From therapy skeptic to Zencare founder: How I found my ideal therapist
by Yuri Tomikawa
My therapy story is a bit complicated, but here it goes!
Navigating academic stress as an Asian student in an Ivy League college
I first tried therapy my freshmen year at Brown University. I was struggling; in addition to the transition to college and a new country, I was also coming to grips with my parents’ unexpected separation, navigating a long-distance relationship, and pressuring myself to perform at the same academic level I had in high school.
At the time, going to therapy had never crossed my mind. I spent most of my life in Tokyo, where people didn’t discuss their emotional struggles and the concept of therapy was never brought up. When one of my friends at Brown first suggested going to Counseling Services, I was actually offended: “How could she think I need counseling! I’m not crazy!” However, as I became more immersed in the Brown community, I realized that it was common for students to seek support and that it could result in positive change. I eventually made an appointment at Counseling Services and and attended my first therapy session.
My college therapy experiences didn’t leave a strong impression on me. It must have helped to some extent because I went back a few times, but I hardly remember any of the sessions. They were always for in-the-moment, urgent needs related to academic pressure – I had to finish a paper but couldn’t stop panicking and crying; I couldn’t get myself to study anymore for an exam; I couldn’t decide on whether to study abroad or not due to analysis paralysis.
Over the course of my first semester, I continued to feel I was losing control of my life and decided to take time off. The break point was finding out I had gotten a B in an Econ 101 exam. My entire system shut down. I spoke with a very kind dean who explained the situation to my dad (which at the time felt like the end of the world) and we eventually came to the conclusion that I could use some time away from school. I know it was a difficult situation for my dad to wrap his head around, so I’m eternally grateful for his understanding.
I returned to Japan, started an internship, and began seeing a counselor recommended by a former high school teacher. I never told anyone and paid for my sessions with savings from my allowances. Therapy was still a highly private matter for me – I felt embarrassed and afraid of being judged.
While I was experiencing a variety of challenges in college, including depressive phases and bulimia for a number of years, what always drove me back to therapy was my academic and career stress. I kept coming back to the question, “what do I want to do with my life?”
Figuring out my career post yuppie consultant life
After graduation, I worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company. I had a vibrant, practically dreamlike yuppie life in New York, but was still struggling to make sense of my career. After two years at my consulting job, I started an event planning company, but realized after a few months that it wasn’t what I wanted to do in the long run. I was totally lost about what to do next and decided to see if a therapist or life coach might be able to help me sort it out.
Looking for a therapist was a frustrating, overwhelming, and discouraging process. As many people do, I started my therapist search online, but all the insurance websites and therapist listings left me discouraged and at a loss. Every therapist profile sounded the same and when I did try reaching out, I was led to a dozen voice mailboxes and 'contact me' forms with no guarantee of a response. Most therapists didn't list accurate fees, and when I reached out, they would tell me they weren't offering the sliding scale they mentioned online anymore. It was only after over a month of searching, creating lists of names, and phone and email tags that I finally found a provider.
Finding the right therapist
When people say that the right therapist can change your life, it’s true. My therapist has been an incredible source of support in navigating the ups and downs of starting a business, and has helped me rebuild a healthier and happier relationship with my parents and sister. Every session with her feels like speaking with a wise advisor who lifts a cloud off my shoulders and gives me a big smile and clear direction to take home.
I think my recent experiences with therapy have been so much more fulfilling because of a combination of luck in finding a provider who fit me well and and my own personal growth. I’m more assertive, clear about what I want to gain from each session, and discuss whenever something doesn’t feel productive or effective. As my therapist helped me heal my past emotional struggles, I also developed the mindspace to make lasting changes in addition to dealing with immediate concerns.
I’ve since worked with another therapist on processing past experiences, and a life coach on achieving ambitious business goals while taking self care. I LOVE my providers. I see myself continuously grow as a person, and have become an avid proponent of therapy and coaching for young professionals. As a result of my own experience, I eventually started Zencare, a website that empowers individuals to find their ideal therapist.
Investing in my happiness and future success through therapy
As the owner of an early-stage, bootstrapped startup, my income is limited, and I know therapy is an active financial decision for many of my young professional friends, too. I prioritize my therapy and coaching budget because my ambitious business and personal life thrive when I’m able to be my best, happiest, most grounded self. Therapy gives me the opportunity to work on issues as soon as they arise, build the skills to resolve them on my own the next time they come around, and develop healthy habits and mindset patterns now so I can benefit from them for the rest of my life. So much of my struggles from college were a culmination of not addressing them head-on for a long time. For me, my happiness, wellbeing, and future success as a whole person are worth the time and financial investment of therapy, just like an education or a gym membership.
Finding a therapist who makes you feel heard and helps you achieve tangible progress can be difficult. While I don’t rave about my first few therapists, I’m glad I sought support and continued to look for the right fit. Even just having someone compassionate and professional to speak with was helpful, and it was an entryway into eventually finding a provider who was a great fit for me.
It’s been a windy path for me, but totally worth it.
Yuri Tomikawa is the Founder & CEO of Zencare. She was selected MedTech Boston's 40 Under 40 Healthcare Innovators for her work in improving patient access to mental healthcare and has appeared as a keynote speaker on entrepreneurship, mental health, and female empowerment. She is a graduate of Brown University and former management consultant at McKinsey & Company.