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When therapy feels hard – some things to keep in mind

The reality is that therapy can feel really hard. I truly believe in the transformative possibility of therapy and counselling, but change can involve some challenging, painful work.

  • You might feel anxious speaking with a relative stranger about your most vulnerable thoughts.
  • It may feel painful tuning in to the thoughts, feelings and memories that you have become so good at pushing to one side.
  • Perhaps you are frustrated by the pace or feel that no progress is being made at all.
  • You may experience some challenging feelings along the way as you start to make changes in your life.

Here are some thoughts to keep in mind if therapy feels hard:

#1 It’s not linear

The wonder of the human psyche is that we have an intricate web of beliefs, thoughts, feelings, defences, hopes and desires. Moving forward impacts the whole – we can’t just change one part of the jigsaw puzzle of our life script without changing other parts as well. Psychological change will also impact your relationships.

So whilst it would be nice to plan an orderly beginning, middle and end with incremental steps of psychotherapeutic growth,

Two hand drawn arrows pointing down with a dashed line between them that is straight. Represents a linear line in therapy

the reality can look a little messy:

Two hand drawn arrows pointing down with a dashed line between them that is not straight and has two loops in it. Represents that therapy can be hard

You may find it helpful to talk to your counsellor or therapist about your concerns, frustrations or irritations.

#2 Slow progress is still progress

You may have heard the phrase: it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

It can take a little time to change the habits of a lifetime. Also, we don’t usually think about talking, bringing awareness to a situation, connecting the dots and making changes as hard work. But it really can be exhausting and it is ok that it’s taking some time.

Try to reflect on your successes too and consider how the therapy journey is impacting your life in a positive way. You may find it helpful to ask your counsellor or therapist for a review session to talk things through.

#3 Listen to your gut

It may be that you are finding counselling or therapy uncomfortable, but when you pause to reflect you notice the overall benefits.

Other times, you might feel something is off.

  • Are things going too fast?
  • Do you need more time before you start talking about a painful part of your past?
  • Are you struggling to feel safe speaking with your counsellor or therapist?
  • Do you feel heard and understood?

You may want to think about how you bring more active self-care to your process before and after sessions. For example, whether you have enough time afterwards to transition back to your day. Perhaps it would be helpful to schedule a walk or some other soothing activity for after your session.

You may want to talk to your counsellor or therapist about coping skills such as grounding techniques if you feel overly anxious or panicked, or explore how mindfulness can support you on your journey.

Going with your gut is important. If something doesn’t feel right, I gently encourage you to be open with your counsellor or therapist. But if you are struggling to feel safe in the relationship, it’s also okay to decide they are not right for you. There are some tips here on finding someone.

#4 Allow time for reflection between sessions

A great deal of the work happens outside the therapy room.

I don’t set homework, but I do encourage my clients to journal or keep some notes between sessions of what comes up for them.

Not just the low points – the good times too. The memories, dreams, fears, hopes that can arise.  The moments of inspiration and realisation.  Things that come up that they want to explore in session.

It can be useful to have a plan for what you might do if you leave a session feeling drained, or particularly sad or shaken.  Be gentle with yourself. Therapy is not ‘just talking’ – it can be a draining process. But I do believe that the challenging times are worth it if you can hang on and trust the process.

If you are new to counselling or therapy, I also wrote a blog post with some thoughts on what to expect. Mind also has some useful tips and resources.

If you like reading, you may enjoy this fictionalised account of the therapy process helpful.

Image of Carina Badger with three blocks of text. The first block says find clarity and calm. The second block says cope better with change. The third block says say no when you want to. This is for Carina Badger, counsellor and therapist in Urmston, Manchester and online

I help people find clarity and calm, cope better with change and say no when they want to. Through therapy, I can help you get to know yourself better and support you in making meaningful changes in your life.

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Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash