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What Happens When You Feel You're Not Making Progress in Therapy

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So, you've been in therapy for a few months, and you're starting to feel really good about the progress you're making. Then, you have a relapse — the issue you were working through starts to surface again and you feel like you've lost some or all of the progress that you've made. This might trigger some old strong feelings to arise, as well as past behaviors and patterns that you thought you had overcome. We call this occurrence backsliding.  

A Deeper Step

Therapy work can be difficult at times, and if you feel like you've taken a step backwards on a certain issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have taken a step backwards in your overall growth. Remember to not take deep emotional expression as backsliding in therapy, as the feelings can actually help you move forward and take you deeper into your process of resolution. When you sit with your strong feelings with a mindfulness practice — like meditation, walking with intention, journaling, or talking to your therapist — these experiences can actually take you a step forward.

Remember to not take deep emotional expression as backsliding in therapy, as the feelings can actually help you move forward and take you deeper into your process of resolution.

A Backstep Or Pause

Some people will incorrectly conclude that signs of backsliding indicate that they can't progress, and that they may never achieve long-lasting behavioral and emotional change. This belief is not necessarily true. We humans make emotional and behavioral changes at times, and those adjustments can dissipate and old well-established patterns of behaving and emoting can return for various reasons. Relapsing may happen when we are under stress or when multiple events occur to distract us or otherwise avert us from taking the time to do our emotional expression, thought reframing coping skills, or mindfulness practices which have been working to create those hard-earned emotional, behavioral, and positive thought pattern gains.

Re-evaluating and Re-starting

Reminders when you backslide:

  • Strong feelings may mean you are going deeper in your process.
  • Acknowledge the relapse and make a commitment to start again — it can be very disappointing, but it's not the end of the world.
  • Identify any substantial changes, stressors, or other factors that brought about the backsliding episode. Have you switched jobs, ended a relationship, moved, or had an issue with a family member?
  • Evaluate what you need to do to look at small steps or options to get yourself back on track. Start your coping skills again and any beneficial behavior changes that were working previously.
  • Focus on where you want to be again — the end goal may have shifted.
  • Process your feelings through therapy, journaling, or a mindfulness practice.
  • Remember that you've made positive changes before and can make them again.
  • Ask yourself what you can put into place, so this type of a relapse doesn’t happen again. How can you better prepare yourself or create a better safety net?

Be Gentle

We are human. We make mistakes, and sometimes, we take a step backwards. At times, it is deep emotions surfacing that we need to process and work with. At other times, we have had significant stress and have gone back to old coping mechanisms to comfort ourselves. Please be gentle, don’t judge, feel guilty, or shame yourself if you feel like you have taken a step backwards and old self-defeating behaviors have returned. The guilt and shame will only make you feel worse. Do your best to accept yourself unconditionally with this old behavior and start on those mindfulness practices, learned coping skills, positive reframing self-talk, or whatever you have done in therapy sessions to move forward in the past.  

Get Support

If you feel like you can’t handle what has happened on your own, contact your therapist.  It is not weak to ask for a therapy session, it is actually a step into courage to figure out what happened and to resolve it.

Last Updated:
First Published:
September 22, 2020
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