In 2007, Laura was starting a difficult teaching job in San Francisco. For years, she’d had trouble getting herself to eat. “One of my rules was, I can have bread once a week. I allowed myself to have a sandwich on Friday, and that was the highlight of my week,” she said.
It wasn’t sustainable—she knew she couldn’t teach if she couldn’t feed herself. So she went to a dietician.
“She basically begged me to go to therapy,” Laura says. She was resistant at first, but she finally decided to give it a try. After shopping around a bit, she found a psychodynamic therapist who was a great fit. “My goal was basically to be able to eat a bowl of cereal without hating myself,” Laura says.
Over the past four years working with her therapist, Laura has gradually transformed. “I went to therapy for an eating disorder, but what I got out of it and what I use therapy for is much more than food and body—it’s also relationships and thought processes and all kinds of things,” Laura says. She’d been a chronic people-pleaser, and her therapist helped her to see herself in other dimensions. Her self-image, she realized, could use a lot of work. And she had needs: she wasn’t just there to help or to impress.
“I started to show [the therapist] parts of myself that I didn’t, at that time, show anyone else,” Laura says. “Because her reaction was to continually be supportive and stay, she helped me learn how to show all parts of myself to other people.”
Laura also spent seven months in a residential program that offered cognitive-behavior therapy for her eating disorder. The combination of the long- and short-term therapy programs was, she says, incredibly helpful. “Therapy just sort of pivoted me a little bit so my life trajectory has permanently changed for the better,” Laura says. She’s now wrapping up her relationship with the psychodynamic therapist—she feels like she’s gotten what she needs to out of that relationship.
People go to therapy for all kinds of issues, not all of them as diagnosable as eating disorders. Many different types of therapy can help people understand themselves better, whether or not they have a set goal or “problem” in mind.
As of 2007, more than 23 million Americans were receiving therapy, about nine million of them for depressive disorders and about six million for anxiety disorders. There are many types of therapy, and depending on your personality type and needs, certain styles might fit better than others.
Sasha*, a school social worker in Chicago, first went to therapy 20 years ago, as a college student. She had come from a strict, rules-oriented background and was having trouble navigating her new-found freedom.
Over six weeks, she met with a therapist with a free-form style. Sometimes, he’d play the role of Sasha’s mother, and she’d practice techniques and phrases to use in conversation. “I needed an outside, totally objective person to analyze what was going on, to give me their perspective,” Sasha says.
The therapist pointed out patterns that Sasha hadn’t seen, shedding new light on her situation. She’s seen a number of therapists since, but that college relationship was the one that stuck with her the most. “I think it made me feel more confident and whole. From then on I could grow. I wasn’t carrying all this angst around, and anxiety and worry and guilt—it was a release,” she says.
The main reason that relationship was so seminal, Sasha says, is that her therapist was incredibly attuned to her. “He was really genuinely interested in what I had to say,” she says. “I think he was an excellent listener and he was insightful—very patient, but, when it was necessary, he was also confrontational with me. But he took the time to build that initial rapport.”
Therapy is all a matter of fit. From the technique to the practitioner, it’s about finding what works for you. To get a sense of what’s out there, read on.
*Name has been changed.
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