12 months post-counselling: Lessons learned

It’s now been over twelve months since my last counselling session, dealing with the issues I had with anxiety and self-esteem. As with any professional therapy, it can be quite cathartic talking through one’s issues, but any real change involves a lot of homework – the therapist plants the seeds, but you have to take them away and nurture them.

This past year, I’ve been taking what I learned from those weeks of counselling and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), fleshing them out, putting them into practice, tweaking, probing, experimenting and drawing conclusions. There are three main lessons I’ve learned from all of this:

It’s okay to be an introvert

Through my teens and twenties, I was of the belief that, to get anywhere in the world, you needed to quite loud, assertive and sociable. I wasn’t ever going to find someone or start a family if I didn’t actually go out and meet people, and my career would be stuck at the bottom if I wasn’t visibly networking.

Introversion isn’t just some illness that can be cured – it is a significant part of my personality. I simply don’t need as much social interaction as others, and I’m much happier in small-yet-close circles. I find it difficult having fun in loud or crowded spaces, and when I’m in such a place, I want to bail out after as little as thirty minutes. I derive the same amount of fun from listening to an LP or watching a good sci-fi film – boring as that may seem to a lot of people, it’s a case of each-to-their-own.

My introversion was never the problem – it was the persistent belief that I needed to be somebody more visible against my will.

Mind-reading and catastrophising don’t mix

Having been an introvert trying to live in an extrovert’s clothing, I was often obsessed with making sure other people saw me in a positive light – in the absence of any mind-reading abilities, I was frequently analysing their posture, body language and tone of voice for signs of approval or disapproval. If that wasn’t enough, my brain was always giving me the worst case scenario in the event of any ambiguity, feeding me all these negative words that I began to believe about myself. Dwelling on this only ever made me anxious or, at worst, paranoid. I believe it all stems from a fear of gossip, shame and embarrassment – when you’re trying so hard to improve your standing on the social ladder (for an introvert, that takes a LOT of work), the last thing you want is to be knocked down a rung or two.

It took me quite a while, and quite a bit of practice, to live in the present, stop over-thinking about something I have no control over and to stop living for other people who don’t matter. With this anxiety lifted, I no longer take myself quite so seriously, I can laugh about myself without becoming self-deprecating, and I feel a lot less tense. If I find myself trying to mind-read, I also try and tell myself that unvoiced opinions can be positive too.

There are no “normal” people

When we talk of normality, it’s usually in the context of something measurable and analytical; if we get sub-zero temperatures in the summer, we know that’s abnormal because we have historic data showing that summer temperatures have never been that cold. You can’t apply the same methodology to determine a “normal” person since you can’t quantify individual personalities.

Certain behaviours may be perceived as “normal”, but this only implies statistical likelihood within a given sample. I wore my utility-kilt when I went to Derby last Saturday – it was a lovely day so it kept me cool and comfortable, but it’s likely I was the only bloke in the whole city centre that did so – that doesn’t imply that I am abnormal, just that the odds of finding a kilt-wearing bloke in Derby are extremely low. I probably looked a bit of an oddball, but nobody said a thing – some may have found it weird, others may have found it inspiring. Who knows? All I know is that I couldn’t have done that 12 months ago.

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