Therapy can be gross. What I really mean is, therapy can make you feel less ok about things then you felt before you sat down and started talking. A colleague of mine describes this feeling as “stirring up the gunk.”
We all have coping mechanisms that help us move through our day to day. We all deal with our emotions and struggles in *some* way. And often what happens in therapy is that we are asked to think about finding different ways to cope. Maybe we have enough self-awareness to say to our therapist in an early session, “This way I’ve been coping isn’t working, I need a new one.” Many people – including myself when I first started going to therapy as a client – don’t start there. We start with something like, “I don’t know, I guess I’ve been really anxious.” We’ve heard talking to a therapist can help, so we try it. And then at some point in therapy we reach this meme-able moment:
We realize – or our therapist gently tells us – that our coping mechanisms could use some work. And that is why therapy can be gross.
Learning new ways of doing things is hard. It takes work and practice. It brings up all the feelings of not being good at something because you haven’t tried it before. Gross, gross, gross. It can ask us to examine where we learned how to cope like this, maybe from family dynamics or traumatic events. It can require us to be really vulnerable with naming the emotions we’re coping with. And vulnerability often feels super gross. Vulnerability feels hard and uncomfortable because we hide things really well from ourselves that we can’t hide as well with another person. Dr. Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” Just what we all want to do with a stranger on a Thursday morning!
But here’s the thing about vulnerability in therapy. When we open ourselves up and let whatever “gunk” we maybe didn’t want stirred up come to the surface, our therapist knows what to do next. As a therapist, the moments when a client can be vulnerable with me feel like sinking three-pointers. Except I don’t feel like the Steph Curry in that scenario. I feel like the Steve Kerr. Because my client has ability and skill and wisdom and experience that have nothing to do with me. And those things – they’re part of the gunk. What we’ve been taught, as therapists, is to be able to say “look at that gunk, isn’t it neat!” We’re here to help you consider that maybe that gunk, those gross feelings, are actually important and valuable. We’re trained to encourage your understanding that this coping mechanism you had, while it was helping you get through your day to day, also involved feeling feelings and saying “gross” to yourself, instead of saying, “I feel really disappointed right now, because this thing I wanted isn’t going to work out.”
That is a hard thing to do. Harder for some feelings than others. Harder at some points in our life than others. The difficulty doesn’t always go away, but therapy helps us get better at. Weights don’t get lighter, muscles get stronger. The basket doesn’t move closer, we get more skilled. Practice doesn’t make perfect, especially in therapy. Practice just makes it easier to do the hard thing. We still feel the way we feel. The things that have happened to us don’t magically evaporate. But stirring up the gunk becomes a thing we know how to do, even if we find it gross.