A Therapy Swan Song: Two(ish) Years of Learning to be Brave

On Monday, my therapist said she thinks we’ve reached the “maintenance” stage of my sessions. That basically means that we’ll do a check-in at the end of the month and, as long as I feel comfortable and my progress has maintained, I can move to scheduling on an “as-needed” basis.

I’ve been going to therapy almost every week for nearly two years now, so the thought of not having that consistent check-in is strange (and a little daunting). In that time, I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia and major depression, relapsed multiple times into destructive habits, survived my first toxic workplace, weathered the end of a long-term relationship that I thought was forever, cried at my desk more times than I care to count and ultimately cultivated greater emotional resilience.

It’s hard to recognize how far you’ve come when you’re in the trenches of progress (and feeling every step backward, every mental battle and every shitty emotion), but there have been moments over the past month or so when I’ve really felt the depth of my trajectory forward: choosing to communicate in the face of difficulty instead of shutting down and wallowing in a pit of shame, refusing to entertain toxic or emotionally abusive relationships, accepting (and sometimes embracing) the spontaneity of human life and practicing flexibility instead of using change as an excuse to fall back into self-destructive patterns.

I have noticed a lot of positive changes in my life since I started truly prioritizing myself and my health. Most obviously, of course, are the physical changes that come with nourishing my body rather than starving and overexerting it. But there’s also the mental payoff that comes with setting down some of the emotional burden I’ve spent so long carrying.

Therapy has always been a hit or miss experience for me. I remember how nervous I was to seek out a new therapist when I realized my eating habits had crossed over from “mindful” to “disordered,” because my previous experiences had been all across the board (the most prominent being a yearlong experience of judgment and non-advice when I was in high school).

The first brave thing I did was trust my college therapist’s recommendation and schedule an appointment. Over the past two years, I’ve learned to do a lot of brave things that, on the surface, don’t seem like they’d take much bravery at all (but they do):

Set boundaries.

Boundaries are hard! Sometimes it’s saying “no” to something a friend really wants you to do because you know you need to rest and spend some time alone. Sometimes it’s forgoing a long weekend because — surprise — emergency room bills come in threes (one for the specialist, one for the overnight stay et al and one for the tests and drugs) and have a knack for coming months after your visit, demanding to be paid off the same check that needs to cover rent, your car payment, your student loans and your car insurance (shout out to my fellow Millennials with a stupid amount of credit card debt and $7 in their checking account!). Sometimes it’s literally just turning off your phone and tuning out the noise for an hour.

I used to equate “boundaries” with “selfishness.” Especially when it comes to saying no to plans with friends (or realizing in the middle of an overbooked day that you’ve got to back out of something or you’ll have a total meltdown), I have a hard time giving myself permission to set that boundary of “I know you really want me to do X, but I need to do Y in order to take care of myself.” It’s really okay if you know you’re too exhausted to have fun at that cookout, or if you can’t afford to go on that vacation after all. It’s okay to take care of yourself.

I’ve learned that “being selfish” and “serving the self” are two different things — and that I can still be a kind and selfless person while taking the time to serve my own needs. Working to set clearer boundaries around others’ expectations and desires of me has actually helped me be a better friend, partner and listener because I’m not constantly burnt out and frustrated from trying to spread myself too thin.

Protect your energy.

Along with setting boundaries, I’ve learned it’s also okay if you need to say “no” to being an ear for someone else’s stressors. Because I’m an empathic person, it can be difficult for me to listen without absorbing the emotional burden and energy of the people around me. Cultivating skills to protect my energy has been a similar process to setting boundaries, because boundaries often help protect me.

Just like setting boundaries, prioritizing protecting my energy felt really selfish at first. Because I’m used to being the “go-to” friend when someone has a problem to talk through, it was difficult to begin setting appropriate boundaries when I needed them without feeling like I was completely abandoning the people I care about. But also just like setting boundaries, I’ve found that recognizing when my energy needs to be protected has helped me serve the people I love better in the long run because I’m taking the time to serve myself. What’s that saying about being unable to pour from an empty cup? Yeah, that was kind of my life.

It’s hard knowing that I can’t be all things to all people, all the time. That was always been true; the difference is that now I’m no longer trying to be all things to all people, all the time. I give what I can, when I can, and I’m learning that I don’t need to apologize for being human and having my own struggles that also require my time, energy and care.

Be comfortable being alone.

After my last relationship ended, I realized just how awful I was at being alone. Even though I spent a good portion of the last year in that relationship on my own because of our life circumstances, it was different to be really alone without the safety net of the relationship. Any time I had more than about 10 minutes alone, I was frantically trying to make plans before the anxious thought patterns kicked in (or worse, before I went on a binge or an exercise marathon).

