Therapy: Burpees for the Soul
Updated: May 23, 2020
Recently I was at my local gym, huffing and sweating through a round of burpees. Just in case you’ve had the good fortune to not have to do one, a burpee is a hellish activity that involves jumping up and down, throwing yourself to the floor, and doing a push-up. Nice image, eh?
Nearby stood my trainer, watching to make sure that I performed the exercise correctly but also to provide the support and encouragement that I needed to get through it. When I felt as if I could do no more I stopped, on my knees, gasping for breath, certain that I could not do one more of these torturous exercises. Then I heard the trainer say, “You can do this. It’s hard because it’s supposed to be.”
These words ring true for me, not just as someone who feels incompetent in a gym, but as someone who works with folks who feel just as incompetent in therapy sessions. My supervisor told me once as I struggled to find the words for a client struggling with grief – “It hurts because it’s supposed to.”
This wise statement is simple, powerful, and true. Therapy hurts. It sucks. We’re asking you to do things with your heart and mind that are no more pleasant (if not worse) than a series of burpees. Humor me for a minute as we explore 5 ways that therapy is painfully similar to a workout session.
1) You will become stronger.
Exercise forces you to strengthen various parts of your body. Whether it’s the muscles in your arms or the muscles in your heart, the process involves pushing your body out of your comfort zone. When your body is faced with an exercise that is just slightly more difficult than it is accustomed to, it strengthens and grows so that the activity is more accessible the next time.
Therapy asks you to do the same thing. Only instead of your muscles, this process involves making you think, feel, and address things that you would really just… rather not. All of the things that you’re pushing to the back of your mind, we’re going to pull right out into the open. Because when those things are stewing and rotting in the recesses of your mind, they hold power over you. So, yeah, this will be difficult. It’ll downright suck even. But once we take the power away from that thing that torments you, you’ll be a stronger person for it.
2) You will feel pain.
When you exercise, you tear the muscles in te body. In that moment you are literally tearing your body apart. It’s hard. It’s painful. Really painful the next day. It takes your breath away.
But something amazing happens after that. As your body heals from the exercise, stronger muscle appears in it’s place. In order for you to lift more, run further, jump higher, you have to destroy what is there to make room for something bigger, better, and stronger.
The therapeutic process is just like this. Beginning the process itself sounds downright strange – you mean to tell me I have to have a conversation (with a complete stranger no less!) about the things that I spend every day mentally avoiding? A root canal sounds more pleasant!
But therapy gives you the opportunity, much like strength-training, to destroy the pain and negativity that keeps you from achieving your goals. You then have the power to replace that negative space with whatever you want – better self-esteem, more productivity, better sleep, you name it.
3) Results take time.
So you just did a round of burpees. You’re sore, your muscles are shaking from being used when you’ve not used them in that way for a long time. You look in the mirror, and – wait a second. Where’s that perfect body I just worked so hard for??
Therapy is hard work, and it’s understandable to be frustrated when you are not immediately met with tangible, visible results. I hear clients say “I’ve been at this for a month, why aren’t I better yet!” And every time I respond by saying “Because it takes time. You have to be patient with the process.”
“How much time?” they then want to know. Unfortunately this isn’t an easy answer. Just like with exercise, there’s no magic, quantifiable, absolute answer. You can’t say “okay, after 32 workouts I’ll have the body I want” because it’s not that simple. I also can’t promise that you’ll feel better magically after a set number of sessions.
What I can tell you is that you will feel better. If you come into the therapy session ready to work, ready to exercise your heart and lay it all out on the table, therapy can help you work through whatever is holding you back in life. Some people report that they feel better after one session: they’ve been walking around for ages, carrying this heavy burden, and the opportunity to release it was all they needed. Some people report that they feel better after a few months, when they’ve had time to not only process their demons but replace it with the tools that they need. Others are carrying much heavier burdens, and they may need more time to unload. Because you are a unique individual with unique experiences, there’s no right answer to how long it will take. But if the therapeutic environment is right – and by that I mean you’re working with someone with whom you connect and trust, and you’re coming to the table ready to do the dirty work – you will see a difference. You just have to follow through.
4) Change does not happen in a vacuum.
Part of getting results from exercise requires changes in your day-to-day life, outside of the gym. You can’t feast on a breakfast of chocolate cupcakes every day and expect the exercises to make the same impact. It just doesn’t work that way.
A therapy session is generally an hour, and most people will choose to have sessions on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. If you see me for an hour out of a week, that still leaves another 167 hours that you’re on your own. Can I offer you insight and tools to help you with those 167 hours? Sure! But the moment you step out of my office, it is up to you. Much like a trainer can’t follow you everywhere, knocking unhealthy foods out of your hands (oh but would they please!), I can’t follow you around reminding you of the things you learned in therapy. You will have to take what you learn in our time together and employ them, and then you will start to see results.
5) There is no magic bullet.
“I did therapy once, years ago. Didn’t work for me.”
I have an elliptical sitting in my bedroom. This machine came into my possession after a friend told me that she, too, kept an elliptical in her bedroom and was then able to easily squeeze in an exercise while her kids napped. What a brilliant idea, I thought. I’ll use it all the time!
But in my case, the elliptical sits unused. Not because I don’t enjoy the exercise. But because when it’s in my home I often find other things that are more pressing. I need to do laundry. I need to wash dishes. My kids need snacks. Shoot, I need a nap!
This doesn’t mean, however, that exercise doesn’t work for me. It simply means that this was not the route for me. I am someone who needs to get out of the house, away from the distraction of chores and kids, into a designated area for exercise. I am someone who gets bored easily, and benefits from having someone help me identify different activities every day so that I will keep coming back.
Maybe you’ve taken the therapy road before. For whatever reason it didn’t work out for you. Maybe the therapist was too old and you were too young. Maybe the therapist had a really annoying way of clearing their throat a few too many times. Maybe you and your therapist just didn’t “click.”
And that’s okay. Normal even. Finding the therapist who is right for you, both in their training and their personality, may take a couple of tries, or you may get lucky and click instantly with the first therapist in the first session. Either way, if it doesn’t work the way you need it to the first time, it doesn’t mean it’s because therapy “isn’t right for you.” On the contrary, therapy can be helpful for anyone, but the environment has to be right for that individual person. And only you can know when you’ve found that right environment.
Therapy sucks. You’d be hard pressed to find a counselor who would disagree with this statement, because the truth is that the best ones have been through the process themselves. We know it’s hard. We know we’re asking you to push yourself beyond what you think you’re capable of. We also know that this works. And you can do this. You might stumble and fall, you might feel pain, you might even wish that you were doing burpees instead. But if you stick with it, I promise you won’t regret it.