I think a lot of clients (and some therapists unfortunately) have a misconception that therapy should make you feeling nothing but good. This is simply not true.
Real therapy is very, very hard work. It requires complete honesty on the part of both the client and the therapist. I think a lot of therapists see therapy as something which provides a lot of "hearts and flowers" as one therapist put it. Patting you on the head and telling you how wonderful you are may feel good, but it is not therapy. For that you should get a dog who will wag its tail and love you unconditionally.
I think of a therapist as a mirror. They are someone who is able to reflect back to you a clear and undistorted image of yourself so that you may understand yourself better. This reflection can also provide you with a lot of information about how you appear to and interact with other people. Clear and undistorted images with all of our flaws are hard to take. And many people would rather focus on the flaws of others rather than address their own. But we can only change ourselves, and we can only effect change with accurate information about what we are doing. This realistic reflection from the therapist will help the client see and understand why things are happening the way they are in their lives. It can help clients see; behavior patterns, relationship patterns, thinking patterns, distortions in thinking, defense mechanisms and contradictions. Once a client sees these things they can then make intelligent decisions about them.
Once the therapist has provided this reflection though, he or she must really step back and allow you to make decisions about what it means and what you want to do about it. Some therapists act more like parents, handing out mandates about what you should and shouldn't do. What is and isn't good for you. Personally, I try to take the entire person in context and remember the big picture. Imagine I'm working with someone who has been strung out on crack for 10 years, prostituted herself to pay for it, abandoned her kids, stolen from everyone in her family and lived in the streets. Imagine I'm now working with her and she has been clean for 1 year, has rebuilt her relationships with her children and is contributing appropriately to their upbringing, has not stolen or taken advantage of anyone in the past year and has stopped selling herself for drugs. She is now overeating and is heavily sedated on psychiatric medications to help her sleep and deal with what she has done to herself the past 10 years. Should I tell her to get on a diet and exercise program? Should I berate her for being so sedated on psychiatric meds? No. I ask her where she is with this. She looks back at what she has accomplished and is O.K. with where she is. Abusing Haagen-Dazs and taking psychiatric meds as prescribed without abusing them is nothing compared to where she is coming from. She continues to work on her issues and I know that if she continues to work on what's bothering her right now and to look in that cold, clear mirror she soon won't need food and meds to sedate her emotions. But we have to proceed at her speed and in her time, not mine.
I also see this with clients in relationships. Imagine a woman who was raised in a very violent home where she was constantly berated and physically beaten. She is now an adult entering into relationships. She picks out a guy who doesn't have a great job, have a college degree or make a lot of money. However, he thinks she's the greatest thing ever. He's kind and patient. He doesn't berate or abuse her. She has broken the pattern of violence which has been handed down from generation to generation in her family. Is he perfect? No. Is he better? Yes. And perhaps those are the things which matter the most. The only one who can determine that is the client, not the therapist. The therapist can question what it is about him that draws her to him in hopes of helping her clearly see her values, intentions and motivations. But the final call has to be hers, not the therapist's.
One of my favorite sayings is "Progress, Not Perfection". I sometimes repeat it for my own benefit as well as the client's. Does it mean to accept less than what you are capable of? No. Does it mean to stop where you are? No. It simply means that you should look at where you are coming from and how much you have progressed instead of comparing yourself with perfection. Perfection in humans is impossible. But progress? Oh yes, we can definitely accomplish that.