Not sure about therapy?

I’m a therapist so obviously I’m a pro-therapy individual. I drink the therapy kool-aid so to speak.

But I get it. You may not be into the same kool-aid that I am. Maybe you’ve considered doing therapy, but you’re just not quite ready to commit.

Maybe it’s not the right time. You’re trying to keep to some sort of teleworking schedule. You’re trying to be a homeschool teacher. You’re trying to KEEP. IT. TOGETHER. I get that. Therapy is a time a commitment. You’d need the hour+ (ask me about intensive therapy options!) in addition to some headspace to practice the therapy skills in your real life.

Or maybe you don’t have the finances for it. You or your spouse has lost their job. Or you’re job is still intact but the clients have gone down, meaning your income has gone down. I get that too. I do offer some discounts, (see COVID discounts) but therapy is still an investment and you would need to decide whether you’re ready for it.

Or maybe you don’t know if you really need it. Maybe you question whether things are that bad? You compare yourself to other people and see that their life circumstances seem way worse, so who are you to complain? I get that, too. There will always be a reason to not start therapy, and very many people wait until their absolute breaking point before scheduling an appointment. Then again, there’s also the chance that what you’re going through will get better on it’s own, and you can handle it without going to therapy.

So, for those of you who are considering therapy – but aren’t ready to jump in just yet, I give you a list of exercises you can try on your own to start the process. And – bonus – should you decide to start therapy, some of your work is already start.

1. Start monitoring. 

There’s a quote by business strategist Peter Drucker that says “what gets measured, gets managed.” If you’re currently dealing with a low mood,a dn you’re hoping to change that, one of the first things you can do is to start measuring it. What do I mean? I mean just jotting down on a 1-10 scale where you mood is on a daily basis. You can be more specific by rating your depression, anxiety, stress, anger, etc separately, or do your mood as one big lumped feeling. If you struggle with relationship challenges, rate that. Question whether you have disordered eating? Rate your urges to use those behaviors and whether you use them. Is there a pattern to your mood? Are certain environments, situations, or people tied to your lower/higher mood days?

2. Describe your day

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one technique is to describe how you spend your time on a given day. Starting with when you wake up, write out your daily schedule and then rate each activity based on how much enjoyment it gives you, how important it is and how accomplished it makes you feel.  

TimeActivityEnjoyImportantAccomplished
7-8amBreakfast w/kids263
8-12pmHomeschooling174
12-3pmWork Meetings475
3-6pmHelp kids w/school work255
6-7pmDinner453
7-8pmBedtime for kids273
8-10pmWork287
10-12amNetflix500
Example Activity Chart

When creating your daily activities list, it can be helpful to give perspective to your rating scale. What is your maximum, minimum and middle for each rating scale? Ie, for me, dancing to 80s music is a 10, grabbing a coffee with a friend is about a 5, and managing my toddler’s tantrum is a 0. Sometimes we may describe an activity as awful, but when compared to something we really don’t like, it’s not that bad. I don’t like filing taxes, but I would happily work on my taxes over dealing with a toddler tantrum.

3. Identify mini-goals

Much of therapy involves goal setting. “What do you want to get out of counseling?”, “How do you want life to be different?”, or “If you could wake up tomorrow and the problem you’ve mentioned has resolved, what would your life look like?”, etc. Because of these big-picture questions, client identify big-picture goals: “I want to feel good again”. “I don’t want to hate myself anymore”. “I wouldn’t be stressing over every little thing”.

And these are great starting points to give the therapy some direction. A therapist would then help you break those down into small, more concrete goals, so if nothing else, you’d know when you reached them.

Fortunately, you don’t need a therapist to set goals. But, as a suggestion, the smaller and more objective you make your goals, the easier it is to identify correlating action steps, so that you can, you know – actually achieve them. So for example, maybe you’re very much aware that you’re not getting enough sleep and you would like to get more. How much more sleep would you like to get? What time would that mean you need to get in bed by? What historically has prevented you from adhering to some sort of bed-time routine? What would be all the little steps you would need to take in order to increase your sleep quantity/quality? Now, pick one of those steps to start with, and try it out this week. Life is not a sprint. It’s not even a race. It’s a journey and every step you take, regardless of how small, is still forward movement. What movement can YOU take tomorrow, or even right now, towards your goals. 

4. Read your goal list daily

How many times have you decided you were going to either start a new habit or stop an old one? You start off gung-ho and super motivated: This is going to change your life! You’ll be so awesome after this! And within a few days, you’re cutting corners, forgetting what you set out to do, or, gasp – blatantly refusing to follow you’re own guidance. We’ve all been there. Establishing habits to reach our goals is hard work. What makes it slightly easier is having ever-present reminders that we want this change, AND then making ourselves acknowledge those ever-present reminders by rereading our goals. If you have a post-it note with your “drink more water” goal stuck to your coffee pot, to your computer monitor, to your steering wheel, etc. You’re more likely to 1) remember you made the goal in the first place and 2) take action to work towards that goal. Of course, if you’re at all like me, this won’t do anything for those rebellious streaks that see such reminders and shouts “Screw you! I don’t want to drink water right now! Now give me my coffee!”

