable, forgivable, and only you can decide whether it’s something worth bringing up to them and working through. Or if you just walk away and find someone else.
My third therapist: CBT over the phone
Alright, next therapist. So this guy was someone I accessed through an employee assistance program at another workplace. I was 32 at the time and going through a really stressful work situation; I was, according to my journal, feeling pessimistic about the future. And so this was also a form of benefits I could access being a staff there, and I think the way these EAPs work is that the workplace has some kind of plan or contract with a company that provides access to a pool of counsellors for the workplace’s employees.
And so, I decided to use it and got connected with a therapist. And the interesting thing with this therapy experience was that I did it over the phone. I never met this therapist, never even saw him through a video call or anything. And I was kinda skeptical about doing it that way. I thought, no, it has to be in-person. But I found that doing therapy over the phone was an acceptable option, and that I could still form a therapeutic relationship with this person.
And because I was so busy at that time and had really long commutes to and from work, being able to just talk by phone in whatever location I was in – like, sometimes I’d actually have a shorter therapy sesh from my office at work – was really convenient for me and actually guaranteed that I would even do therapy.
And this therapist had more of a cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, approach. And let me just a give brief description of CBT, because this is a very popular approach in the therapeutic field, so it’s quite likely that you might come across it. So, CAMH, the Center for Addiction and Mental Health here in Toronto, says that CBT is a practical, short-term form of psychotherapy where clients learn to identify, question and change the thoughts, attitudes and beliefs related to the emotional and behavioural reactions that cause them difficulty.
So, if you listened to my past couple of episodes, you’ll know that this is taking a top-down approach to healing. Starts at the top because we’re focusing first on the mind, the specific thoughts we’re having, and working at that level in order to affect change downward, to the emotions, and then the physical sensations, right?
So, the idea is that if we can change these distorted, negative, or perhaps anxious thoughts in our minds, if we can work on replacing them with different thoughts through these various cognitive exercises that CBT teaches, then we’ll be able to alleviate some of those disruptive or painful emotions we’re experiencing and come to a place of nervous system regulation – basically, just feel calmer in our bodies instead of feeling like we’re in a state of emergency.
So, this therapist, as I wrote in my journal at the time, helped me become more aware of the "cognitive distortions" I had been frequently experiencing. So, these really pessimistic feelings about the future – that things are going to fuck up eventually, I’m going to end up getting hurt, that type of thinking – as well as these scenarios I’d conjure up in my head of a certain real-life situations ending up really badly without "any evidence."
And it sounds like from my journal entries that I definitely found some of it helpful. I wrote about one of my therapy sessions in my journal, where I said, “I recounted the week’s events and of course, as expected, he [my therapist] talked me down from being all doomsday and gave me motivation to not dwell on the uncontrollable.”
And interestingly, he had brought to my awareness something I hadn’t really thought about much before, which was how much of what I did, thought, and felt might have to do with me needing validation. And that it was possibly the case that I might actually feel that I deserved being shut down or invalidated, as I had been experiencing in some situations at the time. And so, I think some good awareness pieces happened with this therapist.
I can’t remember why I stopped working with him. It very well may have been because my time at that job ended, it’s all a bit of a haze. But that was my experience with him. And looking back, it was mostly positive, but I definitely still had a lot of recurring issues and unhealed traumas leaving that therapeutic experience.
My fourth/current therapist: Healing in relationship and through a mind-body approach
Okay, so I will finish off my therapy story by telling you about my current therapist. And then I’ll wrap up this episode with some general considerations about therapy that might be helpful if therapy is something you’re interested in.
So, my current therapist has been the most life-changing one for me. She has really provided me with the type of care and support that I have needed to experience the most healing in my life thus far. She is amazing. She is so highly skilled in what she does. And I am just so, so grateful I get to work with her.
So, I mentioned in the first episode of this healing trauma series that I started therapy with this therapist a few months after I had been diving into the trauma education, and as part of that revisiting past traumatic events, and crashing pretty hard doing it all by myself. So, this was mid-2018 when I finally reached out for some professional guidance, now knowing that I really needed to work with a therapist who understood trauma specifically and could help me on that level.
