Self-Care Sunday #27: Using Bad Therapy Sessions for Positive Insights

Please note my disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and any discussions made on BiblioNyan are in no way whatsoever constituted as medical advice. These are simply my own personal experiences—struggles, success, and in-betweens—with mental health, and I share them openly in the effort to help others to cope day-to-day with their own mental health.

A few weeks ago, I returned to counselling. While I have been doing rather well with regard to taking care of my mental health and coping through a lot of the triggers and episodes that have arisen thus far in 2020, I found myself overwhelmed with stress to the point where nothing was working for me. Unfortunately, my regular therapist, whom I speak to on the phone whenever I need brief assistance through a particularly frustrating hardship, is unavailable for full sessions (they moved to a different country), leaving me to search for an alternative. My luck so far hasn’t been the greatest, but I’m not super stressed because I’ve been down this road before.

Since I have done this a few times in the past, prior to finding my perfect human, I knew what to expect going into it. Even so, when disappointing sessions occur, it can feel extremely daunting and discouraging. There is a great sense of frustration and possibly even some bit of inadequacy that impacts one’s ability to get back up and go out to do it again for fear of more let-downs and even rejection. For many of us, making the choice to get help is a humongous step and oft times incredibly intimidating. So, when that first session goes terribly wrong, it can feel like a sign that we aren’t cut out to receive help. I know that these feelings incapacitated me emotionally and mentally many times in the past, and recently when I stepped back out there again. But, you know, these poor experiences doesn’t have to be the end all, be all of trying to get some professional help and reprieve.

The very first time that I consistently started meeting with a therapist was in 2012 and it totally changed my life. Since then, I have had three regular therapists that I have seen at various points. My first went on maternity leave and then decided to become a stay-at-home mum, which made me happy for her but sad for myself. My second therapist is the one I had seen the second longest, from 2013 to 2014. When my marriage fell apart, I stopped going because I was in a severely self-destructive mind-set. There was another reason too, but I shall discuss that a little bit later. Then in 2015, I found another one, who would end up being the best one I’ve ever had (and the one whom I speak to on the phone), and also the one I’ve seen the longest.

In between all of these three individuals, I had some really horrid appointments and experiences. Right before I found Therapist One, I was ready to give up my search because of the volume of shitty doctors that I had met. My brain started to believe that I was un-helpable; that I was so screwed up, I’d be doomed to my misery and suffering forever. It was total and complete bullshite. I wasn’t the issue. I merely hadn’t found a comfortable fit yet. Then I found her and practically cried from relief.

My most recent therapist actually had the audacity to laugh when I explained one of my recent conditions to her (something unknown that I’m trying to get diagnosed so I can get treatment for it) and I was stunned. I was definitely offended and hurt, but I was more shocked that someone who claimed to be a professional would laugh at me when I’m being so damn vulnerable and seeking advice and assistance. I haven’t seen her since. That was about two weeks ago.

Bad therapy sessions can be immensely useful tools towards getting one step closer to an ideal match to an individual that can help you. Not all psychologists and psychiatrists and counsellors are going to be able to help every single person that walks through their doors. Since we as a diverse group of people have very diverse histories, trauma, cultural influences, and much more, the counsellor shall also be shaped by their very own circumstances and personal knowledge. It’s important to recognise this first and foremost—one of the hardest hurdles to overcome—in order to safely keep moving forward; to know that it’s not you that’s wrong or a problem or anything else negative of the sort, but that they just aren’t the human to help you out. Today I wanted to chat with y’all on different ways to take those crappy sessions and to use them as resources for finding your ideal therapist.

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Processing the Bad Sessions

I have these small journals that I bought from Walmart a while ago. They were about two quarters a pop, so I bought a gigantic stack of them (literally a huge ass stack of 54). They are mostly used for outlining and planning potential stories and books, but I also find them useful when dissecting my therapy sessions. It’s a place for me to write down all my thoughts on the session(s) that I had to better understand if it’s actually helping me to heal, keeping me stagnant, or making my conditions worse. This is my first recommendation.

When I meet with a potential psychologist/psychiatrist/counsellor initially, I wait about a day at most and then start writing about that first session. Some of the things that I will address in my notes include:

  • Was it a good, bad, or in-between? Why?
  • Did they ask me any guiding questions?
  • How did they react when I talked about my conditions/symptoms/concerns?
  • Did I feel judged? (super important!)
  • Do their methods focus on a fix or cooperative communication? Which method do I prefer?
  • Are they easy to talk to? (also very important!)
  • Do they have experience with my specific needs (Gender dysphoria, depression, anxiety, suicide, LGBTQIAA+ related needs, ADHD, cultural/religious understanding, etc.) and how much? (i.e.: this is a very important question to me as an Asian Nonbinary who has PTSD.)

