Is Therapy Hard? And If So, Why?
Recently I was listening to a seminar for therapists and one of the presenters said, “Therapy shouldn’t be easy.” A lot of the attendees seemed to agree, and it got me thinking about the messages you get as a potential therapy client. I mean, if therapy shouldn’t be easy does that mean it should be hard? Or is it perhaps even too hard?
My inner dialogue on this has continued. And the questions keep rolling around in my brain.
So I figure what better time to get a few of my thoughts out there about the question of is therapy hard or not?
First, I think it’s really important not to attach any “shoulds” to therapy. In general, “shoulds” can do so much harm. They can box you in with expectations that may not fit. And they can fill you with self-doubt and shame. So let’s definitely not go there.
When you think about it, therapy should or shouldn’t be anything predetermined or set in stone, because everyone is unique and will have their own unique goals and experience of therapy.
That said, if you’re my client I want you to experience therapy and counseling as healing, helpful and transformative in some way. But ultimately, you’re the one who will decide how therapy needs to be for you. You’ll determine what you need to get out of it. And I’ll definitely be there helping you figure that out.
Okay, so in no particular order, my thoughts about whether therapy is hard…
Therapy may not be easy but it can be a relief.
At first you may feel relieved because you’ve had so much bottled up and now someone who cares about you is there to listen and be a witness. In fact, clients often feel a little better soon after beginning counseling and therapy.
I think that’s because there aren’t many peaceful, distraction free places where the world slows down and you’re fully accepted, deeply listened to and totally supported for an hour or so. In this environment you may be relieved to begin getting things out and releasing the pressure valve.
Therapy is about relationship.
Multiple studies have shown that the actual healing power of therapy comes from the relationship you have with your therapist or counselor. In fact, the therapist’s technique or theoretical base doesn’t matter so much.
So as your therapist it’s on me to bring genuineness, unconditional positive regard, empathy, shared goals, honesty, trust and open communication to our relationship. But the thing is, any relationship takes two, and good relationships do take work.
When you think about it, relationships are all of it: challenging, uplifting, joyful, happy, sad, meaningful. Relationships certainly require effort and sometimes that’s hard, but like my friend Kendall said to me long ago: It’s a good kind of hard.
Therapy is a meaning-making endeavor.
Most people come to therapy wanting to feel happier in some way, and that’s often an outcome. But in order to get there, you’ll probably need to take a journey of meaning. And meaning is harder to attain than happiness; while the end result is incredibly rewarding, it takes more time and dedication than immediate happiness.
The structure of therapy itself is a good example of this, because much of the work you’ll do will be outside the therapy session. You’ll probably only see your therapist for an hour each week. So therapy definitely requires a commitment of time, energy, reflection and action. No doubt about it, that’s one of the reasons you might answer “yes” to the question, “Is therapy hard?”
Therapy may seem harder as you go along.
You bring your whole self to therapy: your history, patterns and behaviors. If therapy feels harder over time, it may be because you’re ready to dive into all that.
At first, you might stay on the surface, exploring easier challenges in your life. As you go along, though, you may realize that some things don’t seem to shift or change much, or you keep repeating the same patterns of thought or behavior or emotions. When you feel safe and comfortable with your therapist, together you may decide it’s time to do some deeper work around that.
Therapy is about change, and almost all human beings find change difficult.
Let’s face it, no matter how transformative or beneficial change is, it’s hard. We naturally resist it and maybe that resistance is even laced into our DNA.
During therapy you can also find yourself in particularly stuck places, where change feels mysterious, uncertain and overwhelming. I don’t want to minimize that truth, but I’m also hard pressed to come up with any significant life change (positive, enriching change) that doesn’t require some work and effort.
Therapy mirrors the human experience.
We only have control over so much, even within ourselves. I think one of the most transformative (and often difficult) aspects of therapy is about accepting your quirks, inconsistencies, idiosyncrasies and personal stumbling blocks.
Of course, you could try to transform all of them, but that would be exhausting, because the human experience is a paradox of light and dark. And we are all of it. Not to mention the fact that you wouldn’t be you any longer if all that went away.
So it isn’t meant to fix you, and it might be hard to accept that you’re okay in spite of your imperfections. It might be hardest of all to believe that you don’t need fixing.
Therapy is about healing, and healing is an ongoing process.
Life isn’t neat and tidy, and we don’t exactly get closure very often. That realization can be hard to deal with in therapy. For instance, in grief counseling we know that closure isn’t the goal, and I think that’s true for many things that are explored in therapy.
Plus, I’m not sure emotional wounds heal in quite the same way that physical wounds do. And even then, if you get a bad ankle sprain, while that ankle will likely heal if you care for it, it may still always be just a little bit tender.
Therapy is a sacred space almost unlike any other.
So in the final analysis, the answer is probably yes, therapy can be hard. Sometimes there are tears. There’s pain and confusion. There are stuck places and it can take time to change.
And yet, there’s laughter too.
There’s comfort and support.
There’s intense collaboration, a community of two.
There are incredible aha moments.
There’s ease and joy.
And for sure, there’s love and caring, and sacred space too.
Life is not what it’s supposed to be. It’s what it is. The way you cope with it is what makes the difference. –Virginia Satir
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