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Can Therapy Be Self-Care If It Doesn’t Always Feel Good?

Person sits at desk looking out window thinking in open office spaceRecently, a person new to therapy mentioned in session that she was disappointed about not having time to do things to care for herself. Up to this point, she hadn’t spoken much about self-care, though she reported having had a few hobbies she enjoyed in the past. “Why can’t I have time for me?” she wondered aloud. “There are things I like to do for myself.”

It is true that her life has been quite hectic recently. Between a career, child-rearing duties, and relationship problems, she feels that she has little, if any, time to focus on herself. I gently asked her about her time in our sessions. “Isn’t this time for you? Isn’t this self-care?”

She looked up and quickly replied, “No. This isn’t fun. Self-care has to be fun.” I cautioned that not all self-care feels good. Getting an infected tooth extracted is a form of self-care, but it definitely doesn’t feel good. After sharing a laugh, this woman advised me to never use that in advertising for my practice. “Nobody should know therapy doesn’t [always] feel good,” she said.

Aye, there’s the rub.

After further discussion and exploration, it became clear that by “self-care” she really meant “fun.” She was resentful about not having excitement and fun in her life. While she most definitely sees therapy as a form of self-exploration and self-improvement, it was more difficult for her to see it as self-care. We discussed the possibility that it was the very work of therapy that was allowing her to get in touch with the areas of her life that she felt needed more time and attention, such as her old hobbies.

The truth is, therapy can make one feel less than happy, at least in the short term. For individuals who seek a deep exploration of themselves, therapy can feel like real work. This can be a difficult and uncomfortable space to move into, particularly for those in therapy for the first time. Additionally, we live in a culture that prizes (or demands!) short-term, quick results. It is also a culture that puts a high value on feeling good all the time. This makes it difficult for some individuals to realize that feeling uncomfortable, sad, or angry in the short term can help them experience deeper joy, happiness, and pleasure in the longer term.

Nearly every road to lasting change is a bumpy one. Like any arduous journey, keeping our eyes and minds focused on our destination can help make the trip less unpleasant.

A skilled, caring, and patient therapist can help an individual move through this point in therapy. Certainly, you, the person in therapy, can help the process as well. Conduct an emotional check-in at the start of sessions and, conversely, an emotional check-out at the end of sessions. Think about how you are feeling. What feelings have arisen during the session? How did you feel in the hours and days after the previous session? Sharing this with the therapist can help normalize the feelings.

Therapy can, and at times will, feel like hard work, but that doesn’t mean you should leave the session unable to continue with your day or dreading the next session. Emotional check-ins can help keep this from happening.

Additionally, I like to get people to remember the goals that brought them into therapy. Is their goal to leave each session feeling elated and care-free? Or is it to resolve personal conflict and trouble and to achieve long-term happiness? Nearly every road to lasting change is a bumpy one. Like any arduous journey, keeping our eyes and minds focused on our destination can help make the trip less unpleasant.

Therapy can feel like a three-steps-forward, one-step-backward process. But remember—that’s just a feeling.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Joseph Robert Scrivani, MSW, LCSW, HIV / AIDS Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Teena

    October 14th, 2015 at 10:52 AM

    I have never thought of therapy as something that is supposed to make you automatically feel better.
    I have always thought about it as more of a journey to help you eventually get to a happier and healthier place.
    I also think that part of good therapy is to help you understand that not every day will always be a cake walk. But it gives you strength to better be able to face those days that are actually a little more bitter and appreciate the better days when they do eventually come your way.

  • viktor

    October 15th, 2015 at 8:11 AM

    I remember that my grandmother as she would braid my sisters’ hair and they would complain, she would always tell them that sometimes it hurts to be beautiful. I think that this can be said of therapy as well. Sometimes it is going to hurt to heal.

  • M C W

    October 18th, 2015 at 1:23 PM

    I tottaly agree with your grand mom ,it hurts to HEAL ,

  • Marco

    October 16th, 2015 at 11:08 AM

    I would be so willing to bet that there are many people who very much understand that they need to be in therapy, but they also know the pain that could accompany it, and so they decide to never attempt to do it. I don’t feel sorry for them. I know that they are hurting and I get that but until you are willing to confront and deal how do you ever expect to see any improvement in your life?

  • Joseph Scrivani

    October 16th, 2015 at 11:28 AM

    Everyone has left such insightful and thoughtful comments. I’m glad that people are able to relate to some of the conflict that this individual was experiencing. Thank you all for responding.

  • Grace

    October 17th, 2015 at 7:47 AM

    Since when did there develop this idea that caring for oneself has to only be fun? I mean, life is difficult, tough things have happened, and if they are impacting you in a negative way then it is only common sense that it might hurt a little to have to look back upon those things and determine just how they are affecting you. It doesn’t mean that it will be only woe and pain, but yes there might be a little of that too as you make it across to the other side.

  • camille

    October 19th, 2015 at 11:19 AM

    This is probably the reason why I have started and stopped therapy several times over the course of my life. It feels good to a certain point to share and get things off of your chest and then you come to the hard parts and sharing doesn’t necessarily feel so good any,ore. It is a weakness of mine, not to want to feel the pain, that’s generally why I am there in the first place, but I hit this point and I have found that I just can’;t seem to break through it any further.

  • Conley

    October 20th, 2015 at 2:44 PM

    It is not always going to feel like it is good for the soul, but this is one of the best things that you can ever do for yourself. There are going to be times when we all need someone to help us understand the things in life that somehow feel so non-understandable. This is a person that you can trust and rely upon, and should be seen to be a good thing in your life. After the pain can come the happiness.

  • Layla

    October 21st, 2015 at 11:56 AM

    Whether you like the way that it makes you feel when you are rehashing the past or the present, there may come a time when you really do need to process all of this. It might hurt now but be good for you in the long term.

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