I had also learned at this point all the things I shared in the past couple episodes about the nervous system, and how much the body is involved in the development of trauma and the reinforcement of our trauma responses. And so, I also wanted a therapist who was able to address that piece too. Not just what was happening in my mind, as my past therapists had really focused on, but someone who could help me with the somatic or body aspect of healing as well.
So, I think I just did a Google search for trauma therapists in Vancouver, where I lived at the time. I came across my therapist’s website. I popped onto her Instagram channel, which I’ve mentioned at least a couple times on the podcast – @traumaawarecare – a really amazing resource, I highly recommend it.
And seeing what she posted on her Instagram channel actually really helped me decide that she was someone I think I wanted to work with. She seemed to really understand complex trauma; all the things I had been reading about, learning about, was reflected in her posts; she had some of the most comforting, validating posts for trauma survivors. But she also spoke out about oppression and other social justice issues that absolutely intersect with mental health and the therapeutic world, and I could see that she had done her own work, which was important to me.
So, I feel so grateful that I ended up working with her. I know now she has a waitlist, otherwise I’d refer everyone I know to her. And aside from I think taking a few months break from therapy near the beginning of my time with her, I’ve been seeing her fairly consistently. And after I left Vancouver, I continued working with her through video calls, and have pretty much been doing sessions once a month now.
So, I want to talk about a few ways in which I have really benefited from working with my current therapist, and why it’s been this particular therapy experience that has been the most transformative for me.
First, through my relationship with her, where she has been an attuned, grounded, loving, validating, safe presence for me, I have been able to repair and heal a lot of the traumas I experienced in my past relationships. This goes back to what I said at the beginning, that when we have had developmental trauma, relational trauma, attachment trauma – which all happens in the context of relationships – then our healing has to at least partly happen in relationship where we get to experience a healthy, loving, secure, attuned attachment that we may not have had growing up or throughout our various relationships.
And so, this is something that is often talked about in the trauma education, that this relational piece is a really big role of a therapist in a person’s healing. And, you know, it might possibly be the first time that that individual has had the opportunity to learn, at a somatic/body/nervous system level, how to self-soothe or self-regulate when challenging situations and feelings are coming up for me – which really just means that when we are thrown into that fight-flight-freeze survival response that we’ve been talking about in this series, because something stressful comes up in our lives, that we have the capacity and resiliency within us to move through that, to be with the uncomfortable sensations and feelings that might come up without getting totally overwhelmed by them or shutting down or turning to our go-to coping mechanisms that are actually causing more harm than good, to know that this is temporary, and that it doesn’t ultimately mean something bad about us.
And it might also possibly be the first time that we’re in relationship with someone who truly validates our emotions, who accepts and even welcomes the full range of humanity that is us, even in our sadness, and our anger, and our despair, and with all of our so-called faults that are really just what makes us human. And it might be the first time we really and truly feel safe with an attached other. And as Susan McConnell says in the book Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy, and I've heard this said elsewhere many times over, "Safety creates the environment for change to happen in the client's system."
And these are all critical steps in our biological development as children, something we are supposed to learn through our primary caregivers being really connected to us and attuned to our needs, of being there to soothe us when we’re in distress. And it’s through this consistent attunement that we learn how to regulate our nervous systems and develop a sense that all is well in the world, that we can be safe and connected in relationships. That when I’m in distress, and I cry out to express my needs, I am going to be responded to, and I am going to be taken care of.
The book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk says that: “As we grow up, we gradually learn to take care of ourselves, both physically and emotionally, but we get our first lessons in self-care from the way that we are cared for.” And it goes on to say that, “Mastering the skill of self-regulation depends to a large degree on how harmonious our early interactions with our caregivers are.”
And unfortunately, many of us don’t get that harmonious experience, and what happens when there is that chronic misattunement – or worse, sometimes abuse – is that we shut down our needs, we might tend to get really overwhelmed by our emotions, because we never learned how to tolerate them, we might stay in a constant state of stress or hypervigilance, as I talked about in the last episode, we may not have the capacity to be with our intense physical sensations and feelings because we were never guided in learning what they meant and how to be with them and move through them. And there’s a lot of other consequences that can come from that early misattunement.