Those are just a few examples of the questions that I ask. Some of these inquiries can only be answered with more than one appointment. Sometimes when I meet with someone but feel indifferent about the meeting, I give myself time to process it. That’s why I recommend tackling these questions about a day after the session, in order to give yourself the time you need to let everything sink in. Some folx may not need that extra time and can dive right in, and that’s perfectly cool too! It’s really dependent on how you think and process information as an individual, and what works the best for you.

When I am feeling indifferent and uncertain, I will meet with the individual a second time. In the worst case of indifference, I give myself a maximum of four sessions. If in four meetings I can’t get a good feel for how I’m being impacted by the therapist, then that is a huge sign from my mind that things aren’t working and I’m hesitating out of fear (usually). Within a handful of appointments, my instincts should damn well know whether I’m hitting it off or just hitting my head against the wall (figuratively). As that occurs, I need to force myself to move on to someone else.

It’s extremely important to keep in mind that therapy is about helping you. If you already know what it is that you want and need from seeking professional assistance, I recommend writing it down, sort of like a bulleted or numbered list, so that it can help ground your focus during your search. I have had some folx where I explain what I’m looking for and they end up dissecting elements of my conditions that I’m not ready to confront, which makes everything worse, or they don’t have experience with what I need and try to BS the assistance (uncommon, but it does happen). So, definitely keep sight of your goals. It’s super vital to be selfish in this regard because, well, it’s about you.

If you’re not sure of your conditions or what specifically you’d like to get help with, that’s okay too! In that case, I would just keep a neat, short list of the symptoms that have been overwhelming you the most and then the therapist can use that to help you and move forward. It’s typically a slow step-by-step process, so if it seems to take forever, just know that sometimes that is part of the identifying and healing gig. A good counsellor will want to take time to understand so they don’t misdiagnose you. If someone rushes into a diagnosis, then I would take that as a red flag, but that is a personal observation.

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Understanding Progress

I started doing this with my second therapist and it was revolutionary. Whenever I had sessions with my therapist and if there is even the slightest moment where we talked about a sense of accomplishment (for example, it could be me learning to leave the house alone for the first time and not having a panic attack; I’m agoraphobic, so this was one of things I needed help with), I would talk about it in my therapy journal (from the previous section). Most of the time it’s a mere handful of sentences or a few words, while others, it can be a full page of musings.

This is important when you’re looking for a great therapist because (it’s happened to me before) sometimes what seems like wonderful match can turn into nothing more than a comfortable cushion to scream into, metaphorically speaking. By maintaining a rough record of memorable events from my sessions [can also be new goals, any homework that they may give you (e.g.: try these breathing exercises twice a day, etc.), good/bad interchanges, new feelings or discoveries that popped up during the sessions, etc.],  it shall flesh out your progress, lingering uncertainties, fears, and other apprehensive elements. If you notice that all you’re doing is talking but nothing seems to change, then it may be time to search for a new psychologist/psychiatrist/counsellor. One of the key parts of professional counselling is to make positive progress on mental  health or other concerns. What that progress looks like shall differ from person to person, but if nothing is changing at all, then it’s not doing what it’s supposed to.

With my second therapist, I realised that she was a lot of fun to talk to, and she did help me sort through a mountain of emotions and anger that I was experiencing at the time. But at the end of the day, she was nothing more than someone I could vent to. She never really helped me make any headway with my issues, just voice them (and any new ones in the moment) as they overwhelmed me. I wasn’t making progress and eventually, I started to get worse because of it. I saw her for about nine months before I recognised this issue.

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Guidelines for Research

So, now that you have your journal of notes, how does it help, aside from giving you a bitch of a carnal tunnel ache here and there?

This part is actually a lot easier than it sounds. All the guidelines that are needed for finding the next therapist to try out is right in front of you on those pages. By looking at the things that didn’t work, by highlighting what you are searching for in a therapist (for example, I knew I needed an Asian therapist to help me with my cultural-centred problems, and I’d prefer them to be a woman or non-male because men intimidated me too much at that time; I also needed someone familiar with rape trauma and child abuse), it gives you material to use to look up an individual’s background and history, as well as their specialisations. Additionally, it provides you with a plethora of information to ask questions during the first session.

