When I think about my psychologists and the important role that they have played in my recovery and my life, I feel very fortunate to have had them. My first interaction with a psychologist was at the age of 14, when I was struggling with anorexia nervosa. I don’t remember much about the experience, but I do remember that it was good to share my thoughts and feelings with someone who seemed to understand me. At the time, my dad was in jail and my parents had gotten a divorce — so clearly I was someone who could benefit from seeing a professional. But the truth is, the circumstances don’t have to be that extreme or warning signs don’t have to be that blatant for someone to benefit from talking to a psychologist they trust.
Before going to my psychologist, I thought that I was to blame for all my problems and for the problems my family was having. Not sure how I got to this conclusion, but I was like a lot of children and it seemed natural to blame myself. The one thing that I remember understanding from my first psychologist was that my problems at home had contributed to my eating disorder. My psychologist also scared me into understanding just how damaging my eating disorder was to my overall health and how it could affect me down the line. While I maintained my eating disorder for many more years, I had taken a very small step into understanding how my problems, family history, and anxiety were all interconnected. If you’re thinking about seeing a psychologist, I highly recommend it. Here are five important ways a psychologist helped me overcome the anxiety that plagued my life.
#1 My psychologist helped me understand that I am not to blame for my problems.
One of the first things that I was able to understand while working with a psychologist was that my problems were not my fault and that they were multifactorial. I didn’t fully understand this at such a young age, but I did know that the fact that I grew up in such a dysfunctional home without financial means helped perpetuate my eating disorder. I remember thinking that my parents sending me away to live on a kibbutz with a foster family was the result of me being a burden on my family and that I was too demanding. In reality, I was the kind of girl that would do whatever it took to please my parents and everyone else around me so that I wouldn’t be thought of as a burden.
Talking to a professional — someone outside of my family — opened my eyes to my reality. While I continued restricting my food intake for a few more months and would go on to deal with my eating disorder for many more years, I began to recognize my eating habits as problematic and took the first small steps in understanding how and why I felt the need for that control. Unfortunately, as I gained weight, I thought that I no longer needed therapy and was recovered from my anorexia. I know now that it was a big mistake to leave my psychologist and not continue with the journey that I had started, but I am grateful that I found my way back to therapy eventually. My next interaction with a psychologist was almost 13 years later, when I was in graduate school.
# 2 My psychologist helped me gain insight into my past & taught me to feel compassion toward myself.
We all have a past and different experiences that have helped shape who we are today. Some of us are able to live with our past and maintain a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle, while others have a more challenging time. Being able to process your past in a safe environment with a professional is extremely important.
When I was 20, I had a nervous breakdown after years of binging and purging. I actually started writing what I thought would be the memoir that people would read after I died. The first sentence was, “As I am writing these pages, I am dying from the horrible disease that has taken over my life and is now killing me…” I ended up writing over 100 pages of my feelings, allowing my thoughts to go as wild and free as I wanted. It was a very liberating experience that scared me and everyone around me, and while I wasn’t getting the psychological help that I desperately needed at the time, I did purge my thoughts onto the paper, which allowed me to have a lot of material to process with my psychologist almost 10 years later.
Sharing these intimate details of my life with my new psychologist in New York was a pivotal turning point in my recovery. I remember being fully aware that what I went through was horrible, but I had yet to fully process each and every event in the presence of someone who could help me make sense of it all. Understanding the neglect and abuse that I experienced and how it affected me wasn’t an easy journey. With every realization, I initially found myself more and more depressed and more anxious about the future. Sharing these experiences and feelings with a professional who was compassionate and understanding gave me the non-judgmental space to get to a place where I didn’t just understand my past experiences, but I was also able to feel again — and through a lot of tears — be sad for what I went through. This might sound counterproductive, but in fact, it was the only way to move on.
The most challenging thing for me has always been to feel compassion for the little girl who experienced what I did. When I first met with my psychologist and shared all the horrible things that happened to me in my childhood and adolescence I couldn’t help but blame myself and feel sorry for what I put my family through. When I was able to feel love and compassion for myself, it taught me how to be a comfort to myself when I encountered anxiety with current situations in my life.
Spending time with my psychologist going over various events in my past helped me gain insight into why I struggled with eating disorders and why I developed unhealthy relationships. I was able to become more secure in who I was as a person without being attached to my family and history. Clearly my history helps define me, and my family will always be a part of me, but I realized that while it will always be a part of me, it doesn’t have to define me. I can define myself and decide who I want to be.
