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Change and discomfort in psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can be an immensely rewarding, even life-changing, experience. On the way to those rewards, however, therapy can sometimes feel like getting hit in the head with a hammer. Today I want to talk about change and discomfort.

One of the few things I can confidently say about all psychotherapy is that the goal is to change. You go to a therapist because something in your life isn’t working very well, or you want it to work better, and you haven’t been able to make it happen yet. You may want to change your relationship(s), stop feeling sad or angry or anxious all the time, be more successful, or conquer your fear of flying – whatever you want involves changing something. Even if you want therapy to help you grow rather than to “fix” something, growth involves change.

Now, many people come to therapy wanting something outside themselves to change. They want their spouse or parent or child or boss or circumstances to change. Let me tell you one of therapy’s big secrets: you can’t really make anybody else change, but by making your own changes you often change things around you.

That’s good news and bad news. The good news is, you can make your life better. The bad news is, you make it happen by changing, and changing often involves some discomfort.

For example, change often involves learning something new. Every time you learn you change yourself. Think of what it feels like when you start learning something new for the first time. It is uncomfortable. How comfortable is learning to write with your left hand if you are right-handed? It is pretty frustrating, particularly at first. If you keep at it you will eventually change yourself into someone who can write with their left hand, but it will take time and effort and – if you are like most people – a certain amount of discomfort.

We humans enjoy experiencing ourselves as confident, capable, strong, and knowledgeable. We find it much less enjoyable to feel clumsy, incompetent, weak, or stupid – but that is how we often feel when we are learning to do something new or learning to do something differently than we are used to.

This period of being embarrassingly unable to do something we want to do well is an absolutely necessary part of changing. Some lucky people have learned that this process is normal and they don’t feel bad about going through it. Many people, however, find it difficult. Some people find it extremely painful.

This is part of the answer to the question of why therapy is sometimes uncomfortable.

The goal of therapy is to change, and changing involves a certain amount of discomfort. But not only does therapy involve changing, it involves having someone else see you when you feel incompetent. The therapist is even going to be encouraging you do things that cause that feeling. How can you trust him or her?

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