Why is my Therapist Challenging me?

Do you remember a time when you were venting to your best friend about how much you couldn’t stand your boss? You might have said things like, “I can’t believe I still work for that jerk! He doesn’t care about anyone but himself! He’s just like every other boss I’ve had before! They never treat me right!”

Statements as such suggest annoyance, pain and suffering because it sounds like this isn’t a new experience. Can anyone relate?

So how does your best friend respond to these complaints? Well, they may say things that are comforting: “It will get better soon, I just know it.” They may also say things that are in alignment with how you feel in that very moment: “Yeah, he is a jerk because he’s never cared about you in the first place.” Your best friend may even make a suggestion of what you should do next: “You need to go in his office and tell him off and just quit, everyone loves a good quitting story anyway.”

It is in moments like this where you can appreciate the support and feedback from your loved ones in your time of need. So, what’s this got to do with my therapist challenging me?

Everything.

Sometimes, we step into the four-walls of therapy with certain expectations: “I hope they give me the advice I need right now. This session will definitely make me feel better. Therapy is like talking to your best friend, always comforting.” Now, these thoughts do have a nice ring to them, and at times it may truly feel like you are diving into some deep content as if you were talking to your best friend. However, there are clear distinctions between sitting with your best friend and sitting with your therapist.

Let’s take the same scenario from the beginning and apply it to the therapeutic context. Your therapist may do the following that is similar to what a best friend does:

-Listen and sit with you

-Place their hand on your shoulder

-Give you undivided attention

-Provide moments of validation to your pain

Here is where things get a little more interesting. Depending on your therapist’s frame of reference (e.g., theoretical orientation), and how strong the therapeutic alliance is between the both of you, could determine what may happen next.

For instance, your therapist, after giving you the room to discuss your obstacle (e.g., situation with boss), may highlight the language you used after you’ve divulged. Your therapist may say, “I’d like to hear more about you ‘never’ being treated right.” These curious statements usually throw us off because we may be acclimated to our closest friends who just agree with how we view the situation. We may think: “Why question what I’m saying?” But, after some thought, perhaps you respond by saying that you’ve “never” had a good job before.

Again, your therapist may go even further by pointing out the language you used: “You know, I’ve noticed the more I listen to you talk about work, the more I hear the word ‘never,’ what do you think about that?” At this point, you may feel confused or frustrated because you are no longer talking about the “situation” at work as the focus is now on your very own thought process.

Let me pause for a moment to highlight what the therapist may be doing so far:

  1. Your therapist may be trying to understand your schema (e.g., the way you think).

  2. Your therapist may be helping you identify non-helpful language such as “never.”

  3. Your therapist may be generally curious about your job history and how it affects you.

  4. Your therapist may be interested in your thoughts and feelings of career choice.

These are the beginning stages of your therapist challenging you, and it can go much deeper than this, and for good reason. But, you’re probably wondering why is your therapist does this, right?

Your therapist is not like your best friend, nor are they your best friend in general. They are a fellow traveller who will honor your journey and provide a somewhat unbiased viewpoint. With this in mind, your therapist is challenging you for many reasons, but if there is a reason that may have higher importance than any other, it’s this:

Your therapist is trying to expose you to an uncomfortable process in order have long-term growth.

What does this mean? Let’s think of the process of working out your body as an example. Imagine waking up one morning and you decide to do the one thing that you’ve been contemplating about for months: going to the gym. You do your research and find out there’s a great gym down the street with amazing reviews. As you park the car in the lot, you find yourself nervous because it feels as if your heart is pounding outside your chest. You’re unsure if this gym stuff is right for you. But you still do it and walk up to the front doors and enter.

Entering therapy for the first time can be an uncomfortable experience. Yet, you still decide do it, and boldly I might add. Your presence in therapy is a literal challenge that you overcome with each session.

Going back to the gym scenario, you notice workout equipment that seems like it’s for beginners and you approach it. You test it out, and hey, it doesn’t seem as bad as you thought. However, as you begin to add more weight to it, it slowly becomes frustrating because you notice how hard it is to move the machine, and it now feels like you’re stuck again.

This is a completely normal phenomenon to anyone who is a beginner at a gym, and in therapy. When challenging moments happen, regardless of what you’re doing, we have a decision to make: do I step into this uncomfortable realm or not? Do I stick with what I know or try out a newer alternative? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that staying comfortable could keep you in the same position you started in. And long-term growth occurs from constant uncomfortably that manifest during challenging moments.

So, the next time you sit with your therapist and he or she are asking tough questions that are challenging you, I encourage you to ride this wave of uncertainty. Over time, the things you were challenged with may seem not so challenging anymore because you’ve overcome these obstacles once before.

Jacob Kountz