The Trouble With Therapy
Some of us are afraid to see a physician, but we at least know what to expect when we see one. We have faith that they will check our symptoms, take tests, and provide medicine—things we can count on regardless of who they are, or what they mean to us. But what about therapy?
But things are a little different with therapists, aren’t they? You are forming some sort of relationship with this stranger who, let’s be honest, you may or may not like. And you’ll probably talk about things you don’t really love talking about. (“Yes, let’s dig into my crippling anxiety, please.”)
And medicine is all about results and speed. As patients, we want to feel better, and we want that quickly! Rapidity isn’t usually the case with therapy. Despite our hopes, it’s nearly impossible to condense the entire “Story of You” into a single hour so that therapy can impart some lasting changes on your life.
We hope that therapy will make us feel better. But what if it doesn’t? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Just the very composition of therapy is fraught with so many uncertainties and anxieties that some people don’t give it a shot to help them. It’s hard to give yourself over to a process that takes time, involves someone with whom you aren’t too familiar, and doesn’t always include the guarantee of feeling better.
What is the “fear of breakdown?”
I think there is another reason why people are afraid of therapy. In addition to being afraid that therapy won’t make them feel better, I think people are afraid of what therapy might make them feel, in general. That therapy might be too powerful. That therapy might make them feel too much.
British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about the possibility of people having a “fear of breakdown.” A patient may have an unconscious fear that therapy could stir up feelings within them that will upset their normal functioning.
Think about it: despite the fact that your anxiety and depression are intolerable, right now you are, more or less, keeping your life together. You might feel like your life is hanging on by a thread, but you are still hanging on.
What if therapy takes that away and doesn’t give you something better? Or, even scarier, what if therapy makes you worse? What if therapy makes you feel something dreadful?
On some level, your mind fears that therapy might disrupt this comfortably uncomfortable state. Your mind fears that therapy, instead of bringing light, will bring darkness. A breakdown.
The breakdown you fear is the one you’ve already survived.
And this is where things get interesting. For a moment, imagine something in the world that you fear. Let’s say spiders. How did you become afraid of spiders? Most likely, you developed this fear as a response to some real event. You didn’t just wake up one morning and say, “You know what, my life is missing something. And that is a fear of spiders.” Your fears are usually based—at least in part—on real events.
The same holds true for the “fear of breakdown.” Just like your fear of spiders, your fear of therapy is—at least in part—rooted in some real event in your life. Maybe you are afraid that you will become so sad that you won’t be able to stop crying. Or that you will become so unlike yourself that you will lose your identity. Where did those fears come from, if not some terrible event in your history, that you had to endure?
But while you’re wondering about this, take a moment to realize that here you are. As you read this, you are not crumbling into pieces, you are not weeping uncontrollably.
You are on some level afraid of re-experiencing something that will utterly destroy you. And yet, you have survived it already.
Isn’t that something?
Our unique “fears of breakdown” tell us what we are afraid of experiencing in therapy.
But they also tell us that we have survived these breakdowns before. We are afraid that therapy will make us feel those enormously scary feelings again, and that we won’t be able to endure them. But you have already endured them.
And if you still have some doubts about your ability to survive these feelings that therapy might make you face, think of it this way. When you first went through this highly-feared breakdown, you may have had to do so alone. But this time around, you will be going through it with someone who cares about you, and will listen to you.
A therapist who will be there with you every step of the way.