Therapy can be messy. Although it is designed to help people feel better, think more clearly, and act with more purpose, sometimes through the process of therapy, especially in the early stages things can get worse before they get better…especially when there is more than one person involved. And there is ALWAYS more than one person involved. How so?
Clients, even individual clients, bring all of their systems into therapy. They bring their family, their friends, their social support network, their work relationships, and even their enemies into therapy with them. The events of their lives and their interactions with others over the course of a lifetime, combined with their unique personality serve to shape the lens through which they view their circumstances both good and bad. The same can be said about all those with whom they interact. We all have our personal lens. We all have our personal morals, truths, and sense of right versus wrong. For some these are very black and white. For others everything hangs in an atmosphere of various shades of gray. And inevitably the intersection of our very different lenses can be a potential source of stress/distress.
Therapy serves as a safe place to examine this stress and these systems…a place to make sense of the past, the present, and to help shape a plan for the future with the understanding that nothing is certain.
And although for some a single therapy session can serve as a “quick fix” for most that is not the case. In addition, clients often experience a period, or periods, of things being worse before they get better. Why?
On reason why is that what most people believe to be the overall issue is merely just the tip of the iceberg. Therapy helps people see beneath the surface, or to peel back layers to see what else may be going on underneath. The presenting issue may merely be a symptom of something that goes much deeper.
Another reason why is all those other people/systems I mentioned earlier. When someone enters therapy and begins to change himself or herself inevitably they also begin to change aspects of each of their systems. For example, when someone starts learning to speak up for themselves their interactions change. This is uncomfortable for others who are used to relating in a specific way. Change in one person necessarily incites the need for change in another. Yet systems seek to maintain homeostasis. What does this mean? This means the rest of the system puts pressure on the part that is trying to change to stop and stay the same, to go back to the original way of relating.
When a person in therapy begins to unearth patterns of living, working, doing, feeling, thinking, and behaving that no longer serve them well and starts implementing new patterns it has the potential to disrupt all his/her systems. This is where things can get messy and can be a critical point of therapy: people often decide its too painful to continue and stop therapy, or this is where they experience a breakthrough.
Unlike other professions where a trained expert comes in and repairs something and makes it “good as new” therapy is a collaborative effort that requires teamwork between therapist and client. The client has to be willing to roll up his/her sleeves and do some work themselves. This may mean greater personal discomfort at least for a while, and probably some discomfort for others. It can mean taking three steps backwards before being able to make any progress forwards. It can feel like trudging through mud. But, any movement is better than being stuck. Even temporary backward movement is progress.
Good therapists/counselors will let their clients know that although they seek to incorporate the latest, evidence-based theories and practices therapy is imperfect; they are not able to make guarantees. However, the person willing to engage in therapy is much more likely to experience a change than those unwilling to do so. At the very least, anyone willing to engage will gain a greater understanding of why their systems function they way they do. At that point they have the choice of accepting things the way they are or moving forward with their own change.