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Sometimes Therapy Is Not About Making You Feel Better

Feeling better is the end goal, but the process is not always comfortable.

Key points

  • Deep healing won't come from reading self-help books, talk shows, talking with your friends or the bartender.
  • Therapy will challenge your sense of self and force you to confront your fears and emotional wounds.
  • Working through positive and negative transference is what makes therapy different from other modalities.

"I had all my therapy on the show in front of everybody." –Oprah Winfrey on a recent episode of the Drew Barrymore Show, in reference to her successful self-titled talk show.

Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock
Source: Aleshyn Andrei/Shutterstock

I mean no disrespect to Oprah, but as a therapist for almost four decades, I can tell you that deep healing won’t come from simply being a talk show host. Nor will it come from reading self-help books, talking with your friends or the bartender, shopping, hiking, bicycling, playing music, or coaching. All these things may indeed help you with your healing and be therapeutic—that is, they can reduce stress or put you in a better mental and emotional space in the short run. But none of these can compare to the healing and transformation one can experience under the guidance of a therapist who is specifically trained to help you heal from your wounds.

What is therapy?

Let’s begin a definition by saying this: Therapy is not about making you feel better about yourself in the immediate sense, although, hopefully, you will in the end. It is not simply an intellectual process, a psychoeducation. Nor is it just telling your secrets to a compassionate listener.

Real therapy will deeply challenge your sense of self, force you to confront your fears and emotional wounds that have come from past relationships with parents, lovers, friends, or others. Therapy is never a comfortable process, and it isn’t meant to be. We all are designed to survive the traumas we experience in life, and we do this by burying them in the subconscious and pushing on. But that doesn’t mean we will avoid the damage that is done. Trauma accumulates in our mind and body and can negatively affect many aspects of how we interact with others and our environment. By employing therapeutic defenses such as those mentioned above, we can temporarily relieve negative feelings—put on a happy face, so to speak, and avoid confronting the deeper issues. But in doing so, we run the very real risk of not ever living our fullest life, or even experiencing a devastating breakdown.

Istock by Getty Images Credit: Prostock-Studio
Psychotherapy Session
Istock by Getty Images Credit: Prostock-Studio

People usually come to therapy when they sense they can no longer fully function in their daily lives, when the pain of living with their wounds is greater than their fear of becoming vulnerable, of opening up to recognizing and re-experiencing those wounds.

For the record, everyone has these fears, even therapists. Thus, I truly believe that almost everyone needs therapy, not just therapeutic Band-Aids.

What makes therapy different?

What happens in the therapy room? First of all, the client must pay for it. Of course, this is how we therapists make a living, but there is also another purpose: By paying for the skills of an unbiased person outside of their personal circle, the client is taking responsibility for their healing and is opening to the probability that they will experience some real vulnerability. I often warn them that at some point in the process, they are probably going to want to fire me when things become uncomfortable and painful. This is normal. As I said, therapy is not meant to be comfortable. Real growth and healing doesn’t happen in one’s comfort zone.

Positive and negative transference

Here’s one important reason why. In the therapy room, we nearly always experience what therapists call "transference." That is, the client will project onto the therapist all their feelings, both positive (especially in the beginning) and negative (which will often come as the therapist challenges them to confront their pain, their hidden wounds). The work is to eventually diminish such projections and own them for themselves. Then again, the therapy room becomes the microcosm of what they do in the outside world. Are they habitually late? Do they miss appointments? Do they become angry or withdraw when we ask them, “Could this be about something in your past?” or “When was the last time you felt this pain?” Do they break an agreement they made at the beginning of our work? The trained therapist notices body language and may use that to break through someone’s defenses. Experienced therapists are also able to offer myriad insights into the client’s process, hastening the deeper healing. They keep track of what clients say and will use this to challenge and guide them into deeper work.

I have heard people brag about never having been to a therapist. To me, this is like saying, “I’ve never been to a dentist or a doctor.” How could this possibly benefit their health? On the other hand, anyone can benefit from committing to the perspective and experience of a good therapist.

The bottom line is that the therapist and client enter into a relationship in which trust, compassion, and the therapist’s experience allow clients to uncover and deal directly with past traumas that have affected their lives. This is a dynamic that will never happen by reading self-help books or following advice from someone on TikTok.

However, one of the TikTok comments following Oprah’s statement did strike me as hopeful: “TikTok helped me get to therapy.” My response: “That’s awesome.”

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Joe Kort, Ph.D.
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