In therapy room this topic is likely to come up at some point. And it will usually come up in many forms. From questions like “Will therapy make me happy?” to statements from the client that therapy is making them feel more sad or depressed or even claiming therapy is making things worse for them in general. Any therapist working with wide variety and number of clients will get used to these questions and allegations. But, even though, this might not be something new to the therapist, it is very much new to the client.
I have had numerous clients walk into my therapy room all cheery and then leaving in tears or feeling low—and that also, or even predominantly, goes for the clients I have worked with for some time. The clients I have worked with for especially long periods of time would even get used to it and sometimes joke saying “I guess I’ll not be as cheery as I am now when I leave here, right!?”. Long-term clients actually get used to “the bad feeling” after therapy session or “the bad period” in the course of therapy. And it is important to get used and acquainted with it, because it is often times the essential part of therapy. It’s like healing a wound, which first needs to be exposed, cleaned and treated—and that hurts because it gets exposed and stirred up.
It gets worse before it gets better
Of course we cannot generalise and say that getting worse before getting better will occur with all clients. But, if we try to be general about it, we can say that it will be the case with the majority of them—some will feel it more, some less.
Extent to which a client will feel worse throughout therapy and how long these periods will last, will also depend on the presenting issues. For example disorders of the self, such as borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder, will usually be accompanied by more severe periods of feeling low, depressed or anxious throughout the course of therapy and this depression or anxiety can be quite significant at times.
This is mainly due to the fact that the client is learning to drop their false self, the coping mechanisms that are outdated, the defences that don’t work for them any longer. They expose their true self—the one that is not accustomed to living in this world and is afraid of it. They learn that who they thought they were was only the mask they were wearing and was not true and real. It’s hard when you learn that everything you thought you were for all the years of your life up to now is in fact a mask you put up because you thought that that was you.
So, “When will therapy make me happy?” is not the right question to ask. The purpose of therapy is to make you into an autonomous person—one that is not confined by the chains of upbringing and society. One that is not held back by these chains and can chose whatever they want in their life by not succumbing to the patterns of their upbringing and the perceived needs of the environment they are in. Growing up we learn how to survive and preform in this world and these skills get outdated as we develop. Even thought we think they might have served us in the course of growing up, they more or less hold us back as adults.
That’s when we learn that holding a grudge is not the most efficient way to get what we want; that being the most beautiful is not the same as being a good person; that the number of likes we get on social media says nothing about us or our lives; that harming ourselves with addiction, compulsive shopping, extreme behaviour and sabotaging our relationships in fact means harming ourselves and is not serving us in any way. Therapy is dropping the underlying causes of such destructiveness and setting us free to live to the fullest.
So, feeling worse as we drop our false self is in fact part of getting better.
Don’t quit if you’re feeling better—feeling better is not the same as getting better
One of the hardest and bravest steps one can take on the course of their personal development is to admit to themselves that they can in fact change—that they have the room and capacity to change and then take the first step and enter therapy as part of that change.
But, unfortunately, I also see a lot of people sabotage themselves even after taking this first step. Some learn that the process of change is hard and that they cannot really face themselves at that point. Some just don’t want to feel the pain they are feeling at that point in time and getting rid of the pain—for example feelings of depression—is the prime reason they will enter therapy.
Not rarely, clients will enter therapy due to a low period or a period of depression. They will persist for a number of sessions and then, for whatever reason, after the mood changes, leave. This is especially the case with bipolar clients, which neither them nor the therapist may be aware of at first. And even when they both are aware of it, the client may decide to leave when “feeling good”. For a therapist, it is unfortunate to see clients like that cease therapy despite the fact that they will highly likely fall into depression again in the future.
Why happiness overall is not a good goal to have in life?
If some people enter therapy to relief themselves of the bad feelings, some just enter the process with entirely wrong expectations—they think that therapy will bring them eternal happiness.
Feeling better does not mean getting better. Feeling better can be a part of distorted view of the self, others and the world that the client carries and may be entirely pathological. Therapy helps the client achieve autonomy in their decisions on conscious and unconscious level. It helps them get to a place where they can cope with life’s challenges from a rational perspective and not from an archaic and outdated place.
Getting better means becoming an autonomous person on emotional and psychological level and one that realises that life is not about feeling good, but about feeling appropriately in any life situation—and that also involves feeling pain, sadness, hurt, grief.