• Maggie Shen

Should I quit therapy if I feel worse? - on the pleasure of pain

Clients who enter into therapy for the first time often have this question: I’m feeling really bad, is this normal? Does that mean therapy is not working?

I often try to explain to clients that, therapy is a bit like cleaning an infected wound. It won’t feel nice when you clean it - it would sting quite a bit. You can cover the wound up with a bandage, take some painkillers and pretend the wound isn’t there, but it’s unlikely to heal properly. It might become a bigger issue later on. If you do clean it, it would hurt, and the deeper the wound is, the more it would hurt and longer it would take to heal. Pain is, fortunately or unfortunately, part of the process of healing.

As human beings, we instinctively avoid pain. It comes from our nature to protect ourselves and it should absolutely be honoured. However, sometimes the temporary avoidance of pain leads to maladaptive ways of living life that eventually no longer serves the protective function it had in the first place, and leads to more pain instead.

On a personal level, I love a bit of pain. And it’s not because I have some masochistic tendencies - nothing wrong with that either - but because pain and suffering for me often leads to enlightenment. For example, I’m very into weightlifting and pain is part of muscle growth. Each training session comes with a level of pain: the fibres in my muscles literally tear and regrow so I become stronger. Other times, pain is an important source of information: if I’m doing a sumo deadlift and my lower back is hurting, that means I’m not bracing my core properly and a poor form could lead to serious injury, so I stop.

Coming back to therapy, so you are in therapy and you are in pain. What kind of pain are you suffering? Is it painful because you are growing and adapting to a new way of being? Are you releasing toxic, suppressed emotions from the past decades? Or is current therapy not the right “form” for you and perhaps hurting you? If it’s the latter, talking to your therapist, if you feel safe enough, is the first thing to try. Repairing ruptures in the relationship can be healing in itself.

However if it’s hard because of growing pains, tell your therapist it’s hard - no one should suffer more pain than could tolerate, but also remember pain is part of the process.

Personally, I often enjoy the couple of days of limping around after a particularly gruelling weightlifting session. The pleasure of the pain is knowing that I’m growing.

Spiritually, I believe, ”suffering is the inevitable path that must be trod on the way to consciousness, the inevitable price for the transformation we seek”.

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