In most situations, people go in and answer questions so the counsellors can get a vibe as to whether they can help or not. These initial meetings aren’t just for them, it’s for you too. It’s necessary for you to ask questions to gauge their vibe with dealing with you. You want to feel comfortable and like you can easily talk to this person. Of course there shall be some awkwardness at first, more so if you deal with anxiety and social stress (like me). However, beneath that, there should be an air of ease that helps you open up. Occasionally, it can take more than one session to feel it, as I mentioned above, but if it’s not there at all, then they aren’t the right human for you.

Google searches can also be a lifesaver as a lot of psychologists/psychiatrists/counsellors have their information on a dedicated webpage or legitimate directory. So, if you live in an area that has many people, this can help narrow down the pool somewhat. When I call to make the appointment, sometimes I can ask a lot of my questions over the phone, which will save me time and money and the mental exertion from going into the office or facility.

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Positivity Party

Okay, that is a super cheesy name for this section, but it popped into my head and I went with it because it really cements the point of this whole post. By looking at negative therapy sessions from a critical lens, it can become an immeasurably powerful tool of positivity for many folx. Here are a few ways how:

  • Gives you more control over your mental health, which is incredibly empowering
  • By taking time to weigh what works and what doesn’t, you’re promoting self-love because you’re telling yourself YOU ARE WORTH THE EFFORT
  • Recognising uncomfortable or hurtful patterns can help you ascertain the same sort of patterns in your personal lives, which can give you strength in separating yourself from toxic people and situations, which are possible triggers
  • Receiving a correct diagnosis from someone who actually takes the time to understand you the individual rather than you a generalised entity in the masses will assist in the effectiveness and efficiency of treatments and the positive influences that counselling provides; it’s also beautifully rewarding and motivational
  • Having a good match can help you find objective and helpful support networks that you may not have had before, or in ways that can help give you a fresh perspective outside of loves ones
  • Finding joy in therapy is an ultimate form of self-care with ripple effects that shall influence everything else around you in endearingly uplifting ways, big, small and everything in-between.

Making the decision to obtain professional help is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to living with mental health. It is much easier to believe that therapy isn’t for everyone than it is to take the time to find the one person that makes it a fit for you. Trust me, I’ve gone down that road over and over and over again for many years before I finally realised I didn’t want to live a life I had no control over. My goal wasn’t to get a patch slapped on my conditions, but was to better understand them and their causes so I could respect the fact that they are there and are as much a part of me as my black hair and Tupac eyebrows (which I love, my eyebrows are dope). Giving my conditions acknowledgement that they exist and trying to find a way to co-exist with them is what helped me accept myself and ultimately want to help others out there like me.

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People with mental health aren’t “crazy,” we’re just people like everyone else who simply need a bit of respect, patience, and compassion. Not being able-minded doesn’t make us less than or inferior to able-minded folx and having someone in your corner who gets that and nurtures it is joyful. It’s also frustrating as all Hell finding them, but it’s so completely worth it.

I hope my experiences and observations can help even one person out there. Please know that these are the musings of a single person. So, what works for me and my advice may not necessarily be what you need, or it may not help you in the same ways. Even so, at the very least, I hope it can inspire and motivate you, as the candid experiences of others have done for me.

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13 thoughts on “Self-Care Sunday #27: Using Bad Therapy Sessions for Positive Insights

  1. Thank you! I loved how you turned a negative into a positive. I’ve had a long therapy journey to so I understand the feelings of finding a new therapist. Hang in there and glad you are still seeking therapy. Its been the best gift I can give myself to go. And I’ve learned that you don’t have to be in crisis to go to therapy 🙃💜

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  3. This is a very important article, thank you for sharing your insights and I hope this helps out anyone who is going through a similar process.

    • Thank you. I wish I had these insights when I started my therapy journey. It would’ve saved me a lot of stress and frustration. So I wanted to create this for someone else who may need the extra help or guidance.

  4. Thank you for writing this insightful, useful, and supportive article. I wish I had read this article years ago. It would have saved me some grief. I believe it will save a good many people from misery they can avoid. The idea that you have agency in choosing a therapist who suits you and actually provides you with the help you want and need is something that I suspect many of us never realize we can and actively should pursue for our own benefit. Blessedbe

    • Yes! All of this. For the longest time, I was terrified of trying to find a therapist because I was worried of being rejected and labelled as “unhelpable,” (or something along those lines), but then I realised it’s not about them, it’s about me and my mental health, so if anyone should be gauging comfort and dependency or effectiveness, it should be me, the patient. It’s definitely not something that comes to mind naturally when seeking help, but it’s also what desperately needs to be normalised, more so in order to normalise mental health as genuine medical concerns and conditions; to erase the stigma that plague it.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had like 15 different therapists in my life and have had so many bad experiences. My first one in high school thought I was depressed because I listened to Radiohead. One tried to talk me out of transitioning, and another gaslighted me whenever I tried to bring up my abusive father. It’s made me very cynical of the mental health field when I know a lot of the folks I’ve gone to for help have made it worse.

