The Healing Power of Telling the Truth in Therapy

I was recently listening to a podcast called “Tell Me Something True,” hosted by Laura McKowen, author of “We are the Luckiest” and founder of “The Luckiest Club,” a sober support space. Laura hosted Dr. Anna Lembke, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic at Stanford University. Much of this blog post is inspired by thoughts shared by both Dr. Lembke and Laura on the episode called “Our Dopamine Nation.”

In the episode, Laura and Dr. Lembke talk about the role of therapy in recovery from addiction; how social media has become both an addictive and sometimes toxic space for people; and the healing power of being able to tell the truth in therapy. There are tons of interesting ideas that came up in their conversation. I’ve chosen three that stood out to me to expand upon here.

1. Therapy is not just about someone listening to us talk about our problems. It is about being able to tell the unfiltered truth (maybe even for the first time).

Therapy provides us with the unique opportunity to tell the unfiltered truth to someone. These may be unspoken truths about ourselves or difficult things that have happened in our lives. These truths need not even be “big things;” they could be a series of small things that we deny to ourselves (consciously or subconsciously) because they are just too painful to acknowledge. They could be white lies that keep repeating themselves, and we aren’t even sure why.

Not telling the full truth to ourselves and others is often not intentional – it’s just this thing that can slowly happen over time as a protective mechanism from pain, and this eventually starts to erode our sense of congruence.

Truth telling starts as a slow process in therapy. As we start to piece together our stories with a supportive professional, the truth weaves itself into a more cohesive narrative. We might not even know truths about ourselves until we start to say our stories out loud. When we are able to speak the truth, Dr. Lembke states that we are able to “put the world in order.” Putting the world in order helps our lives to make more sense to us. When our stories don’t make sense, and the puzzle pieces don’t quite fit, this can lead to a sense of unease and anxiety.

2. Unless we really know why things happen, we can’t make informed decisions. Therapy helps us understand the “why” so that we can figure out what do to next.

Figuring out the “why” often involves taking a trip back in time to our formative years: childhood, relationships with our parents, romantic relationships, friendships, and significant events that have happened. It is crucial to understand the “why” in order to contextualize our current behaviors (especially ones that we wish to change). If we can understand how things came to be, we can learn more about things that presently trigger us. Knowing our triggers allows us to better utilize a “pause” button to respond as things happen, rather than reacting in the heat of the moment. We can make better decisions going forward in our lives when we understand our “why.”

3. When we tell the truth, people are drawn to us and this promotes intimacy. Therapy is a safe place to practice this.

Time and time again, clients have voiced to me their fear that they are unique in how much they have screwed up in their lives, and it is terrifying to acknowledge the truth out loud. This is actually not a unique experience; we all think we are more f*ed up than the person next to us, when that is seldom true. Everyone has their own version of problematic in their lives. Therapy becomes an amazing space to test out vulnerability with someone who we can trust not to judge us (or repeat what we say). When we share our struggles, we ease our suffering. We are reminded of our shared humanity and that we not in it alone.

When we can share our unfiltered truth and test out being more honest about our feelings, we can experience being accepted fully for who we are. Therapy is so valuable because our most impactful experiences almost always happen in context of relationships. Reading self-help books and doing work on our own absolutely has its place; but in my humble opinion, there are some types of healing that can only happen through the process of being truly seen and accepted by someone else who knows our truths. When we can learn to tolerate emotional intimacy and vulnerability through truth telling in therapy, this translates to all of the other relationships in our lives. We learn to create more depth in our relationships; to show up as our authentic selves; to pursue our goals and dreams with confidence; and to seek out healthy, loving people in our lives.

In summary, telling our true stories is an essential part of our growth and healing.

When it comes to our mental health, all roads lead back to the willingness to be radically honest about our lives. When we are honest, we are lighter – even when the truth isn’t pretty. It simply feels better not to hide (from others or ourselves).

Whether you seek out this opportunity for honesty and truth telling through therapy, a life coach, your journal, or a trusted confident; all that you can do is start somewhere. It will be messy, uncomfortable, and imperfect. But if you can continue to put one foot in front of the other and go all in on the process, the benefits are immense.

How can you bring the concept of truth telling and honesty to your life today?

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On Transition

As the sticky summer heat fades into chilly fall mornings that greet us with the crunch of leaves under our feet, we are reminded of how temporary everything is. We wait all year for summer, and then it’s over in a blink. We savor the brief interlude of fall’s beauty before winter comes through with its darkness and chill.

This fall season, nature’s transition, becomes an opportunity to reflect on our own personal transitions, like starting up work again; ending a relationship; moving; going away to college; or having a baby.

When transitions occur, we make lots of arbitrary rules for ourselves in an attempt to get some ground under our feet.

We impose strict routines, rigid schedules, and abide by fixed ideas that place things into neat and tidy categories.

On the one hand, these structures can be building blocks for sound mental health. They are stabilizing, grounding, and help us simplify our little corner of a complicated world.

However, there is a shadow side to this intense structure. When we are beholden to these fixed habits, routines, and rules, we may unintentionally be going against the natural current of our lives.

This rigidity might be avoidance of our inevitable encounters with new versions of ourselves that are born of transitions.

When our lives change, we change. The fabric of who we are becomes newly woven with experiences that shape us into someone different.

There is a new you that emerges with each new chapter. In one lifetime, we will meet many different versions of ourselves.

Anxiety can result when we cling in desperation to who we were before, when that “you” isn’t there as it was before. We experience internal tension when we fight this newness and attempt to return to what was before.

After all, it’s scary to change. We spend a lot of energy curating and cultivating the person we want to be. When our lives and circumstances change and we find ourselves becoming someone we don’t recognize in the mirror, it is unsettling at best and more likely terrifying.

We are reminded that a lot of the control we *think* we have is really an illusion and an attempt to feel safe in a truly unpredictable life.

This is not to say that who you were is gone when things change – but rather, more colors are added to the fabric of your identity and threads of wisdom are gifted to us.

An antidote to anxiety in the face of transition is radical acceptance, which means that we accept reality for what it is, rather than willing it to be different. When we let go of the illusion of control that we all so desperately seek, we can experience a huge exhale, like the one that happens after a good, long cry. The relief of this exhale comes from acceptance of the flow of life’s seasons and chapters – rather than resistance.

My heartfelt message to you is this: It can feel scary to change, but it’s healthy (and inevitable) that we change.

If you can hold on through the feelings of groundlessness that accompany these transitions, there can be something beautiful on the other side. This is not to say that all routine and structure be thrown away; rather, it can be helpful to use these methods as tools to ground you as you make room for new things to emerge.

Breathe through the changes, be gentle with yourself as you adapt, and keep an open mind as you get to know new parts of yourself through these transitions. While change might start out as feeling scary and unwanted, it may just be the beginning of a beautiful metamorphosis.

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