5. Increase your exposure to positive messages

Look, our brains are already really good at identifying all the crap in our worlds. The news and social media echo apocalyptic visions of our socially-isolated futures, resulting in a situation in which there’s basically no way to avoid the negative spew unless you’re trying really hard. If you’re already feeling emotionally on-edge, you may be one comment away from camel back-snapping territory (as in, the back of a camel snapping under burdensome weight of life – not a broken camelbak (R)). You may not be able to control all messages you’re brain receives, but you do have some ability to combat the negative that you’re receiving. This could mean:

  • Limiting your exposure to people who are excessively pessimistic
  • Following people on social media who offer uplifting messages
  • Balancing your news consumption with some positive stories
  • Spending more time talking with friends and family who encourage and support you
  • Leaving yourself affirmations around your house/workplace (“This sucks, but you can do it”, “you’re freaking awesome at your job”, “this too, will pass”, etc.)
  • Offering those around you words of support and encouragement. We could all use a boost.

Doing the exercises above won’t replace the feedback and guidance you would get from a licensed mental health professional, but they will give you an idea of where you could use additional help. If you find these exercises challenging, or maybe life is too overwhelming right now to even attempt them, I would encourage you to reach out for help. If you’re at all curious, remember that I (and most other therapists) offer free consultations. That means you can test the waters with no commitment required.

If you’re considering therapy, what is holding you back from saying yes?

Where to Begin When You’re At a Loss

“I don’t know what to do anymore”

“I’m desperate to stop this”.

“I’m miserable. I can’t stand this.”

“I can’t handle this anymore. It’s getting worse. I’m getting worse.”

“I don’t want to be like this anymore. But what can I do?”

“I hate this. I hate myself. I’m never going to get better.”

As a therapist, I typically interact with people when they’re in a low place. Unsurprisingly, folks don’t typically seek out therapy when things are going great and just want a mental health check-up (though I do wish this was more often the case). Instead, I’m usually a last resort. Something in life is not going well and despite your efforts to ignore or change things, you’re still just stuck.

That helpless and hopeless feeling is one that I am intimately familiar with, both from witnessing it in the life of my clients and experiencing it in my own personal life. You feel as if you’ve tried everything. Nothing has worked. If you don’t do anything, you’ll be stuck this way forever. But imagining having to live this way for any longer is enough to drive you into panic. You don’t WANT to live this way forever.

But what are you supposed to do?

This is one of the most common scenarios I see in my office. Life has become awful. Change needs to happen. But the how is often a big grey fuzzy space. My clients come to me hoping that I can show them the how.

But therein lies the trap.

The most common mistake I see in people attempting to address their own issues is that they focus on the wrong questions.

For example, someone who is struggling with binge-eating will ask themselves repeatedly – “How can I stop bingeing?” or “What am I doing wrong?” The brain, handy little organ that it is, perks up and starts searching for answers: You could fast. You could cut out all sugar/carbs. You could drink water when you feel the urge. You could binge on carrots instead of cookies. You could distract yourself. You could go for a walk. You could clean out your kitchen of binge foods. You could just use sheer willpower. Just say NO.

You could do all of these things and more. Maybe you’d find some success. But chances are, the binges will still happen. Why?

Because before you do anything else, you need to understand your WHY

Why do you want to give up bingeing?

The ‘why’ represents your overall motivation for a change, and no intentional change will happen without it.

You may be thinking, “Are you kidding me? Of COURSE I want to change!! I’m miserable right now!” That may be true, and yet, despite the misery you’re in, something has kept you where you are now and prevented you from taking the necessary steps forward. Often times, there is a part of us, sometimes a small part, sometimes a large part, who is resistant to the very idea of change. Things may be miserable right now, but at least they’re familiar, and familiar means comfortable. In motivational interviewing language (a common therapy modality), this would be called a Double Approach/Avoidance conflict. The more you try to change, the more enticing it is to stay the same. But the more you stay the same, the more you realize you need to change.

This does not mean that you’re destined to stay stuck forever. This means that ambivalence towards change, any change, is normal. It also can give you a way forward. Give yourself a chance to explore what you’re really wanting from a change, and maybe also what reluctance you have.

If you, like me, tend towards skepticism, you may scoffing at the idea that any part of you wants to keep things how they are. So I challenge you – the next time you go to use one of these problematic behaviors you wish you could change, what prevents you from doing so?

What in-the-moment reasons do you give yourself for why you can’t change?