A lot of anxiety and hesitation about beginning therapy is connected to a social stigma that expresses itself differently at different times in our lives but has a similar theme: “I should be ‘over’ this by now.” This sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth. Because each of our psychological profiles is literally unique, there’s no time that’s too late to begin therapy; that’s like saying, “It’s too late to start exercising”. Not only does this sentiment lead people to delay seeking a therapist or ending therapy prematurely, but it also prevents people from solving problems in their lives. This delay can often lead to those problems getting worse.
For the next few weeks, I’m going to post about why starting therapy is beneficial for emotional and sexual growth at different stages of life, roughly defined by decade. So don’t worry: we’ll get to your age group soon! And if any of these situations describe you, feel free to speak out in the comments or to reach out to me personally. Without further ado, continue reading to find out how therapy benefits emotional and sexual growth especially during the 20s.
During our late teens and early 20s, we begin to separate from our family and primary caregivers – we become our own individual people. According to Erik Erikson’s paradigmatic psychological model, we begin establishing our autonomy between 18 months and 3 years of age, and it is a process that continues as we become more psychologically mature, through adolescence and early adulthood. We might call this process ‘differentiation’, where we come to see ourselves as different from our families though still part of them.
It’s Time to Fly! Wait…Don’t Let Go!
In family systems therapy, I view differentiation as creating physical and emotional independence while remaining part of a family system. As we grow and as our parents become conscious of our separating, it can be a difficult time for both parents and children, leading to conflict especially between parents and teenagers. The negative effects are especially notable in unhealthy family systems with poor boundaries. A healthy family system allows this process to naturally occur and its members are individually supportive of the process. An unhealthy system, such as one with poor physical and emotional boundaries, will try to prevent the process, leading to stunted emotional growth for children and unresolved conflicts. Unresolved conflicts and resentments between parents and children can last decades and have effects that are difficult to predict.
Therapy benefits emotional and sexual growth of children raised with healthy or unhealthy differentiation systems. But in either case, it can be vital to seek therapy in your 20s, because the process of differentiation often hasn’t ended yet, meaning that there is still time to improve how it concludes. For children from healthier family systems, this can mean working on communication techniques that allow children at the last stages of dependency on parents to transition to an adult-adult communication pattern that can be especially difficult for any family to master. Children from less healthy family systems often benefit from deeper psycho-analytic insights into why they continue to have significant conflicts with their parents, and why some of these conflicts may have negative effects in seemingly unrelated parts of their lives.
Leaving the Nest (and have Great Sex!)
Emotional development and maturation in adolescence is related to physical and sexual development, as well, all of which is complicated by significant changes in our social, romantic, and sexual lives in our 20s. Sexual development begins during infancy through exploration of the body through touch. Infants and babies also explore other people’s bodies through touch as well. However, the shame and stigma associated with sexual development could stunt the growth of a sexual identity or create confusion in early adulthood, an issue (not surprisingly) related to how families discuss and think about sexuality. I work with many clients experiencing anxiety or confusion around sexual identity. Many of these clients are in relationships or marriages that are unconsummated or sexless due to lack of understanding the self, how to communicate about sex with others including a partner or spouse, and/or differing ideas and preferences about sexual activity. This is, yet, another reason how therapy benefits emotional and sexual growth.
Whether you come from a healthy or unhealthy family system, therapy in your 20s can support your growth as functioning adult and help you recognize the impact of your family on your growth and relationships with others. The therapeutic work is different depending on each family, but this shouldn’t surprise you. Just like no two individuals are exactly alike, no two families are exactly alike either. Therapy can help you determine just how your family has helped (and hindered!) your growth, and how you’d like that process to continue into adulthood.