Let's Talk About Therapy

Let me take you back to November 2021 and introduce you to Ruben.

Ruben considers himself happy with life. He is two months into working his dream job. He is surrounded by a small but incredible group of family and friends. He has no worries about food, shelter, warmth or love. He is healthy, and in 2021 competed in a number of ultra-marathons.

Yet something wasn't right with Ruben. Often, he would get a feeling of a dark, heavy and all-consuming cloud being sat in the middle of his chest. It told him he wasn't good enough, that he was an imposter. When the feeling came it broke his resolve, stole his motivation. It came and it went, seemingly at random. The darkness was out of control. When it wasn't there, he was on top of the world. But when it came, boy did it hit hard.

If you hadn't guessed by now (and anyone who knows me well knows the name of my dog) Ruben is me.

Back in November last year, I was on top of the world in almost every aspect of my life. But I knew inside something wasn't quite right. Something was missing. I was conscious of the fact that we all have good days and bad days, but this was more than that.

I turned on my logical brain and spent weeks thinking through the various facets of my life that could be missing and nothing came to mind. A lot of the time I would get frustrated at myself - "Why do I feel like this?", "Where is this feeling coming from?", "Society says I should be happy because I have everything going for me and nothing to complain about?, "Think about the people less fortunate than you, this isn't really a problem".

I needed help. I had found the limit of what my brain could process itself and needed a guide.

Accepting Help

This was an important step for me. I've been diagnosed and treated for depression in the past and that was a lot more clear-cut. I had a very obvious problem and depression was something people needed help with, so the logical step then was to ask for help.

This was different. There as nothing to pin it on. No name to call it or event that caused it. It was a random occurrence a few times a month with no rhyme or reason. If I'm being totally honest, I didn't feel worthy of asking for professional help because in my mind my problem didn't seem 'big' enough.

Looking back now, I know I couldn't have been more wrong. To paraphrase something my therapist said to me - "You've done the right thing reaching out now. If this had grown for 20-30 years you could have been sat in this same chair but in a much worse place and with years of regrets and pain".

But it took time. It took a lot of emotional awareness and honestly an awful lot of bravery.

Mental health in men is something that was swept under the rug for years. Men don't get sad, men are brave and strong. Even the connotations of the commonly used saying "man up". If you're feeling down, be more like a man!

Fuck that!

Two words I had to say to myself a lot before reaching out for help. The mask I showed to the world was one of success and confidence, underneath the mask was imposter syndrome and self-doubt. 'Fuck that' was the most important thing I could say.

Men should be brave and strong - then for fuck sake be brave and be strong. Speak out, talk about your feelings, about your experiences and about what's going on under the mask. Don't be afraid of what people may think because I know I was! What will person Y think if they know i've been to therapy? What will my parents think knowing I'm not ok? Will my colleagues treat me differently if I'm open about my mental health?

No, people won't think them things. Because people are empathetic, compassionate and good. Anyone who isn't doesn't deserve to be in your circle.

The more I've talked about it the better it felt. Like I'd been carrying a weight around and suddenly it was lifted.

Get Talking

Talking is the single most important skill that a human has

The ability to talk about our experiences, tell stories and verbalize our feelings is fundamentally human. This goes all the way back to pre-historic times. I could tell you where the lions territory was so that you didn't risk being eaten. I could tell you which colour berries were safe and which would leave you on a heap in the ground. Other animals can communicate, but not in the same way we can.

Whilst in 2022 most of us aren't dealing with free roaming lions and poisonous berries, the same rules still apply. The more of us that tell our stories, the more confident people will feel about sharing theirs. In the same way dodging big cats and finding food would have been easier thousands of years ago.

It's something Yuval Noah Harari talks about in his best selling book Sapiens.

"We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers."

I consider the word myth and story to be interchangeable. Fiction or not, our ability to communicate stories and pass on information brings us closer together.

It's talking that brings us closer together, makes us more compassionate and allows us to acheieve great things. It allows us to see life through the lens of another human being. To hear about their struggles and their hardships. In my experience a lot of us are struggling with the exact same things.

I'm not suggesting that everyone reading this goes off and publishes a piece on the public internet. I'm suggesting that you identify the people in your life you trust the most, your 3am club. Talk to them, reach out, let them know how you're feeling. Tell them your story, you'll be amazed at how much better you feel just by sharing what is going on. A problem shared is a problem halved as they say.

