Why Do I Have to Talk About My Painful Feelings in Therapy?

Upset woman with therapistYou’ve sat comfortably on your therapist’s couch for six months talking about everything under the sun; how you prefer to do your laundry, how nothing is ever good enough for your spouse, how irritating your mother is when she compares you to your older sister, how traffic makes you crazy.  You feel comforted, your feelings validated, your motivation lifted.  You walk out of there, pensive yet energetic, ready to face any challenge.  You feel like you are moving toward your goals with more clarity.

Then one day, it happens.  You’re feeling more depressed than usual, and you go to therapy.  As you talk about how sad you are today, you see a new look on your therapist’s face as she begins to ask you probing questions about your past.  You remember the first time you ever felt this sad, and the floodgates for unhappy memories are opened.  You begin to feel more depressed.  You feel quite horrendous, actually.  You feel like getting out of there, but your therapist encourages you to stay in your horrible feelings and explore them further.  The whole thing begs the question; “Why do I have to talk about this?” This is the first time you looked at your watch in session thinking, “Is this over yet or what?”

That day as you drive home from your session you begin to wonder how much therapy is really helping you, why you even decided to go in the first place, or perhaps that you really don’t need to be spending all this money on it when you could get massages instead and feel great every time.  You don’t feel the usual sense of clarity and optimism that you usually do after session.  Instead, you go home and take a long nap, more depressed than ever.

This is a common experience among therapy seekers.  At the six month mark, things begin to become difficult in therapy.  After six months to a year of consistent therapy, you and your therapist have developed a deep and strong enough relationship where he/she will begin to explore the more painful and therefore, more challenging to access material in your psyche.  Bad memories may start to surface, and emotions that pervaded your past may begin to show themselves again.  Believe it or not, this feeling like crap is a good thing!

Talking about painful material in therapy is beneficial because this brings the material into the present where it can be looked at and understood.  This is the time to feel uncomfortable so that your therapist can perform the psychological surgery that needs to happen for you to feel better later.  Draining an infection is never pleasant, but it is necessary.  Once the painful memories are out in the open, they begin to lose their power.  You feel less burdened by them as your therapist will help you carry their weight.  Verbalizing the emotions and sensations you feel as you remember helps your brain to better process the information, helping you to feel differently or change your perspective.

Much of how we feel, think and behave in the present relates back to the experiences we have already had.  Understanding the pain you carry, and why is an important tool for your therapist to have when working with you.  This enables your therapist to change how you feel, by understanding the root cause and then taking proper treatment channels.  These most unpleasant moments in therapy are the real work, and facing them is your most rewarding challenge.


© Copyright 2011 by Negar Khaefi, LMFT, LPCC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • chaz

    August 18th, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    if u r not willing to talk about the things that cause u pain and have n the past, then what is the point of going to therapy n the 1st place?

  • Rraven

    August 18th, 2011 at 7:03 PM

    If I’m injured,I need to show the injury to the doctor to get assessed and treated. I cannot hide the area and expect it to be fine!That’s how it is,people.Let it out to your therapist and you will eventually feel better.I’ve gained a lot from therapy myself.

  • Anna Jones

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:16 AM

    Therapy is not the time to gloss over things.
    Obviously you go to therapy for a reason, right? And typically that is going to mean that there are some issues in your life that you feel like you need help facing or overcoming.
    Why not open up to someone in a position like this who can help you deal with some of that and get through it all in a way that is going to move you forward and not keep you mired in the past.
    If you are not willing to do that then you are probably wasting a lot of your own money and the therapists’ time

  • Saha

    August 19th, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    Well I wouldn’t feel 2 comfortable talking about my issues and difficult periods of my life…And to someone who is not close to me?no way.maybe I could talk about all that to my very close friend but not to someone else!

  • V. Garrison

    August 19th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    If your therapist doesn’t know what you’re upset about, how is he going to be able to help you? Everyone is different and what upsets one person will make others chuckle at them. Did someone steal your Bible? A deeply religious person would be upset about that, but most others would shrug and buy another one or not bother. Therapists aren’t mind-readers.

  • J.N.

    August 19th, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    When all you do to feel good is go for massages, you’re not addressing anything. It’s a temporary fix for a more deep rooted problem.

    If it were so easy to talk about painful feelings we’d not need to see a therapist for help! It’s very important not to give up simply because it makes you uncomfortable.

  • angel

    August 19th, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    @V. Garrison: There is no standard definition for “offensive” or “painful” because we’re all different. If the mundane simpler things being discussed aren’t helping, then therapists need to ask plenty of personal questions that they need the answers to to help you.

    I’d be more annoyed if such probing questions weren’t being asked!

  • Roxie L

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:24 PM

    You don’t HAVE to talk about them. Your therapist cannot force you to say anything. Admit you’re not comfortable talking about that, whatever “that” may be, and they will usually help you tackle your issues from a different angle that you are more comfortable with.

    No one said it would be a piece of cake to look inside yourself at who you really are, did they?

  • Sharon Mason

    August 19th, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    @Chaz- That’s a good question. I feel you have to be perfectly willing to tell your therapist anything, even your deepest secrets down to what your sexual kinks are if need be, to get the best out of your therapy program.

    Psychology is a very complicated process and every tidbit of your personality you share can add more information that aids the therapist in sorting out what the true issues are.

    What you think may be inconsequential could bring about a revelation in the therapist’s mind, so don’t hold back. It’s all confidential.

