A question I am regularly faced with is “why does therapy make me feel worse?” It’s not something that happens for everyone, or in every session, but it’s something I aim to clarify in this blog.
When someone comes in for art therapy, they have reached a decision, they want their life to be better, they are motivated to change. Rapport develops with the therapist as they share their life experiences, and find they’re not judged. This initial connection in therapy makes clients feel warm, supported and cared about. Therapy progresses well, breakthroughs happen, and there’s a feeling that life is gradually starting to get better. But after a while, deeper issues begin to surface, and the therapy experience starts to change shape.
When you make a decision to start seeking counselling of any kind, it’s because there is a significant problem in your life – a painful loss, a mental health issue impacting on your life, past problems creating unwanted behaviour patterns. People shouldn’t come to therapy because they want a feel-good experience, like a massage or a facial, but that is what many people expect. They expect therapy to be a positive experience, that they will only feel better afterwards, not worse, and that it’s going to be a bit of talking, nothing too hard. It would be nice if it were that easy for every session.
Unfortunately, sometimes therapy is difficult – your unconscious fights change, seeks the status quo, resists discomfort. There is a sneaky voice in your head, below the level of hearing, telling you “give up, it’s much easier to keep things as they are.” It’s fear you’re fighting, understandable fear, and it’s also a sign that therapy is working. Unconscious resistance to opening up the underlying causes of the issue occurs because there is a feeling of insecurity that makes us want to avoid bringing up uncomfortable feelings and memories. For example, someone might see me for help dealing with grief from loss of their partner, but it turns into something much bigger as the impact of past losses uncovers a deeper fear of abandonment. Even if you are not talking about a past trauma in therapy, you are working on the issues caused by the past trauma, so some discomfort is likely to arise.
This can put people off coming back to therapy, they don’t want to feel worse in a therapy session, or between visits, so they make a decision to not come back. No one wants to feel worse, but if you can work through the fear, and continue with therapy, the potential to feel much better down the track significantly improves. My aim as an art therapist is to promote long-term improvement. If you are always feeling better during and after therapy, then chances are that you are not doing the work you need to get better in the long term. If you are feeling good most of the time, and every now and then you have a difficult session, or a bad day following therapy, then that’s good evidence that you are making progress. The best thing to do if you are feeling like giving up, is talk to your therapist or counsellor. Maybe you can slow things down a bit, move back to some less stressful issues, go back to the deeper stuff later. Or take a break and come back to it when you feel like you can manage the difficult issues.