My Therapist Says

My Therapist Says Restlessness Can Be Rewarding

Feeling antsy isn’t a character flaw but a sign

I’ve always considered myself a pragmatist — when facing a challenge, I often try to take a breath, go eat something, get some rest, and revisit with a fresh perspective in the morning. Don’t get me wrong — I make decisions based on gut feelings all the time. I just try to give it time to clarify and not make emotional decisions impulsively. Often it’s not a crisis; I’m just hungry.

But one day I came across a problem that no amount of snacking and waiting could solve: What should I do about my marriage? The question sat there like a rock, obstructing my path. I wasn’t used to being so clueless about my own feelings, so after months of this, I did the pragmatic thing and started seeing a therapist. I’d never gone to therapy before, but I’d seen people do it on TV, and if nothing else, it might be interesting.

Dr. S saw his patients in the library in his house, located in a charming part of central London that I’d never considered as a place where normal people lived. I mean, I’d literally run into the Harry Potter walking tour on my way there. Dr. S was an older gentleman with kind eyes and partial to house slippers and a vest over his collared shirt. During our sessions, I’d sit in an antique-looking chair covered in blue velvet, and if my eyes started to water, Dr. S would retrieve a silver box of tissues and place it on the rosewood table to my side. He would sit with his back to the stained glass windows, scrawling notes on large sheets of paper — I never saw them, but I gathered it was some sort of spider chart. I imagined it as a map of my brain, connecting everything about me in increasing details. If I changed topics, he’d flick though the sheets, through the layers of my brain, to continue in the right place.

Dr. S helped me find the answer to my initial question about my marriage almost immediately — two or three sessions tops. I’m divorced now because once I could see clearly, the rest was simple — painful, yes, but not complicated. Intrigued to find out what else Dr. S might be able to help me unlock, I stayed.

One day, I mentioned my experience of feeling constantly a little restless — like I didn’t have a steady resting state, always seeming to be wanting something more, something different. I’d learned to live with it, I told Dr. S, because letting restlessness run the show would be to live in chaos. Because I’ve realized, I told him, that this restlessness doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything majorly wrong with my life, and I don’t have to immediately throw my relationship or job out the window or overhaul my outlook on life — it’s just one of those things you feel sometimes. Right? Dr. S looked up from his spider chart notes, meeting my eyes: “Or maybe that restlessness you feel is unexpressed creativity?”

The question rang like a clear bell, like that moment in a gathering when people’s voices have risen to a loud hum and someone taps a spoon on a glass — the soft, clear sound cuts through, and the room falls suddenly quiet. I’d experienced these moments of restlessness for so long — 10, 20 years maybe; I remember it from when I was a teenager. Not once had this occurred to me. Creativity!

This feeling isn’t here to torture me but to remind me that there might be more to life than to get to a place where things don’t suck and to try to be grateful.

Dr. S made me realize that for all those years I’d been solely focused on the negative implications of my restlessness. It would come over me in the moments when my life seemed to be going mostly okay, and it frustrated me: Why couldn’t I be happy with what I had, just for a moment! But Dr. S’s throwaway comment bust my neatly wrapped thinking wide open. My restlessness didn’t necessarily have to be a sign that I would always be wanting and never get a moment’s peace. My restlessness could simply be a sign that maybe it was time to be ambitious. This feeling isn’t here to torture me but to remind me that there might be more to life than to get to a place where things don’t suck and to try to be grateful. My restlessness could simply be a sign, as Dr. S said, to express some creativity.

I still get restless — that hasn’t changed. But now I see restlessness as a reminder to consider whether I need to challenge myself more in my work. It tells me to check if I’ve been outside enough lately and spent enough time with other people. It’s a suggestion to put my phone down and read a book instead. Am I doing the things that I love? It’s a nudge that maybe it’s time to do something that has no practical purpose at all, like join a dance class or start painting again — push myself out of the same loops that I go over and over in my mind. I am a bad dancer and an even worse painter, but something wonderful happens when I do those things.

Dr. S never actually spoke all that much during our sessions. Sometimes I think that the most powerful thing about seeing him was simply the space it opened up: Inside those 50 minutes, there was nothing else to do but to sit with my thoughts. Even now, years later, I sometimes pretend I’m in that room when I feel like I need a hand in finding an answer. I picture him looking up at me over his spider charts, asking the simplest question, and then waiting in silence until I figure it out myself.

Journalist and Londoner. I write about culture, urbanism, agency around health, and how technology is changing the way we live.

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