Why Therapy Can Make Things Feel Worse Before They Feel Better (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 1
One of our greatest coping skills when we’re overwhelmed is to shutdown (a freeze response). Without safety and support to heal from such an experience it can be incredibly overwhelming and even dangerous to try and remember the past. It’s just too big and too painful.
When things are too big to deal with we develop defensive parts that try to push it from our minds and never think about it again. Unfortunately, even if these defensive parts succeed in keeping us from thinking about it, our bodies and minds still remember the story.
We find ourselves experiencing terrible things like panic, isolation, rage, nightmares, flashbacks, addiction, and self-harm… all in an attempt to get the story out. All in an attempt to cope with the overwhelming past.
Understanding our Defensives
To understand what a defensive part is like, imagine a boat came under attack and suffered a hull breach in the front (aft). When the breach first happened a sailor was assigned to close all the doors leading to the aft compartments so the boat wouldn’t sink.
Consequently, that sailor took on the role of guarding all those doors and never letting anyone get near them. They’re terribly afraid the boat will sink if even one door is even slightly cracked open.
The sailor has so many doors to guard, and is so worried that someone will try to open one that they are constantly running back and forth ringing the alarm bell about the dangers of even getting near the door.
The sailor gets so good at ringing the alarm bell that eventually the other sailors (parts) and even the captain (You) can come to rely on the defensive sailor.
Sadly the sailor is so exhausted from all their running about and alarm ringing that they haven’t figured out the attack is over. They haven’t figured out the boat is back at dry-dock (repair yard) where it’s hull can be mended. When folks show up to get the repairs underway the sailor lashes out. They still believes they’re the only one keeping everyone safe.
Defenses in Therapy
Stepping in to a therapeutic process is really about stepping bravely towards the scary things locked away in our bodies and minds. But we only do this when the boat is back in dry-dock. When everything is in place to make sure the healing can happen in a safe way.
Fortunately there is an entire system of therapy called Internal Family Systems that can help you get to a place where healing can happen.
When our defensive sailors have been operating for a long time they’ve gotten in to a bit of a routine. They know what to expect and which doors to guard when.
When a therapist shows up to try and help they get really worried. They thought everything was under control. Now there’s this other person saying “you’re safe now. It’s ok to open the door.” The sailor is understandably worried. They may even try to escalate old tactics or engage new ones to try and keep everyone safe (or at least that’s how they see it).
Stepping in to therapy can be scary.
It can stir things up. It’s important that you trust your therapist. It’s important that you want to do the work. AND, It’s important that your therapist understands trauma and never tries to convince you to do anything you’re not ready to do.
(No therapist should ever encourage you to look at or “deal with” something that you don’t feel ready and willing to step closer to. Being pushed outside your window of tolerance is a surefire way to be re-traumatized. If this happens to you it’s probably time to practice holding boundaries with your therapist, and/or find a new one.)
If you or a loved one is struggling to heal from something terrible please remember that resources exist in you community. There are likely some great support groups, activist organizations, therapists, and spiritual communities that can support your healing process.
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.