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Mental Health

5 Things I Learned From Therapy (That I Wouldn’t Have Known About Myself Otherwise)

Talking about mental health didn’t always come so easily to me. The subject became especially uncomfortable to discuss as it pertained to my own struggles, experiences in therapy, and the overall ebbs and flows of life. 

When I was young, I was embarrassed to take two separate bus routes home from school every other day because of my parents’ divorce. I felt different from my friends, and wished desperately that I wouldn’t have to explain my family’s situation each time that I met someone new. Though I grew out of this insecurity with age, a general sense of shyness and anxiety persisted for years to come. 

For as close as I am with my family and friends, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m sometimes hesitant to confide in them about my own mental health. Whether it’s out of fear that I’ll burden them or fear that I’ll worry them too much, I found much more relief in speaking with a therapist. Having the support of a third party — whose profession is to listen to and weigh in on my concerns — makes me feel empowered and supported, without any of the guilt. 

But even after years of therapy, the truth is: conversations about mental health can still be difficult ones to have. In honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, and in an attempt to dissolve the stigmas surrounding therapy, why not start breaking the ice right now? 

I’ve challenged myself to share just five of the ways that therapy has not only impacted my life for the better, but has helped me uncover things about myself that I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

I’m an introvert, and that’s okay

I didn’t necessarily need therapy to recognize that I had always been a pretty shy person. As I previously mentioned in the case of my parents’ divorce, I often got nervous to meet new people (and still do, to be honest) and have been referred to as the “quiet” girl by my peers for as long as I can remember. 

I never thought much about this aspect of my personality until I got to college and realized that being thrust into an environment of completely new people was even harder than I imagined. In therapy, I briefly revealed my envy for those who carry themselves so effortlessly in social situations, and to my surprise, this caught the attention of my therapist. 

In addition to asking me why I felt that I was an introvert in the first place, she asked if I had ever considered that my shyness gives me strength in other areas of my life. I sat back in my chair as I thought about how often I journaled and liked to write, or even how much I valued the close friendship of a few over having surface-level relationships with a larger group of people. 

On second thought, I loved being a writer and was incredibly thankful for my best friends. I learned that I don’t have to see my shyness as a weakness, and that being quiet doesn’t have to mean that I’m standoffish.

The way that I speak to myself matters

I never noticed how many self-deprecating jokes I made until my therapist began to point out each time she heard them in our sessions. Whether I made a comment about the amount of times I’d lost my apartment keys or something about my bloated stomach after an indulgent weekend, she reminded me that even the subtlest remarks can affect my overall self-image. 

Now, I don’t really believe that I’m stupid for locking myself out once or twice, do I? Her perspective challenged me to think about why I’m so quick to criticize myself after a mistake or minor inconvenience. I learned that I should try to reframe these negative thoughts as they arise, and that I should give myself grace instead. 

I tend to think in black-and-white (but I should strive for balance)

Prior to starting therapy, I thought my obsession with fitness, fixation on “health foods,” and perfectionist tendencies when it came to school would put me on a path to becoming my best self. Anytime that I strayed from these behaviors — chose chicken fingers over a salad for dinner, skipped a workout, failed a test, etc. — I became anxious and convinced that I would never get back on track. The concept of moderation was foreign to me. 

The truth of the matter is that balancing mental, physical, and emotional health is no easy feat. In therapy, I started to deconstruct some of the beliefs I had about food, body image, and the pressure to succeed, and it was in this space that I realized the harm in having an all-or-nothing mentality. 

Just like I needed to put my self-deprecating humor to rest, I learned that it’s much more enjoyable to avoid extremes and fully savor my favorite fried food — in small doses — instead. 

I can walk away from any experience having learned a lesson

So, remember those self-deprecating jokes about losing my apartment keys? As unhealthy and self-critical as the comments might be, it’s true: I locked myself out this semester many more times than I’d like to admit. Luckily my roommate was there to save the day in some of these instances, but other times, I was left without a phone, jacket, and way of getting back into my apartment for several hours. 

Rather than putting myself down for the mistake, my therapist encouraged me to start thinking about what I learned. Though you’d think that I’d learn my lesson and keep better track of my keys after the first time it happened, you’d be surprised by how much I actually took away from the experience. I learned that it was alarmingly easy to use a credit card to break into my place and that my friends always had my back when I needed them the most. 

Therapy is a confidence builder

One of the biggest reasons I considered starting therapy in the first place was that I felt like I had little control over my life. Everyone has insecurities, but mine began to consume me. Though I made excellent grades in school, I convinced myself that I was too shy to make friends in my large classes, too busy to join clubs on campus, and not smart enough to apply for the internships I was dreaming of. The most upsetting part of having this mentality is that I didn’t even realize it was holding me back until my junior year of college when I looked at my resume: one filled with an impressive GPA and relevant coursework, but little-to-no extracurricular experiences.

It was a huge step in therapy and in my life as a whole to reframe these limiting beliefs and become more involved as a result. In time, I formed deep friendships with fellow committee members and was able to learn a lot from joining professional organizations as a student. Yet when life posed more obstacles — which tends to happen much too often, in my opinion — I was once again forced out of my comfort zone as I began to interview for post-graduate jobs. 

Instead of retreating like I’d done in the past, or choosing to ignore this next chapter in my career, I felt surprisingly prepared thanks to years of therapy sessions. I approached the interview process with a renewed sense of excitement, as I discovered that I actually enjoyed talking about myself. After all, I had grown to be pretty comfortable with sharing my experiences, right? Had I not been doing so throughout my weekly therapy sessions for all of this time?

So not only had I learned a few strategies to better manage a negative self-image, but I learned that therapy teaches me a lot about myself. With enough background research and practice, I learned that speaking to interviewers and high-profile employers didn’t have to be all that intimidating because knowing myself and knowing what I want is what matters most in these conversations. 

As you read this and learn about my journey with therapy, it’s important to keep in mind that none of these revelations happen overnight. Finding a person who fits, getting to know your therapist, and growing close enough to share even the darkest parts of yourself is a process that often takes a lot of time and effort. Growth isn’t linear, either, and I still have my fair share of bad days. I now know, though, that this is unfortunately just an inevitable part of life. 

I may not be able to look in the mirror and fully love what I see yet, nor have I landed my dream job, but with the continued support of my family and friends, and guidance from my therapist, I’ve learned enough to know that I’m on my way.

Payton Breidinger is a recent Penn State grad (class of '21!) who majored in Public Relations and minored in Communication Arts & Sciences. On campus, she was a member of the student-run advertising and PR agency, Happy Valley Communications, and volunteered with the university's year-long fundraising efforts benefitting THON: Penn State's annual dance marathon for childhood cancer. When not writing for Her Campus, she enjoys updating and creating content for her personal blog, The P Word. Some of her other passions include all things food, music, and fitness!
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