7 Life-Changing Lessons I Learned After 20 Years in Therapy

One day during my senior year of high school, my mom picked me up early and said she’d made an appointment with a psychologist. For me. I’d been sneaking out of the house to hang out with my boyfriend (who was in college), spent hours in my room blasting glam-rock era David Bowie and Lou Reed and never did the dishes. Apparently, this was concerning, so off I went to Dr. Sparrow.

I don’t remember much about Dr. Sparrow, except that she was drinking a giant iced tea from Starbucks and she’d clearly had prior meetings with my parents. “Tell me about these posters of…men who wear makeup on your walls,” she really, actually said. “And why haven’t you been helping your dad with the dishes?”

After a few more agonizing sessions with Dr. Sparrow, I swore I would never see a therapist again…until I broke up with the aforementioned older boyfriend six months later. That time, it stuck. Today, at 38, I’ve been in therapy for two decades with four different therapists, talking through several more breakups, my mom’s death, career changes, moves across the country, marriage, and the birth of my two kids. Therapy has become an essential part of the way I make decisions and deal with my stress, and I have become a happier, more present person because of it. 

Over the last 20 years in therapy, here’s what I’ve learned.

You Deserve Time to Think

In my twenties, I often felt pressure to say “yes” on the spot. Whether I was being asked to take on an extra assignment at work, do a favor for a friend, or be a bridesmaid, I would feel pressure to agree to whatever was asked of me no matter how much it messed up my schedule (and my mental health). This made me feel overwhelmed and taken advantage of most of the time. I finally had a lightbulb moment when my therapist introduced a new rule: “Don’t agree to anything unless you’ve given yourself at least 24 hours to think about it.” Asking my friends and family for time to think things over felt so awkward and unnatural the first few times, I had to practice in front of a mirror. But soon, it became second nature, and I still make sure I give any major decision a good, long think before moving forward.

Ask For What You Want

For the longest time, I had the impression that if I had to ask someone to do something for me, it defeated the whole point of getting it. I remember being upset that some boyfriend or other hadn’t bought me flowers on Valentine’s Day. “Well, did you ask him for flowers?” I remember my therapist saying. “Well, no,” I responded. “But if I have to ask, the flowers feel transactional, not romantic.” After a few years of disappointment, I finally realized that I was letting my expectations get in the way of my happiness. Now, I’m extremely clear with my husband about what I want. Articulating my needs got easier with time, especially when I realized how relieved and excited he was when I told him exactly what he needed to do to make me happy. And that made me happy, too. So, may I state for the record, I would like breakfast in bed and a three-hour nap next Mother’s Day, thank you very much.

Find Balance in the Week, Not the Day

As a textbook perfectionist, one recurring issue I’ve been bringing to my therapist for at least a decade is that I think I can get a lot more done in a day than is actually possible. For years, I imagined my day as a pie chart, with scheduled time for sleep, work, exercise, relaxation and fun. If I didn’t accomplish something from every piece of the pie every single day, I felt like a failure. But a few years ago, I decided to stop looking at my life as a daily to-do list and shifted to a weekly (or even monthly) set of goals. Did I exercise today? Nope, but there’s always the weekend. Did I get eight hours of sleep? Not even close, but I’ll see if I can clear out some time in my schedule tomorrow to take a nap. (My therapist always approves of more naps.)

…Or Better Yet, In Seasons

I’m the mom of a toddler and a baby, and it’s taken me a lot of sessions to work through the disappointment that there are just some things that I can’t accomplish this week, month or year. I’m in a season of my life where a lot of my time is devoted to kids, and that means sleep, exercise, relaxation and fun fall by the wayside most of the time. Instead of trying endlessly to shift my schedule in a way that optimizes those few minutes I do have, I’ve learned to go with the flow and be more forgiving with myself. So I haven’t seen the inside of a gym since the pandemic. So my kitchen floor hasn’t been mopped in two weeks. I’m just not in a season that can prioritize that stuff right now. It’s OK. And it’s not forever.

Give Feedback Later

Remember the “give yourself time to think” thing? Well, I also had this issue in relationships. If a partner did something that bothered me, I had an almost compulsive need to bring it up to them immediately, no matter how inconvenient and inappropriate the location was. (Like, in the middle of his brother’s 40th birthday party. And out on the street at midnight after the party.) I thought I was being open and honest, but, as predicted, it ended in a giant fight. What I was really doing, according to my therapist, was ambushing my partners, giving them no other choice but to duke it out with me in the middle of the Olive Garden parking lot. I practiced waiting until a.) I had the chance to unpack my thoughts and b.) we were alone with time to talk (and better yet, 100 percent sober). It works, and even for small stuff, I still try my best to wait before I air my grievances.

People Pleasing Is More Selfish Than It Seems

I’m a recovering people pleaser. I’ve gotten a lot better over the years, but recently, thanks to therapy, I’ve started to see my actions in a new light. I’ll explain: I have a friend group who has about a million different dietary restrictions, and when they came to my house, I would bend over backward to make sure everyone had something they loved to eat. I spent hours researching recipes, shopping and cooking a vegan-keto-gluten-free meal, and at the end of the day, no one really knew (or cared) how much time I’d spent. I ended up feeling resentful, especially when they began to expect that I would always cook to suit everyone’s needs. I realized that my preoccupation with getting the food right (and later disappointment when my hard work wasn’t acknowledged) was preventing me from having a closer relationship with my friends. It was only when I set a clear boundary that I once feared would offend them (“Hey, we’re actually going to do potluck tonight because I don’t have time to cook. Thanks for understanding!”) that I finally relaxed enough to really enjoy hanging out with them again.

Everyone Has Their Problems (and No One Thinks About Yours)

In my early years of therapy, I remember lying awake at night, dissecting conversations I’d had with my friends and things I’d said at work. (“Ugh, I can’t believe I made that awful joke at the meeting. No one laughed. Well, Jessica did, but it was a pity laugh, I could tell. I should just quit. Wait. I can’t quit. What if no one else will hire me?”) In Buddhist meditation, this endless chattering is known as “monkey mind.” And thanks to therapy, I’ve learned to silence my monkey mind by remembering how universal this feeling is. We all have our own problems to work through, and they almost never feel as big to other people as they do to you. So go to sleep. Anything really important can wait until therapy on Wednesday.

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Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.