Why does it hurt to be a client in Psychotherapy?

One of the most common myths that I debunk for my clients is that psychotherapy is not just about coming to sessions regularly and talking about their problems. Some of the sessions can be really hard – both for the client and myself (the therapist). Pushing a client slowly outside their comfort zone can be a slippery slope. At the same time it is discomforting for an individual to face things they have been avoiding or defending against  feeling their own pain for a long time. Is it then necessary to stretch limits in therapy sessions?

A recent discussion on social network Quora comes to mind. I am sharing the point of view of Dr. Anita Sanz who is a clinical psychologist in USA. You can read the full discussion here.

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These are good questions. Why does therapy hurt? Why don’t clients feel better when they are in therapy?

Physical Therapy for the Body

One way to think about it is to consider how physical therapy is used to help physical problems. Some people see physical therapists after a trauma like a car accident or after they have “yanked their back out.”

They may work with a physical therapist in a rehabilitation center or outpatient clinic to regain their former physical capabilities, to help prevent long-term physical problems that can happen as a result of how the body tries to adapt to injuries, and to help them achieve complete physical independence.

Sometimes physical therapy is prescribed to deal with a chronic or progressive physical condition like arthritis or degenerative disc disease…not because the PT is going to heal or “cure” the problem, but to help the person learn ways to lessen symptoms and keep what mobility and range of movement they can in spite of the disorder.

Psychotherapy is PT for the Non-Body

Psychotherapy is like physical therapy for the “non-body” parts of you.

It can help a person after a traumatic childhood or after an immediate crisis to heal and be able to function normally.

It can help a person to correct dysfunctions and achieve their full potential cognitively, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and in their community.

It can help a person who has a mental health diagnosis that must be managed for a lifetime (chronic depression, bipolar disorder, addictions are a few) to learn ways to cope with their disorders better.

The goal may not be a “cure,” but to learn how to manage the disorder and get the best quality of life possible living with the disorder.

Does Good Therapy Have to Hurt?

If you’ve ever come back from a physical therapy appointment and not been sore, like you’ve been pushed past a limit you’d rather not have gone past, then you’re likely not going to get much out of your physical therapy.

In psychotherapy, you have to push beyond what feels comfortable to change. Growth, change, and healing depend upon stretching beyond the norm you’ve been limiting yourself to either because you’re in pain, you’re afraid, or you don’t know what to do to make any positive change.

Out of Your Comfort Zone

So, yeah, the short answer is that unless you are willing to feel at least some discomfort, get into some feelings that you normally don’t want to feel, talk about things that you don’t normally talk about…therapy probably isn’t going to help you much.

But a good therapist is not going to help you unpack all of your emotional stuff and then leave you to pick up the pieces at the end of a session and carry on. He or she will carefully assess how much time there is to get into certain issues and topics, will pace interventions appropriately, and teach you ways to manage the additional discomfort that therapy can bring up.

But Good Therapy is Like PT, not Massage

Good psychotherapy should be like good physical therapy. You should feel challenged and stretched emotionally, but not so much that it’s causing more damage.

It should not be as gentle and soothing as a relaxing massage…because as good as that may feel, it’s not therapeutic enough to create the kind of change you’re looking for.

You should be asked questions you don’t want to answer.
You should be told things you don’t really want to hear.
But you should experience a safe space to be who you are.

Therapy should be just challenging enough that afterwards you find yourself thinking differently, questioning yourself or old outdated modes of perception, being more aware of your feelings, your wants, your needs,
your dreams, and your goals, and practicing new ways of thinking and behaving in your life that you are learning.

In short, it should be creating the right environment for change, for growth, and for healing.

It should be the kind of hurt that heals.

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Hope you enjoyed reading this article 🙂

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