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

Medically reviewed by: Erika McElroy, Ph.D.
Tuesday, September 22 2020

So, you've been in therapy for a while, and you're starting to feel really good about the progress you're making. Then, you have a setback — 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, as well as past behaviors and patterns that you thought you had overcome. The truth is, what’s happening to you happens to a lot of people. Rest assured, you’re not alone, and having a temporary road block in your progress is not a sign of failure.

Setbacks in therapy are normal

Therapy work can be difficult at times, and if you feel like you've taken a step backward on a certain issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have taken a step backward in your overall growth. Having deep emotional expressions are actually helpful, as the feelings can 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 in fact help you make progress.

A setback in therapy can happen for many reasons

Some people might think that if they’re not progressing, they may never achieve long-lasting behavioral and emotional change. This belief is not necessarily true. We make emotional and behavioral changes at times, and those adjustments can go away and old behaviors and emotions can return for various reasons. 

Old habits don’t really disappear. Therapy helps you learn healthier ways of coping and responding to stressors. During times of stress, you might find yourself unintentionally falling back on old ways of coping and reverting back to unhealthy ways. 

Setbacks can also happen if you’re going through life changes, big or small. These can distract you from the emotional expression, coping skills, and mindfulness practices that you’ve worked on. The good news is that setbacks are more common than you think and there are ways you can work through them.

Re-evaluate your goals for therapy

When you feel you’re not making progress, remember these tips:

  • Strong feelings may mean you are going deeper in your process.
  • Acknowledge the setback and make a commitment to start again — it can feel disappointing, but it's not the end of the world.
  • Identify any substantial changes, stressors, or other factors that made you have a stumbling block. Have you switched jobs, ended a relationship, moved, or had an issue with a family member? Work with your therapist to build the tools and skills to adjust to life changes.
  • Identify small steps or options to get yourself back on track. Start your coping skills again and any beneficial behavior changes that you were working on 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 setback doesn’t happen again. How can you better prepare yourself or create a better safety net?

Be gentle

It’s human to make mistakes, and it’s natural to sometimes take a step backward. At times, it is deep emotions surfacing that you might need to process and work with. At other times, you might have had significant stress and have gone back to old coping mechanisms to comfort yourself. 

Be gentle to yourself. Don’t judge, feel guilty, or shame yourself if you feel like you’ve taken a step backward 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. 

Be open with your therapist

Share your experience with your therapist and have an honest conversation about how you’re feeling. It’s okay to let down your guard and be open with your therapist. Your therapist is there to help guide you and get you back on track. 

During therapy, you may also answer questions about your mental well-being throughout the journey. These are often called clinical questionnaires, or CQs for short. Your responses in CQs are a valuable way for your therapist to track your progress and for you to be as involved as possible with your care. Based on your answers in a CQ, your therapist probably already has a good idea of what you’re going through, so nothing will be a surprise to them. 

Get support

If you’ve already ended therapy and you feel like you can’t handle what has happened on your own, reach out to your therapist. It’s not a sign of weakness to go back to therapy, it’s actually a sign of courage to figure out what happened and to resolve it. It means that you’re taking the right steps to care for yourself. Whether you choose to go back to your old therapist or seek help from another one, SonderMind is here to help guide you through your journey.

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