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On a recent Thursday night, right before yet another 6 p.m. appointment, I was rushing to get ready and meet my partner for couples therapy when I realized that one of the many things I’d let go to the wayside while work, friends, and my relationship took priority was laundry. My tried and true favorites were all in the hamper and either too wrinkled or smelly to wear out into the world. I sat in my underwear on my bed, faced with the decision yet again of what to wear to therapy, with just a bit less control than normal. I was on the edge of cancelling the appointment and swallowing the incurring fee. As inconsequential as it might be in the grand scheme of mental health, the decision about what to wear to therapy can feel monumental.
My first few experiences with therapy were not a choice; they were essentially part of an ultimatum. I was young, stubborn, and anti-authoritarian, and my parents were at the end of their rope with me. At 15, I wanted my first therapist to know that there was no winning with me, and thus dressed as the teenage early aughts equivalent of a wall — that is to say, I wore an oversized hoodie with the hood up, shrouding my forehead in mystery, and pulled the sleeves all the way down over my fingertips. I refused to talk through the whole session.
A short while later, my dad had me 5150’d when I locked myself in the bathroom and threatened to hurt myself. While I was on a 72-hour hold, I begged my parents to bring a few of my favorite pieces of clothing so I could feel like myself — I needed some semblance of normalcy to convince the psychiatrists I was of sound mind and should be sent home early. Instead, I stayed the whole 72 hours in brand new sweats that were already starting to pill. My continuing mental health issues and subsequent behavioral problems made my parents scared for me, and I was sent away to a program where all of my continued counseling sessions for the next year and a half were done in hideous uniform, consisting of a long- or short-sleeved polo shirt and khaki shorts or pants, depending on the season. The colors of polo shirt I had to choose from were navy blue, forest green, or baby blue, and I wore the navy as often as I could because it was the darkest.
I’ve always gravitated toward darker colors, and this shirt was the closest approximation to familiarity during a time when I had no control over my appearance. I wore it non-negotiably during my weekly “issues talks,” which were the program’s rendition of therapy, even though none of the staff members were trained counselors (a story for a different day). Perhaps it’s because I had such a lack of control over the way I dressed that I now have such a fascination with my presentation and often change my look, even subtly. I’ve since dabbled with therapy a few times over the years. While I was seeking an individual therapist, I wanted to dress in such a way that showed I was in control of my life, and thus of the conversation that happened in the room. I’d never held the reins during these conversations before, and wanted to set a new tone.
When I went to therapy at the time, I tended to wear no-nonsense clothes: jeans that fit well, a crisp top or a nice sweater, and some boots that made me feel like a grown-up. As an individual, entering a therapy session wherein I’d be expected to be vulnerable (and, knowing myself, cry a bunch), I wanted my outfit to at least look polished. However, my efforts resulted in mostly bad experiences — one therapist told me she was overwhelmed by the things I told her during our first session while another tried to diagnose me with OCD during intake, a disorder which I do not have. Another still simply looked at me like she was worried, until I wrote her a check and walked out, never to make a return appointment.
By now I’ve mostly decided that while I agree therapy is good for some, it’s not for me as an individual. However, my partner and I are getting married in April and have decided to do couples therapy together, so I’m finding myself back in the frustrating once-a-week position of trying to convey how I’m feeling not only through what I say but also through how I’m dressed — especially now that I have more dominion over the choice than ever.
I brought up the quandary of what to wear to therapy with friends, and the response was interesting. Some of my friends immediately lit up, glad they weren’t the only ones who put thought into the topic. Of these friends, some said they often wore “comfy clothes” to therapy because they wanted their therapist to know they were needed, while others were the opposite; they wanted their therapist to know they had it together, so they went for a much more buttoned-up look. Different friends slowly showed signs of recognition as they realized they had been dressing a certain way for therapy but hadn’t necessarily been doing it consciously. Other friends still never had and probably never will dress for their therapists.
Now, when I get dressed for couples therapy, I approach the task a bit differently than I did when I was dressing for individual sessions. I dress a little more comfortably, perhaps because I’m only expected to do half of the work in the room. I want our therapist to believe in me and my commitment to the relationship, but I also need her to understand the nuances of my mental health issues, trust issues from prior relationships, and PTSD, as well as how they play out in my dynamic with my partner (a tall order for a pair of kick-flare jeans or a turtleneck).
I also don’t want to waste an outfit that I love on therapy, and I certainly don't wish to associate some of my favorite clothes with the act of being vulnerable and crying on the subway after an intense session. And so I wear plain leggings, nondescript sweatshirts, and threadbare tees — things that are comfortable, but that also say next to nothing about me. I wear clothes that let me do the talking.
In the end, that Thursday, I went with jeans and a sweater that my partner and I frequently share, with the words “I did my best” emblazoned on the front. And during our session, I started to feel really uncomfortable — uncomfortable with the feeling that our therapist was judging me, judging my outfit, wondering just what my outfit choice meant. But in the end, it ended up being one of our best sessions because I opened up about that very feeling, and ultimately, my underlying control issues. Now, I’m not putting that all on the sweater I would’ve never worn had it not been for laundry day, but I do think that had something to do with it.
The thing is, we put a lot of stock into how we present ourselves to other people. Especially considering the stigma that comes with having mental health issues, many folks who go to therapy often want to present a certain image, not just to the world but also to our therapists. I’m constantly worrying about how other people perceive me, especially because I want to be a “good example” for what someone with anxiety and depression looks like (whatever that means!), and what we wear has a lot to do with that, whether it’s fair or not.
Dressing for therapy is the insecurity of worrying what strangers think about us amplified, because it's now being taken to a space we're expected to be our most vulnerable selves. I think it’s okay to be a person who dresses for therapy, and that it says less about me or my penchant for fashion than it does about the things that have happened in my past — the very things I’m in therapy to dive into, and perhaps to overcome. I don’t think it’s frivolous to be particular about my presentation, especially now when there is so much we can’t control. I'm learning that it's fine to be gentle and to give myself a little more time in my underwear before each session, going through my garment rack to make sure I feel good about the outfit I've put together when I bravely step into that room. But I’m also starting to learn that lack of control is inevitable and that vulnerability can be wonderful, and it’s okay to let it become part of your very fabric.