Hi there, in my latest Ask Me Anything post on Instagram stories, a lovely lady, called Maddie, asked me the following question.
And she says,
“Dear Dr. Courtney,
I’ve been in therapy for about six months now and I still struggle with opening up to my therapist.
I really like him and I do feel much more comfortable with him than I did in the beginning, but I still feel like my anxiety of showing my emotions is between us.
He also told me that he feels as if I am holding back, which makes it harder for us to connect.
Every time he asks me certain questions, I just kind of panic inside and everything goes blank.
It’s so frustrating because I really want to change and I tell myself, every week, to just open up more and let it go, but as soon as Thursday morning comes, I’m like, ‘Never mind, I can’t do it,’ I’m so scared, every time.
Is it weird that I still feel like this after 6 months? Does it mean that I’m failing in therapy? Should I quit?
I do feel like it’s helped me in certain ways already, but it’s going so, so slowly.
What can I do to make it easier to open up?”
Now, Maddie, what I want you to know is that finding it hard to open up in therapy is extremely common. So please, don’t worry, you are not failing at therapy, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to change and you’re doing nothing wrong, I promise.
And sharing emotions can be scary for some very good reasons.
So often, people come into my office and they want to share, they want to connect in that intimate way, but as you describe, when they try, something inside their body happens.
Something inside says, “Hold back, don’t do it.”
Now, as a therapist, that something inside that says, “Hold back,” is the part that I am most interested in because I know that if we can understand that part and give that part voice and space, it will lead us right to why sharing feelings feels so scary.
Now, in reading your question, it made me wonder what might have happened when you were little and you tried to share your feelings, were your feelings listened to? Were they responded to with compassion? Were they listened to with understanding and care? Were you made to feel that your emotions mattered? Were you free to express negative emotions, like anxiety or anger? Or were you not allowed to feel bad things? Were these types of feelings considered, “Silly,” or, “Too much,” were you made to feel like they were too much in your family? Were they belittled in some way, or ignored even, or maybe some really bad things happened when you tried to express your feelings?
And the reason I wondered this and the reason that I’m asking you these questions about expressing your feelings as a child, is that you may have learned, as a child, that it is unsafe to share your feelings.
And as you discovered that it was unsafe, you cleverly learned to hold back so that you would not get hurt.
So this kind of holding back that you describe as a bad thing in your question, is actually brilliant. It’s a survival strategy that you developed to keep yourself safe as a child and one that your body remembers today.
It makes evolutionary sense to embed all learning that keeps you safe, doesn’t it?
So it can be frustrating, as you say, because there’s another part of you that so much wants to share, so much wants to connect in that way, but your body will not let you.
It panics and you clam up, as you say, and you go blank.
Now, if this is the case for you, what is there to do?
Well, the first thing to do is to find yourself a therapist that you can trust and you have done that and that is fantastic.
It’s great that you feel more comfortable with him than you did at the start. And hopefully, this level of comfort will continue to increase, over time.
And lots of therapists have different ways of trying to help their clients when they go through this kind of experience of clamming up and what your therapist describes as holding back.
And I wonder what your therapist does to try to help you when he notices these moments in therapy, does he ask you what you’re thinking and feeling, in those moments when you clam up and feel unable to share?
Does he ask you what’s happening inside your body when those difficult questions come up?
Because it sounds like that for you, Maddie, much of the work of therapy is going to be about helping your body learn to feel safe to share.
And to do that, I think it’s going to mean slowing those moments in therapy down and focusing less on sharing the actual feelings because that will come later, that will come naturally, and more on the obstacles to sharing those.
And in this case, it sounds like it’s teaching your body how you feel safe to share.
And Maddie, this kind of work may already be happening in your therapeutic relationship, or it may come over time, but if you continue to feel this way and you don’t start to feel more comfortable sharing, it’s okay to try another therapist and doing so will not mean that you have failed at therapy.
Therapy’s a journey and sometimes one therapist takes you part of that journey and another therapist takes you the next part.
So I hope that’s been helpful for you, Maddie, and I wish you all the best for your next session, on Thursday.
Dr Courtney. x