by Marie Tan

Across many Asian societies, seeking therapy is still considered a taboo or damaging to one’s reputation. I’d grown up thinking counselling was only for those who were a little “off”, or couples about to get a divorce.

Little did I imagine that I would end up ‘doing therapy’ at multiple points during my adult life and even come to find it normal. Or that I would recommend therapy to anyone asking my opinion.

For many of us, our parents were our first therapists. All those times that they listened, nodded and provided reassurance as we grew up and encountered obstacles in our daily lives.

Yet it is different when you see a therapist, a counsellor or a psychologist (whatever title their business card may say). They are trained professionals, and someone with whom you have a transactional relationship (as opposed to a personal one). This personal distance and the impartial role they play are unlike that of any friend or family member.

The instances that incited me to seek therapy have been varied. They have ranged from basic life experiences of going through the lows of a break-up of a significant relationship of my life in my early twenties, to the anxiety of graduating from university accompanied by uncertain job prospects. They went on to include the traumatic experience of surviving being mugged at gunpoint and subsequently, residual survivor’s guilt from working in an epidemic and various war-zones in different parts of the world.

In each of these situations, therapists were instrumental in helping me examine the root causes of the turmoil within me. More importantly, therapy sessions helped me find my own peace and acceptance, which ultimately paved the way for me to move forward with less weight on my shoulders.

It’s not all peaches and roses though! I have not looked forward to or enjoyed every therapy session. There have been times when I was not yet ready, unable or unwilling to address particularly difficult issues my therapists helped me identify. But I have never been forced to talk about an experience that I didn’t want to. Nor have I been made to feel guilty or bad about how I feel.

It is strangely liberating to allow yourself to be vulnerable. To be secure in knowing you are in a safe space. That what you share during that therapy session is completely private and confidential. This allows for healing and resolution to happen, on your own terms and timeline. And throughout this process, knowing that you are not alone, but accompanied in the process of figuring things out.

I count myself truly lucky to have time and again found therapists who helped me work through the different tumultuous periods of my life. Therapy sessions helped me see things more clearly, find ways to manage my stress and to problem solve. Therapy helped me to be more gentle with myself and those around me.

Without therapy, it would have taken a whole lot longer to figure things out and regulate my emotions and find the re-set button on my own. I have been extremely fortunate that most of my therapy sessions were paid for by insurance – without that, I definitely would have had to think twice about the financial burden before embarking on finding a therapist.

I often wonder about those for whom having access to regular or long-term therapy sessions is critical to helping them cope with normal life such as those battling with chronic depression or more major mental health issues. How do they find the means to afford therapy?

I also think of how many people refrain from seeking therapy because they are scared of becoming dependent on help from an external source. Or of those who feel like their situations are so shameful or painful that no one could ever understand and help them emerge into a better place of being.

The taboo in Asia around therapy and the barriers to accessing the services of good and effective therapists must be chipped away at. For therapy is truly a form of self-care that should be embraced and promoted.

Everyone can benefit from therapy – and it’s not just an individual issue – it has a ripple effect! As a result of doing therapy, I have been able to be a better daughter, friend, colleague, collaborator, wife and mother.

Self-help is great, and so is being lifted up by family and community. But sometimes, having that outside, impartial, professional presence in one’s life – just for the one hour session a week or even every fortnight, especially during periods of crisis, can be invaluable, and dare I say it: life-changing!

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