Making Progress in Therapy: Reflections From an Oakland Therapist
Whether you’ve been to therapy before or you’re seeking support for the first time, it’s not always clear when you’re making progress. This is true for several reasons. Healing isn’t linear. Progress often looks like two steps forward then one step back. It can feel discouraging when you feel like you’re taking a step back, but remind yourself- this is part of the process. The goals and intentions you set at the start of the therapy often change as you uncover more about the issue. You may have your sights set on a goal of improving your marriage, but discover that part of that entails improving your relationship with yourself.
Therapy happens in phases. After the initial phase of settling in to a new therapeutic relationship, understanding the issue, learning skills, and potentially seeing some initial resolve to the issues you’re facing, what can come next is a deepening to the therapeutic process. You might find there are less pressing issues to talk about. This is often when clients think they’re done, but it feels abrupt. This is called a “flight to health,” when you decide to end therapy before entering the maintenance phase. The maintenance phase is so important. Since therapeutic progress isn’t linear, and life isn’t either, you’ll inevitably encounter challenges and triggers in your life even after making progress. If you haven’t spent time preparing and working through these “setbacks” with your therapist, then you’ll likely end up thinking you’ve “failed.” But, it’s not true that you failed. When we look at this mindfully without judgment, it just means you encountered a setback. So, therapy then becomes about processing life as it happens, rather than moving toward a specific goal. We can define progress in this phase as continuing to gain tools and insight into handling challenges, increasing confidence in your ability to handle them, and cultivating resilience and emotional wellness. This way, when you’re truly “done” or ready to step away for a while, you’ll feel a sense of completeness and can go through a formal termination process with your therapist.
I suggest speaking to your therapist in the first few sessions about what progress in therapy would look like given your unique goals and intentions. I like to ask my clients “how would you know you were making progress and/or ready to end therapy?” This helps us to better recognize and measure your growth together.
Even though there are ebbs and flows, if you’re being honest with yourself and participating in your healing, trust that you are shifting in ways you might not be able to see in the moment. It can put undue pressure on you to think you’re “failing” or “regressing” just because you encounter a setback. There is no failing therapy, and regression is a normal reaction to an overwhelming challenge that we can work with to move forward.
The process of growth can look messy and feel painful. There’s a reason they’re called “growing pains.” Remind yourself this is part of the process. We can re-frame each step back as a launching pad for the next step forward. And remember, your therapist supports you no matter where you are in the process.
If something here resonated for you, please reach out and let me know! I’d love to hear, and offer support.