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How to address tough topics in therapy

How to address tough topics in therapy

May 31, 2024

Despite our intentions, it's remarkably easy to end up skirting around the deeper, more painful subjects during therapy sessions. Maybe we get sidetracked by less threatening issues. Or perhaps we struggle to find the right words to broach the heavier material. Before we know it, the hour is nearly up, and we've avoided diving into the heart of what's really weighing on us.

There can be an understandable temptation to play it safe — after all, therapy requires making ourselves vastly vulnerable. Relinquishing our usual defenses and self-protective facades to let someone witness our rawest insecurities, shameful experiences, and innermost anguish is immensely difficult. Our psyche rebels at the prospect of dragging our darker shadows out into the exposing light.

However, when we succumb to avoidance or censorship, we inevitably short-circuit our own healing and growth. The things we desperately need to unpack and process are the very things that remain quarantined behind our own resistance.

Go there

But by mustering the courage to "go there" and unflinchingly voice the previously unutterable, we initiate powerful inner shifts. Each courageous disclosure of our heavily guarded emotional Truth, each piece of traumatic history we bravely excavate cracks the constraints and invites new possibilities. We disrupt the cyclical reenactments that keep us stuck by bringing everything out of darkness and into the transformative light of conscious integration.

Of course, this is much easier said than done in the actual therapy room. Our fears around harsh judgments or unbearable overwhelm can make it incredibly challenging to broach certain topics out loud. But a good therapist understands this dynamic and can help create a safe container.

The first step is recognizing and respecting the vulnerability required to dive into the harder stuff. Allow yourself to acknowledge just how scary or shameful certain places feel to let anyone witness. Voice any anxieties or resistance you feel around going to those deeper depths. Your therapist can validate the difficulty and remind you that no part is too dark, strange or off-limits to unpack together.

Show intent

It can also help to make it a clear intention from the outset that you want to give particular focus to a tough issue that therapy. Let your therapist know upfront which part of your inner landscape feels most painfully obstructed. This can provide a touchstone to gently circle back to whenever the conversation starts drifting away from the heart of the matter.

Depending on the subject, sometimes writing or creative exercises can provide an indirect pathway to accessing the most guarded emotional territory. If putting words to something feels too exposing at first, consider bringing in examples of artwork, poetry or song lyrics that capture the felt sense of the experience you need to unpack. Sometimes our deepest knowing resides more fully in the poetic or symbolic than in pure vernacular.

Most of all, keep coming back to the understanding that the relief, resolution and freedom we most crave always lies in the direction of leaning all the way into our vulnerability — not away from it. The more wholeheartedly we can grieve, vent and heave our darkest shames, traumas and fears directly into the compassionate therapeutic relationship, the more their grip on us dissipates.

It may always require courage to speak certain pieces of our inner lives out loud. But that very act of dragging our depths into the light catalyzes the alchemical transformation we ultimately seek. Have faith in yourself, your therapist and the process. Where your vulnerability shows up, your deliverance dwells.

Despite our intentions, it's remarkably easy to end up skirting around the deeper, more painful subjects during therapy sessions. Maybe we get sidetracked by less threatening issues. Or perhaps we struggle to find the right words to broach the heavier material. Before we know it, the hour is nearly up, and we've avoided diving into the heart of what's really weighing on us.

There can be an understandable temptation to play it safe — after all, therapy requires making ourselves vastly vulnerable. Relinquishing our usual defenses and self-protective facades to let someone witness our rawest insecurities, shameful experiences, and innermost anguish is immensely difficult. Our psyche rebels at the prospect of dragging our darker shadows out into the exposing light.

However, when we succumb to avoidance or censorship, we inevitably short-circuit our own healing and growth. The things we desperately need to unpack and process are the very things that remain quarantined behind our own resistance.

Go there

But by mustering the courage to "go there" and unflinchingly voice the previously unutterable, we initiate powerful inner shifts. Each courageous disclosure of our heavily guarded emotional Truth, each piece of traumatic history we bravely excavate cracks the constraints and invites new possibilities. We disrupt the cyclical reenactments that keep us stuck by bringing everything out of darkness and into the transformative light of conscious integration.

Of course, this is much easier said than done in the actual therapy room. Our fears around harsh judgments or unbearable overwhelm can make it incredibly challenging to broach certain topics out loud. But a good therapist understands this dynamic and can help create a safe container.

The first step is recognizing and respecting the vulnerability required to dive into the harder stuff. Allow yourself to acknowledge just how scary or shameful certain places feel to let anyone witness. Voice any anxieties or resistance you feel around going to those deeper depths. Your therapist can validate the difficulty and remind you that no part is too dark, strange or off-limits to unpack together.

Show intent

It can also help to make it a clear intention from the outset that you want to give particular focus to a tough issue that therapy. Let your therapist know upfront which part of your inner landscape feels most painfully obstructed. This can provide a touchstone to gently circle back to whenever the conversation starts drifting away from the heart of the matter.

Depending on the subject, sometimes writing or creative exercises can provide an indirect pathway to accessing the most guarded emotional territory. If putting words to something feels too exposing at first, consider bringing in examples of artwork, poetry or song lyrics that capture the felt sense of the experience you need to unpack. Sometimes our deepest knowing resides more fully in the poetic or symbolic than in pure vernacular.

Most of all, keep coming back to the understanding that the relief, resolution and freedom we most crave always lies in the direction of leaning all the way into our vulnerability — not away from it. The more wholeheartedly we can grieve, vent and heave our darkest shames, traumas and fears directly into the compassionate therapeutic relationship, the more their grip on us dissipates.

It may always require courage to speak certain pieces of our inner lives out loud. But that very act of dragging our depths into the light catalyzes the alchemical transformation we ultimately seek. Have faith in yourself, your therapist and the process. Where your vulnerability shows up, your deliverance dwells.

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Advait Naik

Advait is the founder of Verba and works at the intersection of psychology, design and technology to create a product that can help humans be more self aware through clarity