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Let’s talk therapy

By Salve Villarosa Published Nov 18, 2022 5:00 am

One of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to empower individuals to make better decisions. Over the last few years, more and more Filipinos have been open to normalizing the discussion and treatment surrounding mental health. Being able to admit to ourselves and to those around us that we struggle with our mental health is a huge step all on its own. But the next step—choosing to seek help—can sometimes seem just as overwhelming. Where does one even begin?

My own struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder took me to countless waiting rooms all over Manila, leaving a long list of therapists in my wake. It’s been a decade since I was first diagnosed, and although I’ve since found the treatment that fits me, I can still remember how fraught those early days were. Back then, all I wanted was for someone to tell it to me straight—no highbrow medical jargon involved—and say, ‘Buckle up, buttercup. This is what life in therapy is really like.’”

 Back then, all I wanted was for someone to tell it to me straight and say, ‘Buckle up, buttercup. This is what life in therapy is really like.’”

So, in the interest of providing the kind of real talk that I wished I had as a therapy newbie, I reached out to Steph Naval, founder and CEO of Empath, and Meg Yarcia, counselor and author of Dear Meg: Advice on Life, Love, and the Struggle, and asked if they could give it to us straight and demystify therapy for anyone wishing to take that first step.

YOUNG STAR: Let’s start with the basics. What is therapy, and how do you know if you need it? What’s the difference between therapy and counseling?

STEPH NAVAL: Psychotherapy may include finding relief from distress, changing ways of thinking and acting to improve the quality of (life), moving on from deep-seated past traumas, coping with everyday stress, and resolving interpersonal conflicts. Psychotherapy is useful not only to those struggling with severe mental health concerns, but to everyone, as we can all improve our coping strategies to day-to-day stress and gain different perspectives about life. 

MEG YARCIA: Counseling (can) refer to a more proactive approach to looking after ourselves, whether or not we have mental health struggles. You get to articulate these intrusive thoughts in your head, look at them from a few steps back, and then you get the input of a counselor who can offer a different perspective. Most of the time, it’s this access to different viewpoints about the same issue that helps.

To those going to therapy for the first time, comfort is important so you can actually open up about your troubles.

Conversely, what does therapy not involve?

STEPH: Therapists do not provide specific solutions for your problems. Your therapist’s goal is to empower and equip you with skills and strategies that you can use to make better decisions and to cope better with your situation. 

MEG: I think here it would be useful to distinguish between psychological problems and problems of circumstance. Therapy cannot solve problems with factors that are not within the client’s control. But it can change the way you look at them, and the way you handle them.

The mind and the body goes hand in hand, and your recovery or progress may be quicker when you adapt a more holistic approach to your healing process. 

How do we know when we’ve found the right therapist?

STEPH: When you can be honest and open with your therapist without needing to apologize for sharing raw emotions and scattered thoughts, (and when) you feel encouraged and comfortable enough to clarify, question, dispute information during sessions.

Journaling about your sessions allows you to document your reflections, discoveries, and questions that may have popped up outside therapy.

MEG: To those going to therapy for the first time, comfort is important so you can actually open up about your troubles. But at some point you will also need someone who will challenge you, and that entails some discomfort. Focus on your goals, and go with the therapist who keeps you moving forward.

What are some ways we can set boundaries with friends and family who may invalidate our decision to seek help?

STEPH: You do not need someone else's approval to make yourself a priority. Let them know that what’s best for them may not necessarily be best for you.

MEG: I think it’s important that we determine whose opinions we will pay attention to. For me, it’s people who care about building a life of growth, joy, and meaning. Anyone who doesn’t believe in that does not deserve space in our heads.

A good therapist will gradually wean you from sessions when huge progress becomes apparent.

It can be tempting to dump all your concerns at your therapist’s door and only work through them in sessions. Do you have any tips on how to integrate the healing process into one’s lifestyle?

STEPH: Journaling about your sessions allows you to document your reflections, discoveries, and questions that may have popped up outside therapy. This way, you can track your progress and also remind yourself of the things you may want to ask in sessions. (Also) strive to improve your mental and physical health. The mind and the body goes hand in hand, and your recovery or progress may be quicker when you adapt a more holistic approach to your healing process. 

How do you know when you’re ready to stop seeing your therapist?

STEPH: One of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to empower individuals to make better decisions and have healthier coping strategies so they can have a better quality of life. This means that the therapist should not limit the (client) from being self-reliant. A good therapist will gradually wean you from sessions when huge progress becomes apparent. This will be communicated clearly so you can prepare yourself to be independent.

One of the primary goals of psychotherapy is to empower individuals to make better decisions and have healthier coping strategies

MEG: I always tell people that sometimes, our role is simply to point you in the direction of friends or community that will provide the support you need, or help you learn what you need to learn to achieve your goals. Once you have that support system, you may find that you no longer need your therapist, and personally, I would find that rewarding.

For you personally, what is the most beautiful aspect of mental health treatment?

STEPH: Healing is a continuous process and not a one-time thing. Instead of looking at mental health treatment as a flight of stairs that you have to climb whenever progress is made, we can visualize (it as) scales: having sound mental health is all about maintaining a balance between our strengths and our efforts to improve on what we have less of.

MEG: In counseling—and I believe this goes for both the counselor and the counselee—you gain a fuller understanding of your humanity. You learn that everyone has a story, and I’d like to think, at their core, a good heart, and you realize it is possible to appreciate or even love everybody, despite their imperfections.