Why you might feel worse before you feel better
Why sometimes therapy might make you feel worse before you feel better. And why that’s a good thing.
People often come into therapy because they have gotten fed up with their symptoms: feeling depressed or anxious, drinking too much, unsatisfying relationships, etc. Once starting therapy, you might start to take a look at what’s behind those symptoms and focus on the core issue. This is often difficult and can actually make you feel worse. However, your therapist will help you work on this core issue and increase self care and coping skills to deal with emotions in a healthy way. Therapy is not always fun, but that could very well mean that it’s working.
So what’s at work when we start to feel worse? One thing is our defenses. Our brain uses defenses to keep us from feeling a negative emotion. We all use them in different ways. The trouble with defenses is they perpetuate the pain they’re trying to protect because they prevent us facing it and dealing with it. No one ever died from tears but plenty ruin their lives drowning their sorrows in unhealthy ways – drinking, casual sex, or lack of social connection are common. Other common defense mechanisms are dissociation (a kind of zoning out), reaction formation (converting unwanted feelings and thoughts into their opposite – like being extra nice to someone you can’t stand) and projection (attributing emotions and thoughts you don’t want onto someone else - ‘my wife’s the angry one’). Even being busy all the time can be a defense against stopping and risking feeling a feeling. So can wanting to quit therapy when the going gets tough.
However, therapists are not infallible. If something is not working for you, speak up. Your therapist wants things to work for you and if things are too hard, then maybe there’s a different way to make progress. Maybe you can do some more work on self care and coping skills to support you through the difficult times.
Therapy is hard work. It’s painful at times to look at the difficult things in our lives and it’s really hard to change how we do things. But it’s worth it to stop feeling the way you’ve been feeling. If you can stick with the process, you can lead a happier and more fulfilling life.