And so, in my experience with my current therapist, I have essentially been learning what was missing for me as a child. Completing that part of development that should have led to a secure attachment, where I would learn how to regulate big emotions, develop the kind of connection I needed as a child, develop a sense of agency. I really did not have that deep sense of agency and control over my internal state for so much of my life. And I’ve been able to basically start filling in those developmental gaps through my work in therapy, which is 100% still a work in progress. But I’ve already experienced so much change in that regard, so much more deep empowerment, and so it makes me hopeful for the future.
And so, this speaks to another really big way that I’ve benefited from working with my current therapist, which is that she does take the approach of attending to both what's happening in my body and my mind, and really taking into account my whole experience, not just what's happening with my thoughts and behaviours, which is what other approaches like CBT focus on.
So, with my current therapist, it was the first time that I started learning how to connect what was happening in my mind with what was happening in my body, and vice versa. Our conversations in therapy sound Very different from the way my past therapists would guide the conversation. With them, they would never pause in the conversation to ask something like, “What is that bringing up for you in your body?” “Where do you feel that in your body?” “What do you think your body might be saying to you?”
And my current therapist does help me bring my awareness to the physical sensations that might be coming up in my body as I talk about something that's distressing or activating, and helps me to make sense of it, to also expand my window of tolerance for being with intense emotions, and through that process, there's also a lot of stuck survival stress energy that gets released. Because these things that I have stuffed so deep inside my body are finally getting a chance to flow and be seen and heard within a really safe space.
And because I know this episode is getting really long, I will talk much more in a couple of episodes about why cultivating that deeper connection with what’s happening in our bodies, and really coming to understand our internal experience at that somatic level, can be so important for healing trauma. So stay tuned for that.
For now, I would just reiterate what I’ve been saying many times over in this podcast, that sometimes just staying at the level of the mind and our thoughts is not going to be the whole picture. And I would say from everything I’ve learned about developmental trauma, complex trauma, that if that’s something you’ve experienced and are still being impacted by, it’s probably going to take more than just the top-down approach, where the focus is more on the thoughts, but also include a bottom-up approach, where there’s also that focus on reconnecting with our body’s internal experience in order to affect our emotions and then therefore our thoughts and behaviours.
And the last bit I’ll say about my therapist is that I’ve really benefited from the knowledge and resources she has passed onto me through our time together. Her recommendations for books are always really amazing, when I’ve talked about my feelings of not belonging, or when I’ve been going through grief, or the Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy book has been a huge one. I personally do a lot of like self-study or learning on my own, and it does make a difference which resources you're tapping into.
And she has also helped me to make sense of some of the trauma psychoeducation that I might come across but not completely understand, and talking it through with her to clarify things has been really valuable. And of course, there has been a lot of awareness and change at the level of my thoughts that I’ve gained through working with her that have really helped to reframe some of those distorted ways of thinking that I have held onto for so long.
But I do think it’s really been the quality of the therapeutic relationship I have had with her, and being able to heal a lot of my developmental and relational traumas within that relationship, that has been the most profound thing. And I have definitely heard and read about from various trauma educators and therapists that the most important thing that determines the success of therapy is the quality of the therapeutic relationship between the client and therapist, more so than the actual therapeutic modality. So that might be something to keep in mind if you are exploring therapy.
Other considerations if you want to explore therapy
And this is a good segue to get into the final part of this episode, which is just going to be a few considerations that I think could be helpful to think about if you’re exploring therapy. I’m also going to answer a couple of questions from Instagram. Again, just my one take.
Type of therapy
So one consideration is that there are many different types of therapies out there. Thais Sky just did an awesome 5-part series on her podcast RECLAIM called “Talk Therapy: How to Get the Help You Need” – I’ll link to that in the show notes. And I really recommend tuning in, because she really illuminates just how many different types of talk therapy there are. And she also gives some really great food for thought when it comes to finding a therapist, and things to consider.
But I will just say that looking back now, I personally think that doing a bit of research into at least some of the different types of therapies out there and understanding how that translates into the way a therapist might work with their clients, and how that may or may not fit with your personal situation and what you want to work on, can be helpful before you just kind of go with anyone because they have the title therapist and happen to work with, say, anxiety or depression or whatever is listed on their website of things they help their clients with, and is maybe something you want to work on.
