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Therapy

Emotional Deep-Tissue Massage

The work lies where the pain sits.

Key points

  • Sometimes the most painful parts of ourselves are the parts that need attention the most.
  • A therapist works with the client to help them recognize what’s really causing them the pain.
  • Experiencing trauma may lead us to develop defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from strong feelings.

Clients I work with in talk therapy don’t always want to engage with the issues that have brought them to therapy. Sometimes these issues are so painful that they spend a great deal of mental and emotional energy avoiding them, convincing themselves they are here to talk about something else, something less painful, although this less-painful issue is usually indirectly caused by the more painful issue. In this sense, working with a therapist is like getting a deep-tissue massage. Sometimes the most painful parts of ourselves are the parts that need attention the most.

Hurting in the Moment, but Feeling Better After

I used to go to this Korean spa in my old neighborhood where the masseuses had an uncanny knack for finding that area of my back that was the most painful to work on. I would squirm on the table, trying to move in a way that would protect the sore spots, but it was no use. The masseuse always found these spots and worked on them, and although it hurt in the moment, afterward my back felt better. Talk therapy is like getting a deep tissue massage. We come to therapy with a sore spot, something causing us pain, and the therapist helps us identify and work on it. We might want to avoid talking about this subject to avoid the pain of addressing it, but with the therapist’s guidance, we do this, and although it hurts in the moment, we feel better afterward, often with a new understanding of ourselves. For a little while, at least. Until the next accumulation of physical and emotional stress eventually sends us back in search of treatment.

Oftentimes, a client will come into therapy with an idea of what is causing their pain, in the same way that you might go in for a massage and tell the masseuse you want them to focus on your shoulders because that’s where you carry all your tension. Once they get in and start working, however, the source of pain is revealed to be something different than what we thought it was. The masseuse starts out on our shoulders but moves down into our back and finds a sore spot there that’s the real source of all the tension. In the same way, a therapist works with the client to consider different aspects of their lives than the ones they came in prioritizing, and helps to recognize what’s really causing them the pain that’s brought them to seek treatment.

Resistance

The avoidance of painful subjects is an example of a concept called resistance. In this scenario, resistance is exhibited by actions such as subtly changing the subject whenever a particular area is mentioned or even point-blank declaring that a particular subject is considered off-limits. It’s the feelings that happen when someone brings up a sensitive subject, both the emotional reactions and the physical. We might stiffen up, sit up a little straighter, clear our throats. We might say things like “Anyways…” or “But back to your question…” or “yadda yadda yadda.” This is the therapeutic equivalent of squirming on the massage table. Avoiding the hands of the masseuse digging into that one painful spot on our back. The irony is, the spot we want to avoid dealing with is the one that we stand to gain the most from dealing with.

What causes this sore spot in the first place? In our back, muscles might lock up to protect an area injured in a fall, which can set off a chain reaction of other muscles reacting until one gets strained too far. That’s when we end up hobbling in to see our masseuse, desperate for immediate relief. In our lives, we will experience trauma that leads us to develop defense mechanisms to deal with trauma, to protect ourselves from feeling these strong feelings. These defense mechanisms can set off a chain reaction of other emotional reactions until one gets strained too far and starts to affect our lives in a way that we recognize we’re not happy with and want to change.

Don’t let this idea of embracing the parts of you that scare you the most scare you too much. Most therapists are not going to force you to talk about something you don’t want to talk about. No masseuse would ever physically hold you down and force you to accept their elbow in the most sensitive part of your back if you said you didn’t want that. But, in both cases, the sore spot is mentioned and considered, not ignored. And if we’re not ready to address it this time, maybe next time. Or the time after that. But, eventually, to change our lives in the most positive way, we need to address the most painful spots in our backs and in ourselves.

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