# 3 My psychologist helped me realize that I am in control of my thoughts.
Feeling out of control and allowing our thoughts to control us can lead to very destructive patterns of behavior. Until I had worked with a psychologist and become aware that my thoughts affect my feelings and actions, it was as though I lived on auto pilot and allowed for things to just happen to me. During my teens, I cried myself to sleep night after night thinking I was a poor neglected girl who was sent away to live with a foster family. I thought that I was the only child born to parents with mental health issues and I also thought that I was the only girl who hated her body and felt stupid and ugly. Sure, all these things might have been true to some degree, but I made them a lot worse in my head and didn’t stop thinking about how miserable and sad my life was.
All these thoughts drove me to do things that almost cost me my life. I starved myself for almost two years and ended up in the hospital thinking I was going to die. I then gained some weight and binged and purged for almost nine years after that. Even at the age of 24, when I stopped binging and purging and abusing myself and my body, I allowed my thoughts to continue controlling me. I was driven by negative thoughts that led me to feel anxious and depressed, and without even being aware, I was debilitated and paralyzed by what was going on in my head. It was as though I was a prisoner of my own mind, which is really scary if you think about it. It’s also very common in people today.
If you think about what anxiety really is, it’s about fear and dread for what is coming ahead. More specifically, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes, like increased blood pressure.” Because my anxieties affected my functioning, my psychologist helped me become more aware of my thoughts, write them down, and understand how unrealistic some of my worries and anxieties were. I then learned that if I could redirect my thoughts to a healthy, more constructive place, I could reduce my anxiety and feel much better.
Of course, this was a long process and I was a very active participant in my recovery. I was dedicated to my therapy sessions and motivated to improve. I remember my psychologist telling me that it takes about 12-30 weeks to change a behavior, and I felt there was no way that was enough time to undo all the years of damaging thoughts. The truth is, though, change is possible and you are in control. It often takes a professional to help you see that, though. Do you feel that your thoughts are controlling you? Are you thinking negatively and would like to change that? These are common, but serious problems, and you don’t have to suffer with them alone.
# 4 My psychologist helped me realize that there are patterns in my behaviors and relationships.
One of the most important things that I learned while working with my psychologist was that I was constantly seeking relationships that reminded me in some way of relationships from my past. Specifically, I was seeking relationships that reminded me of my relationships with either my mother or my father.
The first and most obvious one was the relationship that I had with my first boyfriend, who was much older than me. We dated for several years, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized how many of his destructive behaviors were like those of my own father. A psychologist was able to help me see that what I was attracted to was the familiar — even if it was harmful. Even with my friendships, I was always seeking friends who needed me and my help and support. With the help of my therapist, I learned that I was most familiar with the role of the caregiver, which led me to the career that I now love. However, I needed to learn that in relationships there is a give and take and if I wanted to be involved in relationships that were healthy and fulfilling, I had to learn to set clear boundaries and also ask for others’ support when I needed it. When I met my second psychologist and talked about my husband and his traits, she asked me who my husband reminded me of. I remember thinking about his traits and realizing that he reminded me of my mother.
Just because there is a pattern in your relationships doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but awareness is so helpful. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but a psychologist can help you make sense of that hindsight in a way that leads you to more productive relationship building in the future.
# 5 My psychologist guided and supported me with finding my inner strength & helped me love and respect myself.
My journey to self love and respect was a long one. I always knew that I needed to be strong and giving up was never an option, but it took a professional’s help to actually make me see that I was capable. Understanding the root cause of my insecurities and my lack of self love and respect was one of the best gifts that I ever gave myself. Before I met my psychologist, I was too busy pleasing other people and doing whatever I could to help and support everyone else but myself. What I ended up doing was acting in ways and doing things that other people wanted me to do and not what I truly wanted to do. This hurt me in different ways because there was a gap between what I was doing and what I truly wanted to do. For instance, if someone asked me to help with a project that they were working on I would agree to help despite the fact that I had 10 projects that I was working on and didn’t have time for myself. I put others best interests before my own and the result was that I was unhappy and unsatisfied. With the help of my psychologist, I learned that I took on the role of the caretaker since I was a young child and I carried it to my adolescent and adulthood. Also, I thought that if I said no to people or disappointed people who I cared about they would not love me or want to be with me.
After years of being in therapy and working as a therapist I have a better understanding of why I acted in such ways. I am now aware that I needed to show myself the love and respect that I needed in order to live the life that I want to live and be happy. Learning how to love and respect myself helped with the reduction of my anxieties around not pleasing people as well as the fears/worries that people will not love me. I believe that if someone truly loves and cares about me, they will love me for who I truly am with all my flaws and imperfections.
I only included five ways in which psychologists have helped me become a better version of myself, but clearly there are many other ways that your psychologist can help you! If you would like to share how your psychologist helped you or how you would like your psychologist to help you, please feel free to email me with your comments.
If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!