Recently, 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.
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