After watching a friend or loved one struggle — with work, with relationships, with depression, with all of the above — it can be a major relief to hear them utter four little words: “I’m seeing a therapist.”
That is, until you hang out with them. When you do, they may seem defensive, reactive, arrogant, even evasive. They also might be critical of you and tell you to go to therapy, which might make you wonder if they need a better therapist or more frequent sessions. But for many people, the problem isn’t that therapy isn’t working, it’s just that it can make them act like more of a dick at first. If anything, that means they’re doing it right.
“A majority of the time, I’m rooting for my clients to be jerks more often,” says Patrick Turbiville, a Texas-based clinical social worker and psychotherapist. That’s because therapy newbs aren’t being malicious or intentionally rude. Instead, Turbiville explains, “They’re asserting boundaries for the first time with people who aren’t used to those boundaries.” Which is no easy task, but an important skill that many of us fail to cultivate, mostly because “it can take lots of practice to do so gracefully.”
Depending on the person and their therapist, the asshole period can last anywhere from a few sessions to a few years. And yet, despite all the talking that goes into most talk therapy, it’s never really communicated to patients that therapy can make them feel worse — and more irritable — before it makes them feel better. “Therapy isn’t that much different from exercising a new muscle group at the gym,” Turbiville says. “Having a hard time is a logically necessary step toward having an easier time.”
It’s worth noting that plenty of people do feel better relatively quickly once they start therapy. Turbiville credits this to a strong rapport between clinician and client, along with the catharsis that comes with unloading a bunch of bottled-up emotions. “It happens, but the point stands that it probably isn’t useful to expect or depend on that happening,” he tells me.
“Protective factors” — i.e., a strong support system composed of people who will be patient and understanding, pre-existing coping skills like exercise and meditation and an openness to new perspectives — also play a big role here. When these things aren’t in place, the therapy itself should be focused on developing them, which, again, can extend your stay in Assholeville. That’s why to Turbiville, it’s “incredibly impressive to me that some folks will stick with therapy for years despite being in this uncomfortable place.”
The best way to prevent any dickheadedness when starting therapy is to increase your self-compassion and patience about your initial response to it, as well as not expecting any kind of immediate miracle cure. “The hope, need or expectation for therapy to work quickly is likely rooted in the very common tendency to put off therapy until it feels like an emergency,” Turbiville warns. “Normalizing therapy for problems that don’t feel urgent would make ideas about therapy working quickly less relevant in the first place.”
It might even make you less of an asshole in the end.