Why do I feel worse after a therapy session?
This question takes me straight back to when I went into therapy as a mandated part of my training. Blithely, and naively, I found a counsellor and proceeded to start counselling. My mindset was that it should be OK as I did not need counselling. I was OK, well-adjusted, and accepting of my past and happy with my plans for the future.
All I can say about the last statement is “My oh my, what a fool believes!” Little did I know where the counselling would lead, what rocks it would turn over, what was hiding underneath those rocks, and how much I wanted to not be counselled.
Something from the recovery journey I was on turned out to be very prescient and that was a small phrase that said, “You only need to change one thing - that is everything”.
I was aware of Carl Rogers and his view, “That the conscious will only let into the conscious what the conscious can handle” coupled with Carl Jung’s saying that “The subconscious must be let into the conscious or it will rule us”. How very true those sayings turned out to be for this counsellor.
Several sessions into the mandated 40 sessions, I was puzzled when the counsellor kept asking me what I was going to do to practise self-care. What did I need to do? I was not affected - was I?
As the sessions progressed, I was challenged to my core. My self-image, my view of past events and my sense of the present were being challenged. I was not challenged by my counsellor (they were far too clever and skilled to do that); I was challenging myself.
Challenging myself about my assumptions, my memories and my motivators was quite difficult, yet I could not stay the way I had been. I could not unknow something I had learned. My counsellor kept me safe, supported me and gave me the confidence to go to places and events I had sworn to take to the grave with me. I was now able to see why the counsellor was asking me what I was going to do to practise self-care.
When I left sessions I was drained. I felt challenged and ashamed. I felt embarrassed.
By now, my counsellor and I had developed a therapeutic relationship. This allowed me to feel safe enough to ask the counsellor why I was feeling like this. My counsellor explained that feeling this way was not unusual.
They explained that feeling like that after sessions was an indicator that I was working, that the pain could be likened to the ripping off of a plaster - necessary to allow a wound to heal.
They explained that I was beginning to experience vulnerability and that that was OK. Reading Brenee Brown and Assagioli (SHAME - a toxic emotion and psychogenesis) allowed me to gain an academic perspective on my feelings, which is my safe place. This allowed me to look at myself in a way that was compassionate and not critical. It allowed me to accept the dark part of myself as well as the light side of me.
My counsellor, who I consider to be a wonderful counsellor, taught me it was OK to grieve, to rage, to be subdued. They helped me to explore how to self-regulate. After sessions, I would walk out into the countryside or I would eat something special. Sometimes all I could do was sleep.
So the mandated 40 sessions came and went, and I was still seeing the same counsellor. Nothing could have stopped me from going to sessions now. I was not only experiencing shame, etc, but I was also feeling and witnessing change - positive change in my thinking and, by extension, in my life.
After about 60 sessions, my counsellor felt that I was going to places (internally) that were beyond their level of competency and they suggested I went to see a specialist counsellor. I felt absolutely gutted and betrayed.
At first, I felt those feelings. With the skills and techniques I had learned with this counsellor, I paused and reflected. I was able to see that my counsellor was being the most authentic and compassionate that they could be. They were recommending a specialist counsellor because they held me in unconditional positive regard and, because of this, they could not counsel me to the level that would be of most use to me. They were truly being beneficent and for them to be otherwise would be maleficent.
Unsurprisingly, I still felt worse after the sessions with the new counsellor. The difference being that they were not unexpected, new and surprising! Uncomfortable yes, but manageable.
On the long walk back home from these sessions, I was able to process what had been gone into in the session. I was able to self-regulate and to soothe myself. This might have been a cheeky kebab or even a coffee but it was self-regulating. Now I was able to appreciate that feeling this way after sessions was part of the process. That feeling this way was necessary for the person I was becoming to be realised.
As Carl Rogers would say, I was becoming a fully organismic person. By acknowledging the events and feelings from the past, I was able to experience and accept the way I was feeling in the immediate present.
When the sessions came to an end (75+ in total), I was made aware that my governing body (BACP) no longer required student counsellors to have counselling. In my experience, I found the counselling I had to be necessary and beneficial. I could not be the counsellor I am today without the mandated counselling sessions.
I certainly would not want to be counselled by a counsellor who has not done the work on themselves. I ask myself how congruent a counsellor can be who has not experienced the counselling journey, the lows and the subsequent growth. How can a client be well served by a counsellor who is talking the talk but not walking the walk?