Finding peace within myself and understanding the difference between necessary solitude and oppressive loneliness was one of the most challenging aspects of rebuilding my relationship with myself. I thought it would be setting boundaries, but in reality it was learning to enjoy my own company and relinquishing the pervasive feeling of anxious dread that came with being alone with my mind for too long.

As an introvert, I recharge through time alone — and since I was actively avoiding that time, overspending my emotional energy and not setting any kind of boundaries…I was running on fumes for a long time (probably longer than the past two years of therapy, if I’m being honest). One of the most joyful victories of my therapy journey has been relearning how to be with myself.

I’ve started reading again, and painting, and sewing, and doing yoga, and cooking…I’ve started to do things again that I lost interest in or stopped finding comfort in because it was so hard to find peace within my own mind. There are definitely still times when I struggle to find the mental silence I need to enjoy time to myself, but it’s become much easier to quiet my brain down for at least a few moments of solitary comfort.

Ask more of the people in your life.

Just like I’ve learned to start treating myself as a person with valid needs, I’ve learned to remind others to treat me as a person with valid needs. I have always struggled with voicing my needs (especially when they aren’t being met). It never felt “fair” to ask someone to listen to me talk through stressful situations, accommodate my needs or consider my feelings before demanding something of me that I could not provide. But of course, I knew it was my obligation to listen to others talk through stressful situations, accommodate their needs and consider their feelings before demanding something of someone that they realistically could not provide.

Taking better care of myself has shown me that I am just as deserving of compassionate treatment as everyone around me, and that it’s okay to let people know when your needs are not being met (or when someone is putting their own desires above what you need to be happy and healthy). It’s not selfish to remind the people who love you that you need the be prioritized too, and it’s not selfish to ask more of the people in your life if they are not treating you well. It’s also not selfish to distance or remove yourself from relationships that are toxic, one-sided or actively work against your needs.

I’ve learned that standing up for myself doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice my values of kindness and selflessness — I’m just giving myself permission to ask others to afford me that same kindness and selflessness when I need it.

Forgive your mistakes.

Mistakes: the most horrifying concept to any high-strung perfectionist like myself. I used to use my anxiety as an excuse to fall into an intense shame spiral every time I made a mistake (real or perceived). Shame is an exhausting emotion,especially when literally breathing “wrong” was enough for me to label myself as a complete and utter failure. Cue spiral. I held (sometimes hold) myself to an impossible standard and essentially set myself up to fail before I even got out of bed in the morning — “What will your failure(s) be today, Katlyn? Why even bother getting up?”

I still struggle to separate “I made a mistake” from “I am a mistake” some days…and I also struggle to separate “I did a human thing” from “I made a mistake.” But I no longer let anxiety be something that enables me to self-flagellate with shame until I feel I’ve atoned for whatever minuscule misstep I may (or may not) have made. I do my best to acknowledge a mistake when it’s made, take note of what to do better next time and then move on.

I will always be an incredibly anxious person because I have an anxiety disorder, and that means I have more “shame triggers” than the average person with balanced brain chemistry (do such beings exist?). The difference now is that I know how to recognize when my brain is starting a shame tirade so I can stop it before it begins. I never thought that was a skill I’d gain, but over time I’ve become strong enough to pull out of my spiral so, even if they start, I can stop before I spiral out to infinity.

Mistakes are okay. Mistakes are human. Mistakes don’t mean your entire existence is a failure.

Celebrate your humanity.

The biggest thing two successful years of therapy have taught me is that it’s okay for me to be human. So many of the feelings and experiences that can trigger my habits of anxiety, anorexia or depression revolve around an impossible quest for perfection and the weight of undue pressure. It is really hard to unlearn the mental narrative of “Being human is bad. Don’t let anyone see!” but I’m getting there.

Some days, I still buy into that “hide your humanity” bullshit…but I’m always able to pull myself back out and remember that literally everyone is a human being, and I don’t hold it against anyone but myself. Humanity is what gives me my high-strung, anxious disposition — but it’s also what gives me my compassionate heart, my clever mind and my resilient spirit.

Who I am is the sum of all parts of me, and I have finally begun to appreciate that I wouldn’t be who I was if I didn’t cry over star and moon slippers, feel too much and too deeply from time to time or panic because I may have breathed in someone’s direction wrong every now and again. I’m learning to look at these parts of myself not as imperfections, but as essential components to the human I am who is loved by more people than I let myself know some days (and who is loved by herself just as much).

I am an imperfect human and I am finally ready to enter a new phase of getting to know who I am and who I want to be.

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