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  • Michael Philp

Going to therapy is hard (but worth it) Part II

Back in 2018 I wrote a blog on why going to therapy is hard (you can read that one here) because of all the unknowns of attending therapy. A lot of things have changed since then, including a world-wide pandemic, that has shifted our acceptance of seeking support for mental health and wellbeing. That being said, going to therapy is hard. I know this because just this week I've had 3 clients tell me "I didn't want to come today".

Vulnerability and Shame

When people come to therapy it is usually because they don't want to feel the strong emotions, such as anxiety or sadness, anymore. Or that the way in which they cope with stress is becoming a hinderance rather than a help. One of the stumbling blocks in seeking help is the feeling of vulnerability. And with feeling vulnerable comes feelings of shame and thoughts of "not being enough" (see Brene Brown's excellent work on shame and vulnerability). When we are feeling vulnerable and our deep, negative beliefs about ourselves (our shame) gets activated, we cope through either overcompensation (eg perfectionism - constantly striving, working tirelessly), avoidance (eg cancelling appointments, or avoiding difficult topics in session) or surrender (eg loss of hope - "what's the point in going to therapy, nothing will change").

Going to therapy and facing up to the deep stuff is tough. It makes us feel vulnerable. When we feel vulnerable, we open the door to feelings of shame and "not ... enough" - not good enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough and so on.

Fear and running away

Our brain is geared to be pessimistic. It's hardwired to look for danger, to remind us of things we did wrong so that we learn not to do them again, and to avoid rejection from others in order to be safe. The fear response happens in an instant. This was a fantastic survival skill for our ancestors.

In modern society, however, our brain is still geared to be pessimistic, but the dangers are different. Now they are about feeling inadequate compared to our peers; we worry that we aren't good enough and will be rejected by others, which our brain interprets as dangerous.

Our natural instinct is to run away. To avoid situations that will trigger these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, because our body responds to them as if they were dangerous. So in a therapy situation, that looks like cancelling appointments, avoiding talking about difficult topics, disconnecting from thoughts and feelings, or using humour to deflect strong feelings.

In therapy, the psychologist is asking to you move towards the "danger". To be vulnerable, in order to re-process the deep, negative thoughts and feelings of shame. This feels like the opposite of what most of us would want to do. We spend most of our time trying to avoid these thoughts and feelings, so why would we then willingly sit with someone to explore those uncomfortable and frightening feelings?

Moving towards

And this is where is gets difficult. This is usually the time your therapist will tell you that you are being brave. And they are not saying this flippantly.

It is brave to come and face your inner world.

It is brave to be vulnerable.

It is brave to say "I need help with this".

It is brave to move towards rather than run away.

Therapy isn't easy. Taking the time to open up to and sit with vulnerability is hard. But you can do hard things.


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