  • Kristin Abrahams

    August 19th, 2011 at 5:17 PM

    That was a very good post, Negar. Healing always hurts, whether the injury is a psychological or a physical one. There’s a degree of discomfort or pain you need to go through before you will be better and that’s what you focus on, how you’ll feel afterward when this is all behind you. There’s always darkness before the dawn.


    August 19th, 2011 at 10:37 PM

    I find it pretty simplistic and quite frankly unrealistic that one would think it possible to help you to get to something good without first peeling away at the bad.

    The good is there but often times hidden beneath layers and layers of hurt and mistrust. That may be painful to discuss but of use for sure.

    There is no time like the present to make some positive effort in your life. And if that is not where you are in life, then perhaps this is not the best thing for you to be attempting at this time.

  • Sylvia Olander

    August 20th, 2011 at 1:36 AM

    No pain, no gain! It’s not like your life is so perfectly happy as it is, let’s face it. You’ve avoided it up till now and that’s not accomplished anything. The hardest part I feel is overcoming the fear of what the therapist will think of you and if/how they will judge you. It’s embarrassing to admit to the wrong turns your life has taken even when it was through no fault of your own, and the mistakes or stupid decisions you’ve made.

    I have some things I just can’t bring myself to tell mine because I like her and don’t want her to think badly of me.

  • louise farrington

    August 20th, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    @Sylvia: I understand where you’re coming from, truly I do. Please do your best to put your fear on the back burner. It’s easy to forget that they are trained, caring professionals – they are not your mom or your friends or your boss. Your therapist won’t judge you.

    What they want imho is for us each to have a more balanced, happy and fulfilling life, to be at peace with who we are today and who we have been in the past. To do that they need as many pieces of the puzzle as possible to decide what’s the best treatment for you and withholding doesn’t help you progress.

  • Estelle Garner

    August 20th, 2011 at 2:26 AM

    Isn’t it better to explore that discomfort than keep it hidden away? That’s what our demons thrive upon: being kept secret from the world and anyone or anything that can help us conquer them. Drag them kicking and screaming into the light with the help of therapy, and see them gradually turn to dust. They detest close scrutiny.

  • Dan Bremner

    August 20th, 2011 at 7:22 PM

    I think therapists are like the knights of old, slaying our psychological dragons and rescuing us. Talking about painful times is difficult to do. Of course it is. Remember though that putting them into words is not going to kill you. In fact you couldn’t be in a safer place to do so than your therapist’s office.

  • Zoey Smart

    August 20th, 2011 at 10:15 PM

    I’d be interested in what percentage of clients just up and quit when it gets to that painful point.

    Personally I think that should indicate to you you may be on the verge of a breakthrough finally and it would be a cause for celebration, not aggravation.

  • Karina D.

    August 20th, 2011 at 11:31 PM

    We must honor our dragons, encourage them to be worthy destroyers, expect they’ll strive to cut us down. It is their duty to ridicule us, it is their job to demean us, to force us if they can to stop being different! And when we walk our way no matter their fire and their fury, our dragons shrug when we’re out of sight, return to their card-games philosophical: ‘Ah well, we can’t toast ’em all…’

    -Richard Bach, Running from Safety. :)

  • Augustus

    August 22nd, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    One word to sum this up: duh! How can your therapist help you when they do not know what is hurting you. Cooperate and let them help you, but without all of the info there is no way that they can.

  • Kenny Laleb

    September 20th, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    Therapists don’t ask these upsetting questions to push your buttons or make you miserable in fact it is quite the contrary. When your therapist starts asking these painful questions he is trying to help you explore yourself. So that you and him can both know what makes you tick and make sure that you can make the necessary changes so that you don’t feel the same way again.

    Remember if you’re not telling your therapist all of your feelings s/he can’t help you. They are their to help you with you emotions and feelings not to read your mind!

  • Sue

    August 12th, 2013 at 9:40 AM

    Talking about my painful feelings in therapy was exercise in magical thinking. Who decides the human soul is a mineral field where feelings are extricated by exposing them? Talking about pain leads to–feeling more pain. It leads to more rumination and self pity.

    Therapy is wonderful training –in how to be a depressive.

  • Disappointed

    August 27th, 2014 at 9:56 AM

    I have been to 2 of the best therapy sessions. I’m not saying it was easy but lots of unexpected info came up and although the emotions are still needing to come out, she has asked questions, and recaps at the end. I get butterflies before I go but of all the ones I tried in the past she is the first I’ve told more two right at the beginning. Not looking forward to delving deeper into the emotional pain but I know it has to happen to heal and hopefully get some closure

  • Julie

    October 26th, 2014 at 6:48 PM

    They say it takes about 6 mths to feel comfortable in therapy. I’ve been to 6 sessions and each week more spills out. I’m only missing the most important step. The emotional part. My therapist gasped when I told her what happened. I turned away holding back the tears. I didn’t think she would notice. I think she felt the pain for me. She told me she could see I was on verge of tears. So I can’t hide them from her. I know it’s important to let it all out or I wouldn’t be there. After many therapists in the past, she is the one I’ve been and will continue to tell my secrets to. She’s empathetic and listens well. I don’t want to be embarassed to cry or even worse get angry in front of her. But I still freeze. I see her twice a month and I journal at least once between sessions to help me try and start the conversation. Hope I can let it go in two weeks time.

  • Louise

    June 1st, 2020 at 2:13 PM

    I found this site to be most helpful to me as I am going through therapy. It’s helping me to understand why and what is going on in order for my therapist to better help me. It makes sense to me and I’m grateful for my therapist and for this website! :)

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