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Why Go to Therapy?
A professional answers teens' questions
Natasha Santos

Many of us have been to therapy, whether by choice or by force. We’ve sat in a chair week after week talking—or not talking—about our problems. However, we often don’t really understand the purpose of therapy. We’ve come up with our own definitions for our therapists: “That crazy lady who asks all the questions,” or, “That man who’s always in my business.”

At Represent, many of us writers wanted to know how therapy is supposed to work and how a relationship with a therapist can be healing. So last year a group of us interviewed therapist Carrie King, director of the Children’s Psychotherapy Project in Brooklyn, NY, to sort out all of the ideas we have about therapy.

Working Out the Past

King was short and slim, empathetic but with a sharp tongue. She told us that most kids in care have been through traumatic experiences and that spending time in a safe place thinking about what has happened to you is important, because traumas can have a lasting impact. Even if years have passed, your mind and body may still be working out an understanding of a traumatic event that happened to you when you were much younger.

Your feelings might come out through harmful behaviors like self-mutilation (hurting yourself) or eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia or binge eating). These are all signs that your mind and body are trying to work out what happened to you.

If you were physically or sexually abused, you might never have fully allowed yourself to experience the feelings associated with what happened. Those feelings can come back in ways that may feel strange to you. For instance, some people develop panic attacks (a sudden feeling of intense anxiety, shortness of breath, sweating and trembling), or hypervigilance (an unusually high awareness of surroundings), or dissociation (a feeling of being separate from yourself and away from your body).

“Kids who are molested grow up wondering if they’re good,” King told us. “They ask questions like: ‘Is who I am good enough? Am I good enough in relationships? Am I good enough as a friend?’” Her message was clear: although the abuse many of us endured was not our fault, it often leaves us feeling tainted, unworthy, or like we’re bad inside.

The Risk of Getting Hurt Again

King told us that if you don’t come to an understanding of what happened to you in the past, you might put yourself at a greater risk of being abused again. Many times, people who have suffered a trauma seek out experiences that feel similar to those that led to the painful experience. Just as you may replay the trauma in your head, trying to understand what happened or why, you may unconsciously replay the trauma in your life.

King researched factors that affect whether adult women who had been sexually abused in the past were sexually abused again. She found two things: First, because it feels so bad to be abused, some women got depressed and started drinking or doing drugs. “Anyone on drugs or drinking is at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted,” King said, because they are not always aware of their surroundings or what’s happening to them.

Second, some women feel so badly about themselves because of their past abuse that their vision of who they are and what their body means to them changes. “They lose an attachment to or respect for their bodies,” King said. So when there were danger signs, these women didn’t take action to protect their bodies from harm.

“A repetition of the trauma (being abused in a similar way as in the past) shows you there’s still something you need to understand about how you think about what happened, or what it means to you, and how you approach your body and your life as a result,” she said.

Why We Build Walls. . .

Because of betrayals we’ve experienced in past relationships, many of us feel unsure about getting into new relationships. To protect ourselves from harm, we may build boundaries and walls inside to shield ourselves from people or situations that we fear may hurt us.

image by Lee Samuel

But those walls—like reacting to other people with distrust or hostility—can also make us feel isolated or misunderstood. We asked if it’s possible to loosen our boundaries so we can truly become close to others, and how we could go about doing that without making ourselves unsafe.

“You built that boundary because you love yourself and you had the will to survive,” King said. “But when the danger is not there anymore, you have to let go of those boundaries.” King told us that you can take certain steps to help you rethink how you approach others.

. . .And How to Take Them Down

The first step is to acknowledge that you built those walls for a reason: you needed to protect yourself from danger.

The second is asking yourself, “Why did I build this?” Looking back at what you didn’t have as a child (like protection or consistent love) and figuring out if you have it now or not is a lot of work. It means considering your past and seeing how many things in your life have changed, investigating your mind and environment consciously and seeing how safe you really are now.

The third step is to begin to take the boundary down. That’s a huge thing to do because you’re making yourself vulnerable and leaving the familiar. Say one of your former foster parents abused you by constantly cutting you down. You might have become hostile and untrusting of people, fearing that they will do the same thing. But once you become aware of this pattern you decide to try to let go of your hostility and distrust and connect to positive, caring friends and adults. That’s a great goal, but scary. You are leaving the ways of acting that you are familiar with and trying out a new way of relating to people that you hope will be better. But acting more openly might lead to getting hurt again.

When taking any risk, it’s best to have someone safe to return to for support and to reflect on the feelings that risk-taking raises inside of you. That’s where a therapist can be more helpful than a friend or even a mentor. “It’s very hard for a friend to help you feel safe enough to take such enormous risks. In most cases, it takes someone who is trained,” King said.

Seeing the Big Picture

King told us that therapists can often help their clients hear themselves. She gave us an example of a girl who says she wants to settle down, but is constantly going from guy to guy. “I would try to get her to figure out why she’s going from guy to guy if she wants to be connected to one person,” she said.

A therapist can help you think about your experiences in new ways. “Sometimes you spend so much time in your own head, you lose the creativity of thinking about your problems in a different way. Telling someone else and hearing their ideas on your problems can be good,” she told us.

Many of us believed that our therapists’ main job is to give advice on the day-to-day goings-on in our lives. But King told us that she is not there to give advice and solve problems; she’s there to observe and notice her clients’ behaviors and to pay attention to the larger themes in their lives, such as the main emotions they feel, experiences they seek out and patterns of their behavior.

She said therapists are trained to see the big picture. “We try to look for what’s behind all the details of a story: the rage, or the fear of being left again, or the worry about what’s going to become of you. Those are the bigger things, the big umbrella sort of piece behind many of your stories,” she said.

We thought therapists must become bored listening to their clients for hours, but King said even boredom can be useful. “When someone is telling a big long boring story, I use it to think, ‘What’s happening here? Why am I feeling bored’?” Sometimes people go on and on about something unimportant to avoid talking about something real or important. If the therapist points that out, they can at least talk about why the client is avoiding a more important conversation.

Speaking with Dr. King made therapy seem less scary and threatening. She helped us see that with the right person, therapy is a place where you have the freedom and safety to think and talk about painful experiences in your past, and to get help changing harmful patterns of thinking or acting, so you don’t get hurt again.

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