In my experience, there is one major fear that pops up again and again as the main reason people do not want to start therapy or coaching: the fear that once they begin to look at their own “stuff,” it will be a bottomless process, fraught with ceaseless shame, from which they will never find their way back.
For many people who have experienced trauma or lived with anxiety, depression, or other forms of emotional and nervous system distress, the aim is to put their own suffering behind them and focus on getting through each day. A lot of folks have learned to disdain their emotions and feelings as being “irrational,” when what this really means is that their own emotions and the accompanying sensations feel treacherously unsafe, because they’ve never learned how to relate to them in a regulated, safe way. This creates a feedback loop in which we don’t want to explore our emotions because they feel unsafe, and our emotions continue to feel unsafe because we do not explore them.
It can be the case for people entering therapy that what comes up feels overwhelming at times. There is often a moment when you’re starting to feel comfortable and beginning to probe some of the buried elements of your inner experience, when big emotions, significant memories, or unfamiliar physical sensations can emerge. The right therapist will allow you to feel these things, as they are a critical part of the therapeutic process, while equipping you with a safe container and tools to soothe and regulate yourself.
Therapy is nonlinear and things can change quickly. One moment, you may be convinced that your own shame or suffering are endless and hopeless, and seconds later experience a shift in your nervous system or an insight that cracks this belief open and gives you some space to breathe, to relax, and to see clearly.
Of course, there is another fear that complements the fear of the bottomless emotional pit. This is the fear that your therapist will not be able to handle what you are bringing in; that what lies buried in your nervous system, your past, your psyche is so overwhelming and awful—either harm you have caused or harm that has been caused to you, or both—that it must remain buried because anyone you shared it with, even in therapy, would run in the opposite direction, disgusted and appalled.
Often what people yearn for more than anything else is to be truly seen, to bring the darkest aspects of their shadows into the light and to be held and valued regardless of what is there. To get this, though, feels impossible, because to expose oneself in this way can feel terrifying. The right therapist will understand both this desire and this fear, and will facilitate this process in a compassionate, respectful way.
So: How do you start therapy or coaching if you have this fundamental mistrust both of your own emotions and others’ abilities to handle what you are bringing in?
First, identify one or two things that feel safe enough to start with. There is absolutely no reason to dive headfirst into your most tender heartbreak or deepest trauma in therapy, and the right therapist will not start with anything that you are not comfortable with and ready for.
For example, if you are experiencing massive outbursts over seemingly small things, you might start with gaining some tools to help you regulate yourself in a few specific scenarios and then spend a few weeks practicing these tools and discussing your experience with your therapist, rather than immediately digging for the source of your rage. As you build trust and safety with your therapist, you can begin to look more deeply at the source of your big reactions and explore the underlying wounds involved.
Alternately, you might be someone who wants to start by discussing your feelings or offering some background before jumping into shifting behaviors and patterns, which is completely valid too. The key is to find the therapist who understands how to meet you where you are, and who is willing to cocreate a safe enough therapeutic environment with you before you step into your most uncomfortable places.
In choosing a therapist, utilize the free consultation sessions that many therapists and coaches offer and ask about their approaches. Asking about their backgrounds and areas of focus can be a great way to assess whether you will feel comfortable showing them your “stuff” without having to put yourself in a situation in which you feel exposed or uncomfortably vulnerable right away. For example, if you learn that a therapist has an extensive history of working with survivors of sexual trauma, you might feel more confident that they can hold your own trauma, even if you do not want to disclose it immediately.
Once you have chosen a therapist or coach, you may tell them about your fear that you will discover your pain and shame to be endless and ask them to help you pace your sharing and regulate yourself so that you do not become overwhelmed. It is critical to remember that many people share this fear, and that simply having this fear in no way indicates that it is true. There is no action, emotion, experience, or trauma that excludes anyone from being fully seen and regarded with compassion and warmth. You deserve to heal, full stop.