    I’ve been seeing my current therapist for about a year now, but I’m starting to think I need to find a new one. She is very focused on coping methods and “fixing” the problem, when what I think I really need is just to have someone listen, empathize, and validate me. I’m currently going through my diagnostic evaluation for autism with a social worker and I’ve been thinking of asking to see her for therapy sessions when that is done. Even after just one meeting so far, I already feel more comfortable with her than my current therapist.

    • Those all seem like terrible therapists, to be blunt. I hate it when they try to “fix” issues with what amounts to a one size fits all solution. Everyone is so different, so treatment or assistance needs to be specialised to the individual. Lots of crap trial and error before I figured out that lesson. I’m glad you found someone you feel comfortable with. That is definitely important. Usually when we feel discomfort or judged or anything else negative, it’s partly our instincts screaming at us to run away.

    • Therapists are similar to doctors. They often suffer from “God complex.” I am not interested in being remade. They are not Prof. Higgins to my Eliza.

  6. I’ve never had a “really good” therapist. There was a family counselor who was OK but never clued into my Asperger’s. There was a therapist who clued into my Aspie-ness but wasn’t useful for anything else. There was a psychiatrist who was a really neat guy but we never talked about anything deep. Another psychiatrist who was so quiet and passive I hardly heard a word out of her – but she did prescribe me some Prozac.

    There was one 40+ years ago who tried to “cure” me of being a nudie and instead ended up having me accept it as a good thing and not a disorder. A part of my inner child I didn’t want to surrender. That was NOT her intention in the slightest. I ended up getting into every nude/nudist activity I could find (and afford) for the rest of my life and creating some where they didn’t exist. I suppose that’s an example of a “bad” therapist who had a positive influence.

    I’m kind of glad she didn’t see the “Aspie” in me or she’d have tried to “cure” that too. You see, I don’t believe that my depression or ADHD or clumsiness or confused sexuality or inability to succeed socially were caused by bad parenting. They were caused by factors before I was born. Intolerant parenting and schooling just made things impossible to deal with.

    It just may be that I’m a super rational person when I talk about my issues. The weeping and self loathing and depression doesn’t come out. (That’s mostly late at night after a drink or two.) The Aspie-ness shows up as a Spock-like rationality and the bad things all feel so far away. The therapists I’ve seen are probably looking for gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.

    • I used to be quite emotional during my sessions but I also had a lot of things bottled up that I didn’t realise. Once I worked through all my trauma and everything else that was weighing me down, I was finally able to accept myself completely and be myself without embarassment or second guessing or any other doubt and anxiety. I’ve realised that I’m very logical and rational and turn to those things when I need to ground myself during panic or anxiety attacks (for example, I’ll recite equations to help focus my mind and give myself something to concentrate on outside of the episodes). This has slowly started manifesting in my therapy sessions, which has allowed me to be more open and honest with myself. It’s something that definitely varies from one person to the next. One therapist told me I was too emotional and childish (when I first began). Later when I found my first good one, they realised that due to child abuse my brain had stopped developing with regard to emotions and that was why dealing with heavily emotional situations or an influx of feelings was so challenging to me. It was exasperated by my autism. Recently, I’ve been told that I lack the ability to empathise because I’m too rigid in my rational thinking and I’m too blunt. That was also incorrect. I actually have an unusually high capacity for empathy which is one of the things that makes socialising very difficult for me. It’s incredible what having a proper therapist can do for someone versus having one that doesn’t care or seeks to fix things like broken toys on a conveyor belt.

      • We have a lot of things in common even though we have walked different roads towards different destinations.

        That therapist 40 years ago had me beating on a sofa with a bataka and yelling out all the bad things I felt about my parents.

        I could never work up any real emotion over it. My parents weren’t monsters. They were just completely wrong parents for me. They had their own massive issues they’d never dealt with.

        None of the nuance or tolerance of today existed. You were a sexual deviant. Or retarded. Or antisocial. Or immoral/sinful. Or a rebellious delinquent. And a nerd/egghead got negative respect.

        At one time or another I was called all of those. It was rough. I could never bring myself to hate anyone for it. OTOH, I did internalize some of it.

        Trying to cure me of a trait I didn’t think of as wrong was rather like confirming its “perversity.” Didn’t work. Accepting all my flaws and yet still loving that lost and lonely little boy, that worked but with the opposite effect she intended.

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