Thank you for your informative and interesting column. I've been in therapy for several months and still have a very hard time opening up to my therapist. I started seeing a therapist for anxiety and we've been working on other things as well, such as self-esteem. I did not have the support I needed in the past which contributes to my fear of judgment from her. This is an issue for me in general; not just in therapy. I don't find that she's never encouraging but sometimes I feel that if she'd give me more reassurance/encouragement it would help me but she doesn't want to push too much since I sometimes shut down. She told me she's not judging me and it's okay to talk about whatever is on my mind but it is so hard to internalize that and encourage/be supportive to myself. How can I help myself to feel more comfortable in therapy and feel that it's normal to talk to her about anything?
Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.
What you describe is quite common. It can be difficult for many of us to open up to others for fear of being judged. On a more general level, how many of us can say that we legitimately don’t care about what others think of us? To one degree or another, and in one way or another, we are all concerned about what others think. The question is why.
What’s wrong with being judged unfavorably by others? Why should I be concerned about what is in someone else’s head? Their thoughts are their problem; why should they affect me? I should be concerned only about what I think of myself.
Of course, this makes sense only theoretically. In practice, we consciously focus largely on what others think of us. But we only care about what others think because this makes us feel something toward ourselves. When you stop and think about it, deep down we are actually only concerned about judgement by ourselves. If I felt good about myself, I wouldn’t care about what others think.
The irony is that it begins and ends with our own feelings and insecurities. If I have low self-esteem, I feel that I am essentially worthless. I project this feeling onto others, assuming (unconsciously) that they feel the same way. Any indication that I can conjure up to this effect is taken at face value and experienced as reality. I am always on the lookout for “proof” that others view me as worthless. Thus, I automatically magnify clues and intensify feelings about these “proofs.” Any indication that others may think positively toward me are ignored or quickly dismissed. My negative feelings are therefore created in my own mind and distilled through my projection onto others, ultimately reinforcing my original negative self-thoughts.
In order for us to properly address this normal, yet backwards, emotional process, we need to build own intrinsic sense of self—that which refers only to our own feelings toward ourselves. One of the first steps is to recognize—both generally and in the moment—that the negative thoughts are our own, and that we are simply using others to avoid focusing on how we feel about ourselves.
With regard to your therapy sessions, remind yourself that your concern is of feeling negatively toward yourself. Not only is your therapist not likely to judge you, but that is not even truly your concern. Discussing with your therapist this concept of why you are afraid of her judgement may also be helpful.
As you suggested, your experience in therapy is a microcosm of your general interpersonal experiences. Perhaps you can use this (possibly emotionally safer) environment as a training ground on which to begin the process of focusing on your own negative thoughts. If you find that you are able to do this and work through some of these issues, it will likely be easier for you to continue this process in other areas of your life.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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