Recently, a client new to therapy mentioned in session that she was disappointed about not having any time to do things to care for herself. Up to this point she hadn’t spoken much about self-care, though she had reported having a few hobbies that she had enjoyed in the past.  “Why can’t I have time for me? There are things I like to do for myself.” It is true that her life has been quite hectic recently. Between a career, childrearing duties and problems in her relationship, she feels that she has little if any time to focus on herself. I gently asked her about her time in our sessions. “Isn’t this time for you? Isn’t this self-care?” She looked up and quickly replied, “no.” “This isn’t fun. Self care has to be fun.” I responded that not all self-care feels good. Getting a facial or an infected tooth extracted are definitely forms of self-care, but they definitely don’t feel good. After sharing a laugh, my client advised me to never use that in advertising for my practice. “Nobody should know therapy doesn’t [always] feel good.” Aye, there’s the rub.

     After further discussion and exploration, it became clear that by “self-care” my client really meant “fun.” She was resentful about not having excitement and fun in her life. While she most definitely sees therapy as a form of self-exploration and self-improvement, it was more difficult for her to truly see it as self-care. We discussed the possibility that it was the very work of therapy that was allowing her to get in touch with the areas of her life that she felt needed more time and attention, such as her old pleasurable hobbies.

     The truth is, therapy frequently can make one feel less than happy (in the short-term.) Therapy for individuals who seek a deep exploration of themselves can feel like real work. This can be a difficult and uncomfortable space for those in therapy to move into, particularly those in therapy for the first time. Additionally, we live in a culture that prizes (nay, demands!) short-term, quick results. It is also a culture that puts a high value on feeling good, all the time. “If it feels good, do it.” This makes it difficult for some individuals to realize that even feeling uncomfortable or sad or angry, in the short-term, can help them experience deeper joy, happiness and pleasure in the longer-term.

     A skilled, caring and patient therapist can help an individual move through this point in therapy. Certainly, you, the client, can help the process as well. Conduct an emotional check-in at the start of sessions and conversely, an emotional checkout at the end of sessions. Think about how you are feeling. What feelings have arisen during the session? How did you feel in the hours and days after the previous session? Sharing this with the therapist can help normalize the feelings. Remember – therapy can, and at times, will feel like hard work, but that doesn’t mean you should leave the session unable to continue with your day or dreading the next session. Emotional check-ins can help avoid this happening.

     Additionally, I like to get clients to remember the goals that brought them into therapy. Is their goal to leave each session feeling elated and carefree or is it to resolve personal conflict and trouble and to achieve long-term happiness? Nearly every road to lasting change is a bumpy one. Like any arduous journey, keeping our eyes and minds focused on our destination can help make the trip less unpleasant. Therapy can often feel like a “3 steps forward, 1 step backwards” process. But remember – that’s just a feeling. 



Tyler Stafford