NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 26, 2018

Progress in Psychotherapy Isn't Linear

Clients who are new to psychotherapy often don't know what to expect, which is why it's important for psychotherapists to provide psychoeducation about how psychotherapy works (see my article: Why It's Important For Psychotherapists to Provide Clients With Psychoeducation About How Psychotherapy Works).  One important aspect of psychotherapy to understand is that progress in therapy usually isn't linear, which is the topic of this article.

Progress in Psychotherapy Isn't Linear

Defining the Presenting Problem: Understanding Big T and Small T Trauma
It's understandable that clients want to see that they're making progress in therapy, especially if they've been suffering with longstanding problems.

When a client is in therapy, it's important for the client and the psychotherapist to understand the nature of the presenting problem.  That makes it easier to set therapy goals and to measure progress in treatment.  This might take a while to reveal itself as the client comes to therapy and gives the therapist information about the history of the problem and how it's affecting her now.

Usually, the narrower the problem, the easier it is to make progress and resolve the problem in therapy.  For instance, if a client comes to therapy after she has been robbed and, prior to the robbery everything was basically going well with no history of prior trauma, this is a simpler case than someone who comes to therapy with longstanding unresolved trauma from childhood (also known as developmental trauma).

Saying that it's a simpler case is in no way meant to minimize the traumatic experience of being robbed.  But compared to an adult client with a long history of being abused and neglected as a child, it's a less complex case.

With regard to definitions of trauma, the unresolved developmental trauma would be considered a "Big T trauma" and the one-time traumatic event, like getting robbed, where there was no prior trauma, is considered a "Small T trauma" (see my article: Big T and Small T Trauma).

For Small T trauma, the goals are usually more narrowly defined. These might include: The client being able to walk down the same street where she was robbed without fear or being able to leave the house without fear.  If someone who was robbed is very frightened, this is important and it might seem daunting.  But relative to Big T trauma, the scope is narrower.

For Big T trauma, the goals are more complex and might be multi-layered.  For instance, a client who was abused and neglected as a child might be fearful of experiencing his feelings.  He might have constricted affect and not even understand his feelings because he had to protect himself as a child so he wouldn't feel so vulnerable.  This, in turn, usually leads to problems in adult relationships.  So, you can see that Big T trauma is more complex, and there will be layers of trauma to work on.

Understanding the scope of the problem involves exploration.  For instance, a client might begin therapy by saying that she has a problem communicating with others.  This is, of course, a very general definition of a problem, and the psychotherapist would need to ask questions to make it more specific:  Does she have problems talking to everyone or only people at work?  Is the problem related to a medical issue or is it a psychological issue or both?  When did the problem start?  How does the client experience this problem?  How is this problem affecting the client internally and interpersonally?  And so on.

As the client and psychotherapist explore these questions and the history of the problem, they might discover that the problem is longstanding and the client cannot remember a time when she didn't have this problem, even as a child.

As they continue to explore this issue, they might discover that the problem is pervasive in all areas of the client's life.  The client reveals that all possible medical issues have been ruled out and the client's doctor recommended that the client seek psychological help.  Furthermore, the client reveals that whenever she has to speak, whether it's one-on-one or in a group, she becomes panicky and she has had a few panic attacks recently.

It soon becomes clear that the client's problem talking to others is a symptom of a much larger problem, and her anxiety is related to longstanding unresolved trauma.  As a result, the problem is much more complex than the client originally thought.  This sounds like Big T trauma, and it will require further exploration to discover the root of the problem.

In contrast to Big T trauma, if a client came to therapy and says she has problems speaking up at staff meetings ever since her boss humiliated her in a prior staff meeting, but she never had this problem before, she never has this problem in any other situation, and there is no developmental trauma, this is probably a Small T trauma.  It's not multi-layered like Big T trauma, and the goals in therapy would probably be narrower and more easily achieved.

The Circular Nature of Progress in Therapy
Even when a client has had a significant breakthrough in therapy in a prior therapy session, he might come in the next week experiencing many of the same problem that he did before the breakthrough.

You might ask:  "Why is this?"

Well, there are many reasons.  One reason is that many clients need at least a few "Aha!" moments in therapy in order for breakthroughs to stick.

Another reason is that, even when a client really wants to make progress in therapy and resolve his problems, there is almost always ambivalence and some anxiety about changing.  For many clients, the "devil" (or problem) they know is easier to deal with than the "devil" they don't know (change) (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

Many clients will tell their therapists that they are fearful of who they would be if they didn't have a longstanding problem because they've had the problem for so long, and they've learned to identify with their problem as if it's a part of themselves.

As a result, a client might have to go over the same material several times or more before the change "holds" and remains.  They might have to circle back many times to rework the same or various aspects of the same problem.  Along the way, other aspects of the issues they're struggling with might come to the surface in order to get worked through.

This is one of the main reasons why progress isn't usually linear.  Most of the time it's circular:  Two steps forward and one step back.

For people who are in recovery for addiction, one of the first things that they learn in recovery is that relapse is part of the process.  Many clients new to recovery will hear this and say that they have made a firm commitment to their recovery and they will never relapse.  But being human means that clients often do go back a step or two before they can go forward.

It's no different for most other problems that people come to therapy to resolve.  And the more complex the problem, the more likely that progress will be circular and not linear.

Most clients who are new to psychotherapy expect that their progress will be a linear progression, like a straight arrow, where they keep making progress and never backslide.  But this is rarely the case, especially if their problems are longstanding and complex.

Understanding the problem, the problem's history, how it affects the client now, and so on, is important to setting therapy goals.  The simpler the problem, the easier it will be to resolve, so Small T trauma is less complex than Big T trauma and will be more readily resolved, all other things being equal.

Sometimes, the client either doesn't know what the problem is or thinks the problem is narrower than it is.  As the client and psychotherapist explore the problem, they can define the problem better to understand if it is a new problem which is narrow in scope or if it is a multi-layered problem with a long history, which makes it much more complex.

Assuming that clients come to therapy on a regular basis and they are working with a skilled psychotherapist, most clients' progress is circular rather than linear--two steps forward and one step back.  The more complex the problem, the more likely that clients will occasionally have setbacks (see my article:  Setbacks Are a Normal Part of Psychotherapy on the Road to Healing).  This is human nature.

For more complex problems, if there is progress, it can usually be seen over time by comparing how clients were when they first started therapy to how they are feeling, thinking and behaving now.

With regard to making progress in therapy, knowing what to expect in terms of this going forward/occasionally going backward dynamic helps clients to have reasonable expectations of themselves and their therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Making a decision to change and asking for help in therapy are courageous initial step (see my article: Developing the Courage to Change).

If you have been struggling with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to overcome your problems so that you can live a more fulfilling life, free from the history of your problems (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.