“Inevitably a client who enters into therapy is dealing with pain. This pain can either be buried, in progress, or somewhere in-between.” The yellow jacket nest that I mowed over was not forgiving. After trying to carefully manicure the grass around my little rock garden, I made the mistake of bumping one of the rocks with my pushmower, exposing the unseen entrance to the nest and mowing over the top. I was quickly assaulted. Yellow jackets latched onto my feet, legs, and hands. The pure shock of seeing so many yellow jackets on my body created a delay for the inevitable pain that would set in. I quickly ran into my home, yellow jackets circling me, with some of their family stuck to me still. Having never been stung before and with a family history of bee allergies, panic ensued. What-ifs began to cause quite a bit of mental anguish, not to mention the physical pain of over a dozen yellow jacket stings reminding me of what just happened. I called my husband in a panic, unable to keep very level-headed.
Therapy for some people is like running over the proverbial yellow jacket nest. Inevitably a client who enters into therapy is dealing with pain. This pain can either be buried, in progress, or somewhere in-between. Burying pain is typically a negative coping mechanism. The idea of having to face the pain is too difficult, and avoiding it seems to be moving past the pain. But like a small shard of metal stuck under newly grown skin, pain festers. It manifests in irritability, anger, resentment, and sadness. For some people, they feel that their lives are no longer functioning in an acceptable way. This is when some decide to start therapy.
‘Therapy should fix things, right? My therapist will make this better, won’t he?’ No. This type of thinking will undermine therapy, and the client will leave feeling more defeated. For therapy to work, it is very important that the client understand a few things first.
1.) A client is responsible for working on his issues. The therapist does not do the work for him. Yes, the therapist helps, but the therapist is not responsible for the work a client has to put in himself.
2.) Therapy is not magic. Therapy cannot be equated to a shot of anti-venom after a poisonous snakebite. It does not save a person’s life. It can help to develop insight and grow a person’s coping toolbox, which is life-changing, but it is not something that magically takes away the pain.
3.) A therapist is not an expert that will turn a client’s life around. The client must accept that only his willingness to make changes in his own life will turn his life around. A client may come to therapy feeling helpless; it is the therapist’s job to put tools in that person’s hand to help him get out of his own problems.
4.) Things can get worse before they get better. Much like having to clean out a wound before it can properly heal, the process of therapy can be painful. Putting new learned behaviors into action can be difficult and require patience on the part of the client.
5.) Clients MUST do their homework. ‘What? There’s homework in therapy?’ Therapy is a healing process. When someone goes to the doctor for a leg injury, the doctor provides a treatment plan. It may involve taking an anti-inflammatory a number of times a day, heating and/or icing the injury a certain number of times a day, and suspending use of the injured leg for a certain amount of time. Failing to follow these instructions may very well end in unsuccessful treatment of the injury. The same concept applies to therapy. Whether in individual or marital therapy, a therapist can provide clients with helpful activities to do outside of the therapy session. These activities aid in building new tools to cope with the issues of life. Not doing these assignments causes therapy to fail.
6.) Therapy unearths some unpleasant stuff. If a client has spent years avoiding pain, he will more than likely try to avoid the pain in therapy too. A therapist’s job oftentimes is to help a person see how their negative thoughts and behaviors may be the result of avoiding pain.
7.) Some days it may feel like there is no energy to cope. Depression, anxiety, and trauma are exhausting. Not putting effort into therapy can very well be like having an “I’ll try to do it tomorrow instead” attitude. Unfortunately, tomorrow becomes the next day, and the next. A therapist should help a client feel more empowered in making healthy choices. A therapist’s job is to help a client see their strengths and what they can do to make their lives better.
“In essence, a therapist doing all of the work does not improve that person’s life, it creates client dependence on the therapist.”
Notice how much of the above implies the client’s responsibility in changing his life? If a therapist were to do all the work for the client and basically tell the client what to do, the client ultimately loses. The client loses the opportunity to go through the growing process, to learn for himself, and loses agency over his own life. In essence, a therapist doing all of the work does not improve that person’s life, it creates client dependence on the therapist. A healthy client is one who develops new, healthy habits and does it because he wants to do it, rather than someone who has someone else do it for him.
It took time to heal from my yellow jacket attack. I was red, swollen and throbbed for several days. After seeing that I was not getting better from the multitude of stings, I chose to get some help. I was prescribed a few medications and received a shot to lower the inflammation. I followed through with them and was better. Not doing anything about the pain did not seem to help. The “cure” may have seemed to be unpleasant, but the outcome was fully desired. Therapy can be this way too for anyone who is willing to accept personal responsibility, to put in the work, and to have a willingness to change.