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7 Surprising Things I Learned About Therapy

By Jessica Hicks
February 04, 2022

When I began cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) last year, I wasn’t a stranger to the process. After growing up surrounded by divorce, addiction, and complicated family dynamics (to say the least), I was shuttled to and from a therapist’s office on more than one occasion. I wouldn’t say the experiences were unhelpful, but choosing to restart therapy on my own terms has made the process that much more meaningful—and effective.

I decided to take the plunge in early 2021, at a point when pandemic fatigue and job stress were weighing on me heavily. I simply didn’t feel like me—and those I was closest to had started to notice. The decision to restart therapy so many years later wasn’t an easy one. Committing to it meant putting my needs first and dedicating an hour of my week solely to myself—something that didn't come naturally to me.

After deliberating, checking my budget and health insurance (and checking them again), and researching therapy practices that were taking new patients, I landed on a promising option. It felt like the therapy stars had aligned (if that’s a thing), and I went into the process headfirst, heart open and fingers crossed.

What Surprised Me About Therapy After Going Back

Now, as I reflect on my experience almost a year later, I realize there were so many things I would have liked to have known when I first started. Here are a few discoveries that surprised me and may help you as you begin your therapy journey.

1. Your Therapist Can Be Your Peer

Most of my prior experience in therapy involved a clinician 20 to 40 years my senior, a cold, stuffy office, and the world’s most uncomfortable chairs. But this time, when I logged into my first virtual session, I was surprised to be greeted by someone who couldn’t be much older than I was.

At first, I was a bit unsure of what our relationship could look like. Did I want to take life advice from a therapist who, theoretically, could’ve been a college classmate or a childhood babysitter?

I quickly realized that my answer was yes. It only took a few sessions to learn that my therapist was wise beyond her years, asked meaningful questions, and offered actionable advice that resonated with me far more than the advice I'd received from previous practitioners.

My worries about having a younger therapist quickly melted away. And it dawned on me how helpful it can be to see someone who is in a similar phase of life, can empathize with the lens through which you view the world, and gets your sense of humor (more on that later).

2. The Hardest Part Is Starting

You probably wouldn’t share your life story—the milestones, the challenges, and yes, the traumas—with someone you just met. And yet that’s exactly what you’re asked to do in therapy. My therapist didn’t expect me to lay it all out on the line in our very first session, but we did run through a list of questions that got pretty personal. She also asked me to set purposeful goals from the get-go.

For those of us who need some time to develop trust (who, me?), this can feel incredibly scary—almost impossible—but it’s worth it. In fact, after opening up in my first session, I was surprised to find it got easier each subsequent time. I thought some of the hardest moments would come later in my journey, like when I began talking about my parents’ divorce and alcoholism, but it turned out getting started was the hardest part.

Although that first step may have been scary, choosing to take it willingly made everything that came after that much easier.

3. Breakthroughs Don't Happen Every Session

When I first embarked on my most recent therapy journey, I had a vision in my head: I’d log in to my session each week with a particular goal in mind. Then, by the time we’d wrap up, I’d have a clear mind, a clear path forward, and some new coping mechanisms in my mental health toolbox that could help me keep any problems at bay.

Thinking each session would be linear was my first mistake. And expecting I’d make a breakthrough every time was my second.

Some days, I didn't make much progress. Sometimes, I might have rambled more than usual, unexpectedly shed some tears, or been truly stumped by a question. Sometimes, our discussion meandered or went around in circles. But some days, I made a self-discovery that left me wide-eyed and confused, and yes, there were the occasional aha moments. Here’s the bottom line: There will be days when you make a huge leap forward, and others where you take a couple of steps back. Either way is okay—you just have to embrace it.

4. Prepping Is Helpful—but Don't Look at It Like Homework

Some may operate under the assumption that all the therapy magic happens during a session. I, too, thought if I put in my hour each week, listened closely, and approached questions with openness and honesty, I’d be golden. But it turns out that the process takes a bit more buy-in to really see change happen. Much of the work happens outside your session—and outside your comfort zone.

To get the most out of therapy, I made the conscious choice to prepare before my sessions—but the preparation only proved helpful when I didn’t treat it like a chore. When I decided to shift my mindset and stop griping about what I had to do before therapy, and instead, thought about what I could do to lay groundwork for myself and make strides forward for my well‑being, prep work like journaling and reflecting felt less arduous and more worthwhile.

5. You Might Laugh As Much As You Cry

Therapy probably doesn’t strike most individuals as the time or place for a good laugh. But I’ve found myself chuckling in therapy more than I've cried, which is something that continues to surprise me.

For a while, it almost felt wrong to let out a laugh in session. There I was, talking about some pretty serious stuff, but I was somehow able to find the light in it all.

I soon learned that leaning into some levity could help me cope. And research suggests that humor can facilitate happiness, resilience, and overall psychological well‑being.

6. You’ll Become Better at Talking About Mental Health

Going to therapy every week has made it easier for me to talk about mental health far beyond my sessions. Much to my surprise as a relatively private person, I've found myself opening up to friends and family members about my mental well‑being and just how beneficial CBT has been to my overall health. I’ve empowered friends to talk openly about their mental health challenges and encouraged a loved one to start a therapy journey of his own.

I was intimidated at first, but I made the decision to talk to my boss about my mental health and weekly therapy sessions. I couldn’t be more glad I did. By being clear about my boundaries and my commitment to therapy, I’ve been able to dedicate time to my mental health each week and, in turn, do my job with less stress and more resilience. It's gratifying to be able to bring my whole self to work. And here I am writing this article—something I probably wouldn’t have done this time last year.

7. The Days You Don’t Look Forward to Can Be the Most Fruitful

I’d be lying if I said there was never a day I wanted to cancel a session, either because I was dreading discussing a specific topic or just because I didn’t feel like going. In hindsight, the days I was reluctant to go often turned out to be the most meaningful. Maybe it was just happenstance, or maybe it was because I worked through my hesitation.

Either way, I showed up on my bad days—and knowing this, I hope you can, too.

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