Working through difficult feelings in therapy

We may decide to start therapy for all sorts of reasons; we may be seeking counselling because of feeling anxious about whether people like us, feeling depressed about the mundanity of life, being uncontrollably angry, having difficulties in our relationships with loved ones, battling with intrusive, distressing thoughts or being dependent on alcohol or drugs, exercise or pornography.

But regardless of whatever might be the reason for seeking help now, whatever the present circumstance, most of the time, the problem stems from something earlier in our lives. We sort of know this already, most of the feelings we have now, we recognise as at least vaguely familiar.

Through working through these old, yet new difficulties, we eventually arrive at a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us: one with greater perspective, and with fewer of the old grievances and anxieties.

Difficult, painful feelings may have originally arisen because of specific events (e.g. parental divorce, a family illness, a traumatic incident), but more often than not, because of general situations that take their toll over time (e.g. an angry mother, an unavailable father, argumentative parents, being bullied at school).

These earlier events and situations are the source of un-processed feelings and experiences which in turn may underlie our current issues. They are the basis of problems and make us vulnerable for the future.

When we experienced these original intense, painful feelings as children; perhaps of rage, jealousy, shame, humiliation, we probably found them hard to express. This may be because we didn’t have the right words for them, or that we felt no-one would understand. We may have felt utterly alone with these feelings. Eventually, we would have developed all sorts of ways of coping with things, of constructing coping mechanisms, defences, designed to shield us from the more painful emotions.  

How talking helps

Perhaps one of the most wonderful things about counselling and psychotherapy is that it can offer us the possibility of experiencing these same difficult emotions (or perhaps newer versions of them) but this time, within the safety, confidentiality, and thoughtfulness of a therapeutic relationship.

If we are able to (re)experience these familiar painful feelings within therapy - and I don't mean just talking about our problems simplistically and mechanically, but through describing our lives, our relationships, providing a sense of our struggle - then, eventually we may come to have a genuinely remarkable, transformative experience that unfolds over time.

We may come to have the experience of the therapist thinking about, being in touch with, and understanding these very same emotions that previously we had felt alone with. We are alone no longer. We see that the therapist doesn’t get angry with us when we get angry with them, that they don’t punish us when we punish them, that they don’t give up on us when we feel like giving up. This in turn - again, eventually – gives us a way of repeating no longer, of finding a new destination for these well-trodden paths of thought and feeling.

Through working through these old, yet new difficulties, we eventually arrive at a new way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us: one with greater perspective, and with fewer of the old grievances and anxieties.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Oxford OX1 & Witney OX28

Written by Seth Osborne

Oxford OX1 & Witney OX28

Dr Seth Osborne,

Counsellor at Magdalen College School, Oxford and in private practice in Oxford

PsychD Psychotherapy & Counselling
UKCP registered; BACP

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