And if there is no-one in your life you feel this comfortable with, or you just want an unbiased and external guide then consider seeing a professional. Nothing is too small, and if the professional tells you your problem is too small to be there you probably need to find a different professional.

My Journey

My journey was filled with worry. What will the therapist think? Do I deserve to be here? Is my problem too small? How does it actually work? Am I going to need to lie down on a big leather sofa?

Almost none of the above was true. Like a lot of things in life the worry greatly outweighed the event itself. The first meeting was like sitting with a friend and having a chat. The conversation flowed really naturally and before I knew it the hour was up. Not a leather sofa in sight and the coffee was great!

The whole experience was nothing like I expected. Granted I had no idea what to actually expect. My mental model of therapy was built completely on books and movies which isn't really a good barometer for anything in the real world. From where we started on my first session to where we finished after my third were worlds apart. Connections were made I had never even considered, let alone identifying them as where issue was.

One of the most powerful things we did was to turn off my analytical brain. I'm an extremely logical person. I analyze and search for logic and meaning. 'I feel this way so there must be a reason and I can find if if I think hard enough?' This in itself likely caused a lot of my stress. The process we went through was to connect with my emotional self by answering quick fire questions. Saying the first thing that came to mind as opposed to stopping and thinking about it. This was the breakthrough moment.

We realised the core feeling I had wasn't driven by my logic and rational brain. It was a stored emotional trauma from an event many years ago. My body had stored that trauma and used it to protect me from encountering similar emotional trauma again. The thing is, I don't need that protection any more. The problem was that my body didn't know that. My body did not know that it could release the trigger so it just stayed there. Weighing down on my chest and rearing it's ugly head whenever circumstances got a little bit difficult.

The feeling itself wasn't inherently bad. A lot of the great things I've done so far in my life were driven by this feeling of not being good enough or needing to prove something. There was a useful element to it. It's just that it wasn't useful on a week to week basis, more so in extreme situations where I just needed a kick up the arse.

There is no way I would ever have identified that myself. I could have searched and searched for years and never found it yet still needing to deal with it on a week to week basis. Now it's identified, I can take steps to move forward. I can re-engage my logial and rational brain and do the kind of thinking that I'm good at.

From there, things started flowing. Once I had a practical strategy (that I still use now) for dealing with the feeling of being weighed down it opened me up to consider so many other possibilities. I simply wasn't living a life true to myself. My logical self thought I was doing the right thing. By working hard now I would be able to retire early and have freedom in later life. This meant I used the word should way more than I should. I should read a book tonight! I should not sit and watch Netflix! I should spend all my time on self improvement!

I'll never forget the feeling when she said these 6 words to me - "But don't you have freedom now?"

I can honestly say I have never felt a feeling like it before. A completely overwhelming slap you in the face and throw a bucket of ice cold water over your head kind of realisation. It was like my emotional self had let out a huge sigh of relief, and that sigh contained a huge dose of positive emotion.

Transformational.

Once I cleared out all of my 'shoulds' I had the freedom right now that I was yearning for in 20 years. If I wanted to I could do anything. The only thing stopping me was me.

And that right there is one of the key changes I've made. I could read a book tonight! I could sit and watch Netflix. I could spend all my time on self improvement. A subtle change, but a complete flip in mindset. I gave myself permission to find that freedom now.

Moving Forward

I just want to repeat what my therapist said in my last session because I think it is so important! Especially around the feelings of not needing therapy or that you're problem isn't 'big' enough.

"You've done the right thing reaching out now. If this had grown for 20-30 years you could have been sat in this same chair but in a much worse place and with years of regrets and pain"

Putting my hand up now and tackling a problem whilst it's small and manageable may well save a much deeper issue in later years. That is exactly where I am at now. I still deal with the feelings, but I have a actionable strategy when it happens and I acknowledge that it isn't always a bad feeling.

More importantly though, I feel refreshed and energised. I have a focus moving forward, I can engage my logical brain and take real steps in my life. Steps I would never have even seen because of the fog that same logical brain brought down.

I've always said that meditation was the one single life changing thing I started to do. I would now add therapy to that list as well. Truly life changing, and I don't use that phrase lightly.

If you're reading this and feel like there is something not quite right in your life I hope it's made you feel like you're not alone. If you want to talk further about my experience please reach out.

If there's one thing to takeaway, it's to think deeply about your current situation. Be conscious of your emotional state and if something doesn't feel right talk about it. Put your hand up, speak out and ask for help. It's ok to not to be ok!