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Safety and comfort in counseling

In an earlier post I talked about how discomfort is a common part of learning, growing, or changing. Since psychotherapy is a process whose goal is change, it is sometimes uncomfortable, as any learning, growing, or changing process is. In addition, in therapy the therapist sees you when you are feeling inadequate and incapable of doing things you want to do or perhaps think you should be able to do. This is a very vulnerable state to be seen in, and many people find it embarrassing or even humiliating to be seen in that vulnerable state.

This, in fact, is what keeps a lot of people away from therapy. They don’t want anyone to see them at their most vulnerable, even a therapist. (Some people might say “especially a therapist”.)

This is why the relationship with your therapist is so very important. Your therapist is going to see you when you are not at your best, when you are learning to do new things that you don’t yet know how to do well. Your therapist is probably going to see you do or think or feel things that embarrass you. Many people find that possibility very frightening.

This brings me to an important distinction I like to help people make concerning therapy: the difference between safety and comfort.

As I explained in an earlier article, it is very important that you feel safe with your therapist. You have to believe that he or she isn’t going to hurt you. You have to trust that he or she isn’t going to start laughing at you or telling you how horrible you are or calling you an idiot.

On the other hand, you are in therapy because you want the therapist to help you make some kind of change, and as I said earlier, change often involves some discomfort. So eventually the therapist is very likely to suggest you try doing or thinking or feeling in a new way that may be uncomfortable, especially at first.

Because of this, a very important part of the process of therapy is learning to trust yourself to know when you are safe, and learning to tolerate a certain amount of discomfort right now so that you can get what you want later.

Knowing the difference between safety and comfort (or between danger and discomfort) is very important, because in my experience the most growth and change happens when you are safe, but are also pushing yourself slightly out of your comfort zone. If you are going to get your money’s worth out of therapy, so to speak, you want a therapist who can help you stay safe at the same time that he or she is pushing you to a degree that is not completely comfortable.

How much discomfort is helpful can be very difficult to judge, and it something that a therapist has to constantly monitor. Ideally the therapist and client do it together, and talk about it frequently.

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