how much therapy is too much?
always. be. optimizing.
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert or writer will respond to your most pressing existential conundrums. This week, writer Sara Jin Li pens an essay about therapy, wellness, and unrelenting self-optimization.
Therapy is great. Good job everyone for recognizing the importance of mental health and doing something about it. However, everything should be taken in moderation. When/what is too much therapy? When does the pendulum swing from not addressing mental health to having 3+ therapists? — BabyCap, she/her
I didn’t grow up religious, but my therapist often tells me that I’m very Catholic-coded (not in those exact words, but that’s the gist). I have this compulsion to punish myself for every misgiving — and what that amounts to is a deep self-loathing sentiment that I should be punished forever. It’s bleak, but that’s what we’re working on!
Since that realization, there’s a quote that’s been doing rounds on Tumblr dot Com that resonates with me. It’s by author Suzanne Rivecca and goes like: “‘It has to be perfect. It has to be irreproachable in every way.” “Why?” she said. “To make up for it,” I said. “To make up for the fact that it's me.'” This inherent need to fix everything — whether broken or not — has been a running theme my entire life. Ironically, I go to therapy to talk about how much therapy I actually need.
But therapy, like any mental health practice, is just a tool. The question — your question, specifically — begs whether too much of a reliance on this tool is actually what you need, or if it's simply the churn of self-optimization.
As I’m writing this, I’m deep in a depression hole and feeling resentful about it. In the six years since my Big Mental Breakdown, I’ve done intensive trauma therapy, talk therapy, relocated across the country, stopped doing hard drugs, cut off bad influences, and gone on anti-depressants. I am overwhelmingly in a better place than I was, but here I am, unable to get out of bed despite all the evidence that my brain is better now. It does kill me, just a little, still, that better can never amount to perfect.
It’s hard to get off the self-improvement train. Wellness nowadays feels like running on an expensive hamster wheel. I say this because the world of self-improvement is a multi-billion dollar industry: According to celebrities and gurus and astrologists, we can always be healthier. More relaxed. Less bloated. Clearer skin. If we’re not feeling our best, then we’re not doing our best to be better. It’s hard, almost impossible, not to buy into that to some degree.
Therapy in itself is a privilege that many don’t have access to, whether it be financial barriers or otherwise. Regardless, the culture of self-optimization has bled into our collective existence in more mundane, insidious ways. Have you heard of therapy speak? It’s the language of using mental health diagnostic terms (ie. narcissism, toxicity, etc) to engage with the world around us. The issue with therapy speak is that unless you are a mental health professional, this language can be wildly inaccurate and harmful to your relationships.
In a late-stage capitalist society, it’s also not shocking that some are seeking to make a profit from virtual DTC therapy companies or ADHD prescription start-ups. There is a real demand for better mental health care, yes, but I’m also wary that we’re being influenced to buy into all these different avenues of “wellness” because of mass marketing. The kind of marketing that tells us that if we spend money, we’ll be shiny again.
so, how much is too much?
I’ve never had three therapists at once, but I’ve come close. But in each instance, I had a specific reason (or life event) in mind to work through. I have never done therapy for the sake of therapy, but I do think it’s beneficial to at least have an idea of what it is you’re hoping to achieve. “I don’t believe in too much healing, but I do believe that we can learn, even through therapy, how to understand when we have arrived at our healing goals,” says Dr. Mariel Buqué, a licensed trauma therapist and author of Break the Cycle. “It is important always to set the goal at the onset of a therapy journey and check in with your therapist from time to time to see how you’re both doing in reference to this goal.”
You ask when too much is too much. Dr. Buqué says that it typically takes a minimum of 8 sessions to see some breakthrough. I think everyone should experience therapy at some point in their life, if they’re able to, but I would also suggest checking in with your intentions. Why are you doing therapy? Is it to move through a past or present issue? To check a box? Or is it to strive towards the impossibility of being someone who never experiences pain or imperfection? She also notes that there are many forms of therapy outside of just talk therapy to explore, such as art therapy or E.M.D.R., or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, which asks patients to recall traumatic memories while interacting with images, sounds, or sensations that activate both sides of the brain.
Ultimately, therapy is unique to the individual and you can (and should!) work with your therapist about your specific needs. “[It’s] not supposed to be a life sentence,” says Dr. Buqué. “[Therapy] is supposed to be a learning journey where you gain the wisdom needed and then transition to integrating that wisdom into your life yourself.”
Therapy can do a lot, but it can’t circumvent life itself. At its most helpful, it gives you armor to move through life’s hardest battles and a salve for the wounds you can’t heal on your own. And for those to whom it’s inaccessible — or for whom it fails to bear the healing you’re seeking — there’s always your loved ones, mindful meditation practices, or even the pages of an empty journal to help facilitate something unexpected.
So, do you need three or more therapists? I don’t know, only you can answer that. I think moderation is less about the exact number between zero and infinity and more about the space where you can be okay with just being okay.