Is counseling supposed to hurt?

By David Joel Miller.

Does counseling need to make you feel bad to work?

Sometimes counseling involves looking at painful things. Clients don’t like doing things that will hurt. I don’t like making them hurt either. I want them to have a happy life, not a pain filled one. But sometimes the counselor needs to take you there if they are going to help you.

Clients come to see the therapist like an accident victim, they are covered in bruises. Handling them roughly just increases the pain for no good reason. No counselor should add to the client’s pain for the sake of “being honest” with them or getting them to face problems. But if your counselor wants you to heal, they made need to help you walk through the pain. Sometimes the burn victim needs the wounds cleaned if they are to heal even when the wound cleaning process makes them hurt.

The client’s life may be like an old refrigerator, full of things they should have thrown out a long time ago, things that smell and are messy. A good counselor helps you clean that stuff out. They aren’t horrified by the discolored things or the smelly ones. If the whole cleaning out process becomes too much we may need to leave some things untouched for a while until you are feeling well enough to let go of some more of the rotten things from your past.

If you have a wound, physical or emotional, it needs cleaning. It may hurt more if you leave it. Long untended wounds take the most effort to heal. You may not be up to feeling all that pain at once. Like peeling an onion you may need to work at your pain until you cry and then next time peel away another layer.

Doctors know when it is better to open up a wound, feel the pain and then let that wound heal slowly from the inside out. A good counselor should be able to work with you on that type of emotional healing.

The beginning counselor may try to quickly cover up the pain, get you to look away and avoid the thing that could lead to your healing. I would love to end each session with a few words of encouragement, tell the client everything will be fine. I know sometimes that is not true. They need gentle honesty.

Often that one hour of therapy is the hour we operate on the longstanding pain. I see them for that one hour. The rest of the week that client has to carry that burden for 167 hours until I see them again. The real healing happens in that other time outside the therapy hour when the client heals slowly from the inside out without the burden of the memories that we have let out during our session.

Counseling doesn’t always need to hurt, sometimes we clear up confusion or we help clients talk through a choice in life. The kind of counseling where I get to teach new life skills or coach someone to improve their game of life, those make me happy.

But sometimes I know I need to sit with the client while they let out that pain from the past and begin their healing journey.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books


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