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[ Staff Picks ] [ Opinion ]

When the Healing Hurts

Nicole (Herschler) Arzt  is a Registered Marriage and Family Therapist Intern working in Southern California. She has been privileged to provide therapeutic services for a wide variety of individuals, families, couples, and groups. Her clinical emphasis lies in working with young females with substance use, eating disorders, and self-harm. 

Years ago, after several continuous no-shows and my dreaded feeling that she wasn’t coming back, one of my clients walked in, nervously admitting her apprehension about therapy. 

This is all making me feel worse, she said. I can’t go through with this if it’s going to continue to hurt. 

Sharing her story, exploring the intensity of her emotions, and revealing her tightly-sealed secrets had hurt, and this confused and scared her. 

After all, wasn’t therapy supposed to make her feel better? This wasn’t what she had signed up for.

Here’s the thing about healing. It’s like climbing. The views are beautiful from the top of a mountain range, but the top is just the end result of laborious, compromising, gritty, painful, soul-searching work. The views come after the persistence and dedication. And it’s a gratuitous feeling, being up there, admiring your journey and appreciating where you came from, but you had to want to be there and do whatever it took to get there.

This isn’t a single mountain, either. It’s an entire range of limitless mountains. That is what life is- a lifelong climb with many different views and scenarios along the way. 

And that’s a good thing. Staying on the top of anything leaves us stagnant, and we were born to move.

Healing is fluid and eclectic, and the journey is uniquely paced and timed for each individual. Healing involves crossing rivers and streams, relying on our intuition, trusting the process of nature, speeding up and slowing down, preparing for bad weather, and everything else that comes with being a human.

I, as a therapist, do not introduce any new climb. Instead, I join my client on his or her journey and raise awareness to the climb. We explore what is working and what isn’t. This is why therapy can hurt. Together, we are rising all the inner stuff to the surface. That stuff suddenly has a voice and a message, which makes us believe it has a sense of power over us. We start talking and thinking about the memories and fears we once buried in the dark caves of our minds. We start learning about the ways we avoided, denied, minimized, or deprived ourselves of the things we needed. We start identifying the feelings we may not have known were inside us. Therapy makes it difficult to hide from ourselves, and most of us prefer hiding from pain- cocooned in isolation- rather than risk looking at it.

Yet, hiding from something does not take it away. If we are lost on the mountain, stuck between two different trails, avoiding the problem and staying immobile , the challenge does not disappear. We have to tackle our fears of what it could be and make the necessary judgment calls. We risk vulnerability and discomfort and making mistakes, but we can no longer hide.

My client was scared because she wanted to feel better, and she wanted to pretend her psychiatric pain wasn’t taunting and threatening her. She wanted to be at the top of the mountain, and I couldn’t blame her. The hike for her had been long and windy. She was tired of climbing. She was fatigued, and the altitude kept getting higher and higher. Talking about the climb was painful. She had been doing it unconsciously, trailing along in agony for so long, and she just wanted relief.

But to understand and heal the pain”, we have to go to go through it, not around, under, or next to it. We have to meet it, directly where it is at, and face it for what it is, as raw and undesirable and uncomfortable as it may be. Because pain doesn’t just disappear and pretending something isn’t there doesn’t take it away.

Feeling worse at any stage of healing is normal. It isn’t pleasant, but it is normal. You have already suffered. Therapy just increases your awareness of it. If I provide a client with new insight, I am only interpreting a feeling or experience you have already undergone. 

New suffering is not created; rather, you are learning new terms and language to describe what you have or are still going through.

Yet, of course, this hurts because change hurts. Because our past hurts. And because climbing hurts. We get tired. We get bored. We get lonely. We forget our motivation, and we wonder why we started in the first place. We want a therapist to bring us to the top of the mountain, forgetting that elevators do not exist on this kind of journey, forgetting that there is no “one mountaintop” on this long hike we call life.

This is the start of the mental detoxifying process. This is scrubbing off all the caked-on dirt and peeling away its rigid layers. This is removing the bandages and allowing the deep cuts to heal. This is accepting and moving, rather than resisting and fighting, the pain inside of us.

Through exploring, we may find answers. Through finding answers, we may find pain.

And through pain, we find healing.