Therapy is hard work. It’s ok if a therapy session leaves you sad, shaken up, or exhausted.
If, however, you find therapy sessions pushing you into a dark place where you feel like you need to use harmful things to cope, it’s time to re-evaluate.
Let your therapist know how your counseling sessions impact you. Journal after therapy sessions and, if it feels good, share your therapy journal with your therapist. Spend some time with them building a game plan for what you’ll do next time you feel really low. Doing this will help you develop the capacity to reach for healthier things to self-soothe and can allow you to experiment with a pace and depth of therapy sessions that works for you.
If, after all that, therapy stills feels completely rotten, consider that your therapist might not be the right fit for you. I want you to know that therapy, even trauma therapy, can feel really really good, safe, and even kinda fun while it’s also feeling hard.
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Good Therapy Agitates: And That’s (usually) a Good Thing
Don’t judge how your therapy is going by how you feel after a session. Good therapy is hard. In the world of education, it’s called “optimal frustration”- brains learn best when we are stressed and confused, but just to the right degree. Therapy is similar: a therapist’s job is to stir not just thoughts and emotions, but our unconscious self, allowing us to begin to offer a listening ear to the parts of ourselves we’ve learned to silence.
Therapy Is A Learned Skill
Therapy isn’t just challenging in the sense that “feeling feelings kind of sucks” kind of challenge. Actually, showing up to therapy is hard. Trusting a stranger is hard. And for many, even figuring out how to open up is really really hard.
When I was in grad school, I’d grow frustrated when professors or other students discussed resistance. I hope that when you are brave enough to enter a therapist’s office you are met by a therapist who can acknowledge your presence as evidence that you are as invested as you are able.
Using your therapist well is a LEARNED SKILL, and if you need weeks or months or years to figure that out – find yourself a therapist that supports you in that learning process. If you need to use the tools you have learned to protect your tender wounds (i.e. your “defenses”) in the process of learning to inch out into trying new ways of being, use them.
Image description for screen readers:
There are three images within this post.
The first image in this post is titled “Therapy is hard and it’s normal to feel worse right after therapy.” Underneath the title are two doodles of people. The person on the left has their hands across their chest with a thoughtful look on their face. Underneath them is written, “It should feel like recovering from an intense workout and inspire self-care.” The person on the left has a green-colored face with a nauseous expression and they are holding their stomach. Underneath them is written, “It should NOT feel like you’ve drunk poison or like you must use negative coping skills to manage.”
The second image has a yellow banner that reads, “Even in trauma therapy.” Underneath is written, “Trauma survivors sometimes avoid therapy because even reminders of trauma can be totally overwhelming, without much space between feeling ok and feeling completely overwhelmed. A skilled trauma therapist won’t start with trauma – they’ll spend time developing trust and helping you learn how to manage what comes up before working directly with trauma in therapy.”
The third image is titled “Good therapy agitates.” Underneath the title is a drawing of a washing machine with movement lines around it. Inside the washing machine is a brain that is being moved around. The washing machine is labeled “therapy.”