Updated: Apr 9
Just about everyone who comes to therapy comes because they are in some sort of pain or discomfort. Although some of this may be caused by their external realities, generally we find that a large part of the discomfort comes from how the world is experienced, and specifically what stories we tell ourselves about who we are, as we go on our journeys.
Most of the time, we tell ourselves these stories without consciously realizing that we are doing it, or what their deeper meanings are. These messages we give ourselves are what often leads us to have feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, or detachment, and in turn leads us to make decisions based on a drive to alter our emotional states, rather than constructively resolve the actual real situation at hand. We are trying to have a restorative experience, rather than a reality-based resolution. There are also cases where people are driven to create discomfort in a similar way, but that is often to then lead to the restorative experience.
For example, a person who feels that they are not good enough, and is destined to be abandoned by people they love, may act in ways to provoke disagreements with their loved ones, so that their loved ones must prove, over and over again, that they will not leave. Although this provides temporary relief, the feelings of not being good enough return, and the drive to instigate the fights returns along with it.
In therapy, we would seek to dismantle this coping mechanism, replace it with a healthier one, and ultimately work to reduce or eliminate the feelings of not being good enough. This happens through analyzing what situations are provocative, and what their roots are. This is NOT an intellectual exercise. Ultimately, we are seeking to bring the associated feelings back to life in the treatment room.
You’ve probably heard that in therapy, things often get worse before they get better. This is what is meant.
By bringing the feelings back, we can understand what defense mechanisms you use to avoid dealing with them (because they are too painful). By providing you with a safe space to sit in your feelings, we can talk about them and their origins. Talking rather than behaving (which can serve as a distraction) as a result of your feelings makes feelings more real (which can be scary). It also provides an opportunity for you to provocative material in therapy. Sometimes you may treat your therapist like we are someone else in your life, giving us a chance to get a different perspective on an issue, or for you to have a different emotional experience with us that you had earlier in life with someone else. It also reduces the extent to which you can act out your feelings (acting out leaves feelings largely unprocessed).
It is important to point out that healing won’t leave you unblemished; it doesn’t restore you to a state as though nothing ever happened. You may still experience or notice discomfort from old wounds. However, those feelings will be less intrusive and can come to serve as sources of information for you, rather than something that hijacks your feelings and your responses.