Why Does Having Therapy Sometimes Feel Worse Than The Problem It's Supposed To Help?

22 July, 2023 by Andy Hunt

People go to therapy because they want to feel better. Their lives may feel cramped and painful and they want to feel free.

Sometimes the process of change can be quite uncomfortable, especially if their difficulties are deep rooted and pervasive.

For some clients, as things start to change for the better, they start to feel worse in mysterious and uncomfortable ways.

What is happening?

Imagine that you live in an old, delapidated house.

It’s a wreck. The roof leaks and sags at a dangerous angle, all the door frames are bent out of shape, some windows won’t open and some won’t close, there are gaping holes in the floor, the walls lean at different angles and the staircase is disintegrating.

You have lived in this house for as long as you can remember and it’s always been this way.

It’s not fun living here, but you are used to it.

You know which floor boards not to stand on, you can walk around the holes in the floor and if you walk up the wonky stairs in just the right way you can get safely upstairs.

Eventually, you have had enough of all these problems and you decide that the house needs to be repaired: you’ve been living in it for years but you just can’t take any more.

Unfortunately, this is the only place you have to live so you have to stay in the house while it is being rebuilt.

You think it is going to be a big job so you approach a well known and respected builder.

He visits the property, walks around inside and out and gets a sense of what you are up against.

He is impressed that you could have lived in the place for so long, but he thinks the house can be repaired and you will be able to live a much easier life when the job has been done.

Being a good builder, he knows that he will have to repair or even replace parts of the structure. He will need to do work on the foundations, the frame, walls, floors and roof to make the house safe and habitable.

You and your builder agree that the most important place to start is repairing the crumbling and leaning walls of the house.

Initially you are very excited: “Just imagine straight and strong walls! What a difference that will make!”, but when the walls are actually straightened, you start to feel strangely uncomfortable.

Yes, the walls are now wonderfully straight, but everything that was attached to them has moved to adjust to the new structure.

Now the floors are at new, unfamiliar angles, the staircase that used to lean to the left now leans to the right and while some holes in the floor have disappeared, some new ones have opened up.

Everything is different, nothing is familiar.

In some ways things are better and things are worse. Objectively you know your house is stronger and safer, but it doesn’t feel as safe.

Some of your old strategies you used for living in your house no longer work. They may even make things worse. Your safety measures no longer work, what used to be safe may now feel dangerous.

You have to find ways to accommodate this new reality.

You might even start to feel nostalgic for the ‘old days’. In the old building at least you knew how everything worked.

This process can be scary.

Then it gets worse, your builder recommends replacing the beams that support the roof. This is obviously such a good idea that you go along with it.

But, once again, this change for the better in the long term may feel like a change for the worse in the short term.

Just as soon as you have got used to the last set of changes, everything changes again.

Now the the floors are at different angles, doors that couldn’t be opened now swing open, doors that couldn’t be closed now swing shut and a whole new set of cracks in the wall appear out of nowhere.

This keeps happening, with every major change you have to get used to the major changes and it can be stressful, you might even wonder if you’ve done the right thing starting all of this.

From the outside, the house is starting to look good: the walls are straight, the roof is sound, the doors and windows close, but on the inside you can barely cope with the changes.

Eventually the house is finished and the changes stop. After a while you catch up with the changes and get comfortable with your new house and all its subtleties.

In hindsight you know it was the right decision to make those necessary changes, but you had no idea just how challenging the changes would be.

If you have not been to therapy before you may be wondering what rebuilding a house has to do with therapy, here are some of the similarities:

  • While the end goal of therapy or change work may be appealing, you still have to go through the process from where you are to the changes you want.

  • You have to live in the same body and mind that you want to change while you are changing it. So you need to be able to adjust to those changes as they happen.

  • Changing can sometimes be difficult, big changes can be both difficult and feel unsafe while you make them.

  • The best way to get good results and stay safe while you do it is to find a good therapist who knows what they are doing and support you while you are working together.

  • A good therapist will collaborate with you on the changes you want to make and help you make them.

  • Unlike home renovation, where the builder(s) do most of the work, in therapy, the client has to do ‘the work, and the therapist is there as the facilitator. The therapist can’t do the work for you.

The end results are usually worth the effort, but it takes courage to do this work. My clients are some of the bravest people I know (even if they don’t think so).

Image courtesy of lburgan from Pixabay