And this speaks to one of the questions I got on Instagram, which was: How to stop the mental chatter." And in response, I would say that there’s different ways that that same challenge might be addressed depending on the therapist's orientation. And so a therapist who does CBT, for example, is probably going to offer a process where you really focus in on those recurring thoughts you’re having, you go through some very practical, structured steps on examining them, maybe reframing them, with the intention that going through those steps is going to help make your mind “calm down.”
And, of course, it also depends on what that mental chatter is about, right? But others that do take a more integrated mind-body approach may work with you on actually bringing more awareness to the internal experience that's happening in your body when you’re unable to shut off the mental chatter. Because so much of the time, what is going on in our minds is very much affected by what’s happening in our bodies, as I have mentioned.
Therapist doing their own work
Okay, so another consideration. One of the things Thais Sky says in her podcast, and that I have heard from many other trauma educators and therapists that I trust, is that a critical thing that is needed for a therapist to be effective in helping their clients is to have done their own therapy.
And so, Thais recommends asking this of any therapists you’re considering to work with. A lot of times therapists will do a free consultation, maybe a short one over the phone, to make sure they can help you with your particular issue, and that’s an opportunity to ask them questions to see if they might be a good fit for you.
And so, I 150% agree with Thais, to ask about the therapist being in their own therapy. I mean, I don't know what is an acceptable amount of therapy a therapist should have done per se. But I think just seeing how they answer that question and how comfortable or reassuring it makes you feel might be a sign. You could also ask how they feel their own therapy experience has translated into helping their clients, and see if their answer makes sense to you. Just some ideas.
And I find it mind-blowing that there are actually some therapists out there who haven’t really done their own inner work, or like a sufficient amount of it. Like, that almost feels unethical to me, and at the very least, I don’t know that I could trust a therapist to be really, really effective with helping me heal my traumas if they haven’t done their own trauma-healing work.
Because as Thais says, a therapist learning through their own therapy to make sense of their internal world is what is going to help them understand their clients. It's not an intellectual exercise, and it's not something you can learn from going to school and reading a bunch of books.
And so, if a therapist is not doing their own therapy and really understanding what’s going on inside of them – and I would add to that if they’re not doing their own anti-racism/anti-bias/anti-oppression work, really understanding their own triggers, and all that stuff – it’s gonna be really hard to, for one, as Thais says, put language to their client’s internal experience, which is a big part of what helps the client make sense of what's going on for them and begin to work with that.
And I would add to that, it’s going to be I think way harder for that therapist to not allow their biases and past wounding and triggers and so on to not affect the therapeutic relationship and their client’s experience of therapy.
Susan McConnell writes about this in the Somatic Internal Family Systems Therapy book, that therapists' own relational traumas might get triggered in their relationships with clients. And that it's essential for therapists to know the triggers that block their ability to be genuinely open to the client, to access their own hearts versus going too much into their heads, because a lot of the healing and communication even that happens in a therapeutic relationship is energetic, it's nonverbal. So, that’s really important.
How to open up to a new therapist
Okay, I will answer the last question I got through Instagram, and then wrap up this episode. So one person asked: How to break the ice with a stranger – i.e., this therapist that you don’t even know – and combine professional vs personal help.
So, for this person, it was about this challenge with opening up to the therapist, and feeling that maybe they didn’t get as much help as they could have if they had been more open during therapy.
And first off, I just want to say, how perfectly understandable it would be to feel hesitant or uncomfortable or shy or just not fully ready to dive into really personal shit with someone you literally just met for the first time, or maybe it’s the first few times, but it’s still a new relationship with a new human being you’re getting acquainted with.
And so, even if they are a therapist, and you know intellectually that their job is to listen to your issues, to keep that confidential, to not judge you, all of those things, I think it’s really important to remember that this is still a relationship between two humans. And relationships take time, they take work.
And people are also at such different places in how comfortable they feel with just sharing about personal things and about challenging emotions and relationship dynamics and distressing thoughts, and so on, that they may be experiencing. Like, some of us may not have a deep familiarity with just even verbalizing those kinds of things out loud with another person.
