By Lauryn Williams
It’s common to have anxiety about therapy.
As a long-time therapy client, therapy still makes me anxious from time to time. The thoughts and fears about what it means to see a therapist, what you’ll talk about, and what you might discover are all part of the process. Even if you feel okay when you first sign up, the anxiety might emerge at unexpected moments. Sometimes, it can even spike right before a session!
Stigma about mental health in our society likely contributes to some therapy-related anxiety, whether that be about starting it altogether or about continuing in it. However, there is also another layer to these anxious feelings that I’d like to both highlight and offer a practice to help comfort these feelings.
Diving Deeper into Therapy-Related Anxiety
See, we tend to feel anxious about therapy because of ambivalence. Specifically, we experience ambivalence about the hope for change and growth.
I hope I can improve myself. I hope I can better my relationships. I hope I can overcome the challenges in my life. But what if I’m just getting my hopes up?
Whether we’re coming to therapy to feel less depressed, to have more satisfying relationships, to come out about our identity in some way, or whatever else, we’re in a sense opening ourselves up to hope. It’s a vulnerable space, a terrifying thought, and one I personally am well acquainted with.
If this sounds familiar to you, then know that you are not alone – and you are embarking on a journey.
Anxiously Embarking on a Journey
I hope to offer a kind of solace by illustrating my belief that the intense experience of ambivalence in opening up to hope through therapy is reminiscent of a fantastical journey. The hope offered in the therapy experience aligns with the experiences that characters in an epic tale go through in pursuit of hopes, dreams, gifts, desires, and authenticity.
One of my favorite epic novels, The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien, illustrates this well.
Bilbo Baggins, the main character in the story, has all but given up his childhood dreams of adventure outside of his peaceful home in a suburb-like community. One day he is approached by a wizard who offers him the invitation to the adventure of a lifetime that would exceed his wildest dreams. He politely declines. The wizard Gandalf goes ahead with his plan anyway by setting up a party at Bilbo’s home that would put Bilbo on the spot in front of a group of fellow participants in this adventure. When the group of participants, dwarves to be exact, come around to Bilbo’s lack of enthusiasm they become quite annoyed at his being invited at all. To this annoyance Gandalf says:
“Let’s have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you. If I say he is a Burglar, a Burglar he is, or will be when the time comes. There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself.”
Despite much resistance, Bilbo ends up choosing to join the group of dwarves and has quite a life-changing adventure. One which he might be willing to say he needed to find his authentic self.
In my experience therapy is in some ways like Bilbo’s experience of Gandalf, the dwarves, and the dinner party they had together. We often resign in various ways to that which is familiar but doesn’t enliven us. Often this is a familiar space that kept us safe through our stories of heartache and harm. To dream for ourselves again, we often need an experience, a community, and/or a guide who brings to awareness our forgotten dreams, hopes, and desires. We often need someone who believes in our potential before we fully do ourselves as Gandalf believed in Bilbo before Bilbo believed in his own abilities.
These voices in our life, whether a therapist, a partner, a parent, a faith community, or an epic story are so valuable in navigating anxious feelings around decisions. They can be like a midwife who holds our hand as we make a jump in the direction of hope.
All this to say, it is so human and age-old in an epic story kind of way to face anxiety about beginning therapy or about the experience of therapy when you’re in it, because hope has likely cost you in the past and you’re unsure what it will cost you this time. It’s as if the heat of our lives turns up as we inch closer to who we really are and the adventures we long for. For those facing this kind of therapy related anxiety, may you find solace in considering this struggle as a common human struggle that indicates you are likely pursuing your hopes, dreams, gifts, desires or in short, your authenticity.
Practices for Beginning Your Journey
Although Bilbo was anxious about the journey, he still managed to make it happen. If you are feeling anxious about getting started with therapy or anxious continuing in it, here are some practices that may make things a bit easier:
- Imagine yourself as a character in an epic story that you identify with. Take some time to imagine how they got started on their journey. What ambivalence did they work through? What hope were they pursuing? How might their experience be similar to yours?
- Listen to your anxiety non-judgmentally. Imagine your anxiety to be just one part of you that has something important to say but is not in the driver’s seat of your decisions. Ask that part of you what it has to say to you. You might draw or write this down and then share it with someone you trust.
- Tell someone you trust that although you’re anxious you want to take a step towards change or growth by starting therapy. You might tell a friend, a clergy member, or even your pet. If you’re in therapy, but you haven’t told your therapist how anxious you get, you might say, “I’m afraid to talk to you about this but I’m afraid that if I don’t I won’t get the full benefit of therapy. I’m feeling anxious about therapy and I need some help understanding what’s going on.”
Call or email our schedulers and let them know you want to start therapy but are feeling anxious. They’ll help you navigate the scheduling process in a non-judgemental and non-anxious way.