A ridiculously earnest reflection on psychotherapy

a leather couch

Of all the events in my month, there are few I look forward to more than Shrink Day.

Finances and time conspire to keep me from going more than once monthly these days, but in a way, that’s a good thing. It forces me to think very carefully about what’s really important, and to differentiate what I need help with from what just needs attention. As I run through the never-ending list of Ways to Improve on Colleen, many potential shrink-agenda items fall off when I rehearse them as questions in my head; when you’ve been seeing the same person on and off for over eight years, it’s really a pretty short hop from What the %@# should I do? to What Would Leslie Say?, and even to an answer.

Mostly, what I find myself doing these days in shrinkage is calibrating my barometer (which is a great thing to do when you’re not busy mixing your measuring metaphors). It’s not that my upbringing was Dickensian or anything, but there was a little brain-scrambling that happened around self-worth and how one goes about acquiring it, as well as how much giving and ceding is appropriate. One of the reasons I ended up in the hospital 7+ years ago is because I have two default settings: “off” and “full-bore.” Learning that it’s okay to say “no”, not to mention training myself in the how of it, has been a long, boring, painful series of fail/fail/fail/inch-ahead/fail/fail.

Strangely and possibly non-coincidentally, the problem has become much easier to deal with since I gave it a snarky name, my “Lack of Entitlement Issues”, and learned to joke about it. It is surely not everyone’s cup of tea, but a long time ago, I pledged my allegiance to the almighty and far-reaching healing powers of humor. The Youngster and I coined a saying while we were together: “The Joke is King!; All hail the Joke!” This didn’t mean that being funny gave you carte blanche to be a dick; it just meant (to us, anyway) that painful truths were more easily escorted from one of us to the other on the gentle, hilarious wings of humor. (Although as I recall, each of us was occasionally a dick when we were sure the joke was very, VERY funny.)

I bring up shrinkage because while I take for granted its awesomeness, I realize that for some, there is still a stigma attached and for many more, there is fear around it, fear that is not entirely unfounded. As I am fond of saying, you can’t cherry-pick change. While its settings are definitely not “off” and “full-bore,” chances are very good that if you make a move in one department, stuff will start moving in others. For some people, this is unacceptable, and I get that. It was unacceptable for me until I was so desperate, I was willing to risk having nothing to rid myself of even part of what I was carrying around.

On the other hand, I can assure you, well, a layperson’s assurance, that you will not essentially change. On my initial visit to Leslie’s predecessor, the shrink-slash-astrologer whose office I found myself in during the darkest days of my 20s, I laid down what I considered the law: she could muck around in there and fix the broken parts, but under NO circumstances was she to change my sense of humor or any other part of the modus operandi that got me through my hateful days in the fiery pits of advertising. When she was done laughing at me, YOU WISH, CRAZY COPYWRITER GIRL!, she explained that she didn’t think any of us really changed, essentially; we just got better and better at understanding our parts, so that we could recognize and do an end run around them faster and faster.

Some 20-odd years later, I can attest to the truth of this. More than anything, what therapy has done is give me back the hope and optimism and childlike curiosity I had when I was 10, back before I consciously started compartmentalizing and conforming and adapting to deal with the crap life started throwing down.1 I have gotten better at calling myself on my own b.s.: not perfect, not even close, but better. Enough so that I’ve been able to unstick myself from stuck spots because I can actually see that I’m not moving. Enough so that while I am still afraid to try new things and make a fool of myself and fail and all of the other things most of us mere mortals are afraid of, I can still (eventually) (usually) bring myself to do it.

Besides, change will happen, regardless; it’s Nature’s default setting. So why not have a hand in it, and the kind of life you dream of?


1I understand there’s probably a bunch of stuff I did to adapt before then, and we’ve dealt with a few by using EMDR, but fortunately, I really did have a pretty normal and easy childhood as childhoods go, with enough of the basic building blocks for non-insanity that I’m mainly dealing with garden-variety, talk-therapy-treatable neuroses.

Image by Jason Spaceman via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. This post made me think of corn. When we peel away each layer we get closer to your true beauty. It’s all these wonderful kernels that make us so inviting and delicious.

    I went to a shrink a few years back and would eventually like to go again, but that’s for a time period when I have some more coin in my pocket.

    Let me stick with the food reference. We are all cooks at heart. We need to test ourselves, see what we need to add and go from there. Live a little then come back and do the process all over again. Once a month sounds about right.

    1. Once-monthly is perfect for me now, but believe me, there was a time—for a long time—when once-weekly barely got me through.

      Now, to go weekly would almost be an overindulgence (although a delicious one!). The point of talk therapy, as I understand it, is not to be in talk therapy, but to use it to live one’s life. The check-ins are necessary for someone like me (okay—valuable, I don’t need them to breathe!) b/c I have serious problems discerning what’s acceptable vs. what’s not when it comes to saying “yes” and “no”, boundaries, etc. I’m not sure if that ever gets “fixed”; I hope so!

      On the other hand, shrinks are supposed to be in ongoing therapy b/c of the nature of their work. And I suspect that b/c the nature of my own work, as its evolved, requires that I have a touchstone to help keep my head on straight. I would not want to be doing all this out-loud self-reflection without someone keeping an eye on me.

      Thanks for this comment, Karl. Really helped me clarify and expand on a few critical things.

  2. chances are very good that if you make a move in one department, stuff will start moving in others

    Very wise, that. I think there might even be a Law of Conservation of Stuff — the amount of Stuff in one’s head is constant, although any one form of Stuff may change into a different form, or shrink to accommodate the growth in some neighboring Stuff. And sometimes, like you say, it’s more like simply shifting the marbles around in a baggie full of them.

  3. I love this post especially. I swim around the edges of self-development most of the time but when i really dive in (super scary as the deep end is), i witness change. It may not stick but just knowing it’s possible makes me want to keep getting better at it. or just to keep getting better.

    You rock!!

  4. Hear hear! Therapy is good. Change is hard. Etc. etc. As usual, love the post – you indeed rock!

  5. Once again your words are mirrors Colleen, and today they could not be more apropos. Thank you. Carolyn

  6. Hallelujah and Amen! I am SO for removing stigmas, especially around helping tools.

    For myself, therapy has saved the life of this used-to-be whacked-out survivor of a rather… umm… “challenging” childhood. (Think more Sybil-like than Dickensian.)

    Change, scary as it may be, rocks! And therapy (or any other tool that works) is a Blessing, for sure.

    1. Yikes! Sybil-like! (Although I just viewed it again a year or two ago and it is really much less lurid and much more compelling than I’d remembered from my youth.)

      Also, I made your name a link to your Twitter, Annie. I don’t have that plug-in on this blog that lets you do it yourself, but maybe I’ll add it, now that so many people are on the twitters.

  7. Colleen,

    I really enjoyed your post, and I applaud you for openly discussing your experiences with psychotherapy.

    One of my clients here in Chicago, Erasing the Distance, is a non-profit group whose mission is to shed light on mental illness through theatre.

    With your theatre background and obvious passion for this subject, I thought you might like to know about them. Their shows are simply amazing… the typical format is a series of five monologues telling true stories about how five people were/are effected by mental illness. You can find out more at their website – http://www.erasingthedistance.org

    You are awesome. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. What a phenomenal organization! Thanks for pointing it out; I had not heard of it, but I will try to check out a show next time I’m in town. Which reminds me—need to figure out when I can next come to town!

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