Updated: Dec 5, 2020
Often when my clients experience a "break-through" in session, the following week there is a difference in the way they approach and respond to therapy. Sometimes, they cancel, no show, or have a session that only focuses on positive things. This can be a normal and expected part of the therapy process. Learning how to work through difficult feelings is challenging.
We live our lives with our thoughts and feelings where we can handle them. If it's too much, we distract ourselves. If it feels too deep, we try to get a little lighter. If it's overwhelming, we remind ourselves that it's scary and doesn't feel good, so we don't go there again. Sometimes, we numb ourselves so that we don't feel anything at all.
This pattern of dealing with our feelings by avoiding and ignoring them works (in the short term), so why would we want to face these scary feelings?
It is the repetitive avoidance of emotions that leave us wondering why we can't talk about them. A wise supervisor once explained that when we avoid our feelings, then start talking about them, it's like we just opened a pressurized bottle of champagne. It explodes!
We have so many emotions coming up all at once. Instead of figuring out how to handle them, we just want to get the mess cleaned up as quickly as possible. We go back to stuffing them inside and tell ourselves not to think about them! The same thing happens in therapy, we recoil back to our status quo. It's like we are a spring that suddenly springs back in fear because the feelings were too much to handle.
Therapy is place where we learn how to feel our emotions. As a therapist, I can't protect my clients from pain. I never promise to take the pain or fear away. I offer help with how to stay in the pain and how to FEEL the emotions in the midst of difficult situations. The work is hard, but the payoff is huge. Learning how to soothe yourself and be okay with the feelings can help you learn how to tolerate and manage them.
It's normal to experience this recoil. We can practice expanding our ability to feel emotions. Start by identifying them and naming them. We ask children to name their feelings when they have temper tantrums. As adults, we can do this as well. When we feel out of control, before stuffing that emotion in the champagne bottle, let a little bit out of the bottle at a time - name it.
If it's too much to deal with at the moment, let yourself settle. Commit to talk about it with someone who is safe. Consider working with a therapist that can help you build coping skills so that you can work on the feelings, behaviors and responses attached to them.
If you learn how to embrace your difficult feelings, you will be able to work through them and will likely have opportunity to celebrate your growth.