And so, to jump from that to disclosing some of your deepest, most personal stuff is a big leap. And I want to say that to just invite anyone who’s listening and has maybe felt this way, that that is okay and there is definitely nothing wrong on your end there.
Now, to the actual question, although sometimes I feel that having that self-compassion is part of the answer. But to answer the question more directly, this is obviously just my one personal take on it. Please don’t take it as truth, but just as one perspective. I think with any relationship, trust has to be built. And I think it’s great to go slow if that’s what feels comfortable for you.
And I know that’s hard sometimes, especially because every therapy session costs something, and there can be that pressure to see change sooner rather than later, right? But part of healing sometimes can actually be about using that therapeutic relationship to do relationships in general differently. To do them in a way where we get to cultivate a sense of safety that we may not be getting in our other relationships.
And part of that cultivation of safety might be, and this is the case for me, is going slower with sharing so much of myself with another person. To share and be vulnerable, yes, because if we don't take any steps forward we will stay stuck, but then to wait and see is that person seeing me, are they hearing me, are they responding in a way that makes me feel like they’re walking right alongside me, they’re not gonna drop me, they’re holding what I’m sharing with them and not making me feel judged or inadequate and so on. And if you see them reciprocating in that way, then maybe that can encourage you to take the next step forward, however big or small. It doesn’t have to be all at once.
Also, I personally would actually bring it up to my therapist, if I was in that situation of struggling to open up more to them. I might say something like, “I really want to share what’s going on with me to get more help, but I find it hard to really open up right now and to talk about some of my feelings or thoughts.”
And in my opinion, any good therapist is going to honour that, they’re going to meet you where you’re at. Maybe you can even explore together what you might need in order to feel safer to open up to them. And in my opinion, a good therapist is going to do what they need to do on their end to cultivate that space for you and to build trust, so that you can become more comfortable with them in opening up.
I think it is a two-way street, as in any relationship, where the responsibility isn't completely dependent on you to make things work. But yeah, sometimes it might take a bit of communication on our end to just put that out there on the table and name it and begin that conversation. And then share that challenge together. That's a relationship, right?
So, I hope that’s helpful. Again, just my thoughts, my one perspective. This entire episode has been about my personal experience with therapy, although I do always try to bring in some of the other resources and learnings I have taken in about therapy and healing trauma. So, I hope you’ll check them out, I will link to everything in the show notes.
One last thing about therapy I want to say before I close: Therapy is not the be all, end all. I personally don’t think that any one element of our healing is going to be the sole thing that changes everything for us, again, especially if we’re talking about complex trauma. That is why I am doing this series that touches on all the different factors that have helped in my healing, only one of which is therapy.
That all being said, therapy can absolutely be an instrumental part of people’s healing journeys, it can be anywhere from being helpful to gaining some new insights and tools to being completely transformative. And working with my current therapist has been so transformative for me, that it’s inspired me to think about becoming a therapist myself. Which is a pretty big deal and decision.
And if I do go to school for that, it’ll still be a year and a half from now, but I’m currently doing my due diligence and my research into different programs and learning what a career and life as a therapist might look like. So you might hear some future news about that.
Alright, y’all. If you have gotten to the end, congratulations. Thank you for being here. Thank you for listening in. There is actually more than I could have said on this topic, but I am going to wrap it up now.
If you have any questions or comments or feedback, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow me on Instagram @janicehoimages and @natureimmersed, as well as on Facebook @janicehocreative.
And I now have a new website for the podcast. [UPDATED LINK: https://www.thesoulsworkpodcast.com/]. I’m just going to link to it in the show notes, but I wanted to make this website so that I could also add some of my favourite resources – podcasts, books, articles, courses, etc. – many of which are on healing trauma, so you can check that out. And I also have a blog on there, where I’ve been sharing stuff that doesn’t make it onto the podcast. So you can go have a read there as well.
Alright, thank you again for tuning in. I have an amazing guest episode coming up next. So stay tuned for that, subscribe to the pod on your favourite podcast player. And in the meantime, take good care of yourselves. Lots of love and self-love.