Good Therapy Doesn't Necessarily Make You Feel Good: My Experience As a Therapist in Therapy
When I went to therapy for the first time, I had an assumption that the purpose of it was to make whatever troubles I was having go away, that things would get better from thereon in—and by that very fact the worst was behind me.
However, that’s not exactly how it turned out.
I found that therapy was actually quite a challenge.
My therapist’s default was not to reassure me, advise me or soothe me (not that those things were altogether absent), and I found that those difficult feelings that I was having did not just disappear.
My therapist would not take things I said or feelings I felt — at least as communications to him — at face value. He would often specifically not reassure, soothe or advise me, but instead, would challenge me and question the purpose and origins of what I was saying or doing.
At points, he even said nothing at all.
When this happened, it at times made me quite angry.
I saw his role as assisting me in my troubles as I experienced them. While there are some forms of therapy that might approach healing in this way, I later came to understand that this is not the focus of depth therapies — those therapies, simply put, that take shifting the unconscious as their aim.
A Poignant Therapy Session
I remember a time when I went in very tired, sorry for myself, exhausted and dissatisfied with life.
My therapist didn’t really do or say anything in response. Eventually I began to feel enraged. “Why the hell aren’t you doing something to make me feel better?” I thought.
In that moment I had completely forgotten the reason for going to him and was thinking of how to best end the therapeutic relationship.
But what happened in that session and subsequently was one of the defining and most helpful periods of the therapy.
Much of the session was heated and acrimonious — me voicing my anger at him for not being more caring, and his persistence, in the face of my anger, with digging deeper. And while there was, of course, immediate validity to my frustration (it never feels good to feel unseen or unheard), there was, we discovered, a deeper root to my anger.
We came to understand that I had, for my whole life, carried within me a deep resentment and anger at not being soothed and properly cared for by my parental figures in times of distress, particularly when I was very young. This had remained largely unconscious in me, instead of being ‘acted out’ in the world.
I would be very sensitive to lapses in connection with friends and partners, particularly when I felt distressed. I saw that as a fault in them and not a sensitivity of mine.
This is what we call transference, a form of projection.
As such, this underlying resentment was known and experienced in those situations, but the causes and reasons for my particular sensitivity — and, indeed, the very fact that those experiences were mainly the result of my sensitivity — remained unconscious to me.
His stance in the session not only provoked me to ultimately “connect the dots,” but to experience the very thing—not abstractly, but live in the moment with him—where he unwittingly played the perpetrator and I the victim, as I had so often experienced in other relationships.
And his response, when the acrimony had died down and we got to the heart of the matter, was crucially very different from the response I had gotten in previous instances of the dynamic. He did not dismiss it; it did not pass him by.
He took it very seriously.
A point was reached in which we both understood the gravity of what was happening, and he, rather than getting defensive in the face of my frustration, deeply empathized with me. And I do not just mean this in a compassionate sense but in the sense of really “getting me,” my life, and my past.
This was hugely relieving and I felt something change inside of me.
Through the process, he had (not intentionally) given me a limit — he had not, in other words, just unthinkingly reacted to what I was communicating to him.
I bumped up against him as a human and not just an empathic caring function or presence. As such, I was exposed in such a way that the problematic dynamic that had played out time and time again in my life was raw and alive in the moment, ready to be fed.
And fed it was.
As a result of this, I came not only to have a very different understanding of what had been happening in my life, but the very wound that gave birth to the dynamic was thereby, in some important way, shifted.
No radical change happens in an instant, of course, but this represented an existentially poignant moment that, through his response, provided much-needed nutrition to the raw and ragged roots that had been exposed.
Later Reflections on Therapy
I discovered through subsequent sessions that in arriving to that session in the state I described and directly communicating it to him, I was effectively giving him no choice but to take care of me (something that he, in his silence, was mulling over).
If his response had been simply to do so, it would have not only precluded the possibility of my truly understanding the root of what was going on, but more importantly, it would have precluded the possibility of me developing something within myself that could be used to self-soothe, as opposed to having to construct one externally. Maybe not in that moment, but from then on.
The value of this experience, therefore, derived not from him taking care of me per se. Rather, it derived from him challenging me and exploring what was happening between us and not, crucially, bending to an interpersonal pressure to take care of me for cares sake.
When the roots were unearthed, nothing was in the way, so to speak, and then care, genuine care, was expressed based on the very experience and not some demand for it.
It was through this experience that the wound itself began to heal.
That wound changed from something that was simply known as a fact of experience ‘out there,’ to an ‘object’ within me, something that I then not only had agency with regards to, but now as a ‘part of me’ was then available to be understood, empathized with and cared for by other ‘parts of me’.
Furthermore, this process of embodying parts that were previously experienced only externally paradoxically also opens them up to be understood, empathized with, and cared for by others too.
As I understand it, this could not have happened had we not entered into that very dynamic together, and that dynamic would not have arisen if he had rushed to soothe, reassure or advise me.
The point of saying this is not to say that therapy should look like this.
It is to say that venturing into difficult, uncomfortable territory — territory in which one might feel unseen or picked on by the therapist — can be incredibly fertile ground and lead to substantial change in any type or form of therapy.
Of course, it is also possible that feeling unseen or picked on by the therapist might also be due to the therapist’s own blind spots or mistakes (we all have an unconscious!), but this is something that, in a long term therapy at least, should be able to be worked out.
People often think, as I myself thought, that therapy is about going somewhere that makes you feel better about yourself, whether the result of increased feelings of well-being, or a decrease of uncomfortable feelings. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.
The goal — for depth work at least — is to unearth the roots of of one’s difficulties and nurse them back to health, and this cannot be done without some discomfort and pain. Roots do not like to see the light of day, but the plant that grows in more fertile soil is very thankful in the long term.
The message is, then: this kind of work is often uncomfortable, and necessarily so.
And it is important to keep this in mind because it can be very disillusioning to discover this when one had simply expected the therapist to be a caregiver.
One can easily think, “this therapist is no good, he makes me feel worse!” but this is often a mistake in the first instance and has more to do with one’s own struggles than the therapist’s qualities.
While some therapists are not the “right fit” and others can even abuse their power in the relationship— there is no point in beating around the bush on this — the process of understanding if a therapy is helpful actually is, and should be, hard to discern.
We are, after all, dealing with the interaction of two unconsciouses—and this can be complicated.
If you are with a good therapist, however, they should welcome ambivalence and doubt about the therapy, and indeed themselves, and seek to explore and understand it. It might just be revealing of something deeper.
Having said this, I would also suggest that if a therapist only reassures, soothes or advises, one should be concerned. Those things may help in the short term, but they do not foster long-term change. Rather than developing new, sustained, relationships within yourself through which you can ‘help yourself’, the result is more likely to be one in which you become dependent on the therapist to feel better and any advances you make may drop away in the therapist’s absence.
Rather, and to sum up, long-term change results from being within a containing, empathetic environment that functions to unearth the roots of the issues.
But make no mistake: that environment is not there to hand you the solution; it is there to facilitate you in discovering capacities within yourself that can themselves generate solutions down the line.
At least, this is a basic understanding of most depth psychological work, and something that I found through my own experience as a therapist and client.
James Barnes is a community mental health psychotherapist of people diagnosed with severe mental disorders. Based in San Francisco, California, he is also a freelance writer, writing on topics related to psychology and mental health. Currently he resides in Oaxaca, Mexico on a sabbatical pursuing his dream of writing. His central passion is to help rethink the nature of mental disorder in order to further advocate for non-pathologizing strategies of healing and recovery. You can follow him on twitter @psychgeist for content related to mental health and for updates about his articles.