You might be here because you’re unsure whether or not you’re on the path to healing in therapy. Or, you might be here because you’re considering therapy and wondering what healing in therapy looks like. As a therapist and psychoanalyst, I hope I can offer some thoughts and perspectives on this.
Healing in therapy is very different than healing from medical illnesses. In the therapy space, your mental and emotional struggles are not seen as something “bad” to be eradicated. Instead, they are ways that your heart, mind, and body communicate its needs to you. If we listen to them and try to decipher what is being communicated, we discover profound opportunities for personal growth!
If you are in emotional distress right now, you may hear this and think, “That sounds nice but that is not how I feel right now.”
Your feelings at this moment are real and valid. The concept of healing in therapy and personal growth might feel distant and out of reach when you’re in emotional turmoil. The pain, distress, and overwhelming emotions can cloud any sense of hope or optimism—especially if you’ve been struggling with these feelings for years and years and you’ve just started therapy. It’s okay to feel that way, and it’s okay not to resonate with the idea of opportunities for growth right now.
That hope can be held by your therapist as they help you through the process of navigating through this journey of coming out of the emotional turmoil and eventually feeling more grounded.
The answer to why you don't always feel better even when you are in the process of healing in therapy.
Just as a workout at the gym doesn’t always leave you feeling better immediately, a therapy session may not always provide immediate relief or clarity. Instead, it’s like a workout for your emotional and psychological well-being, and the gains can be gradual and subtle.
During your sessions, it’s okay if things sometimes feel stagnant or if you leave with more questions than answers. Therapy isn’t about finding quick fixes or instant solutions. It’s about exploring and understanding the complexities of your inner world, and this exploration can be messy and nonlinear.
There may be moments when you experience breakthroughs and a sense of progress, and there may be moments when you feel stuck or unsure of where you’re headed. All of these experiences are part of healing in therapy.
Healing doesn’t always happen on a predetermined timeline, and it certainly doesn’t follow a straight path. What matters is your commitment to the process and your willingness to engage with your own emotions and thoughts, even when it’s challenging.
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How do I know if I am on the path to healing?
Healing in therapy looks different at different stages of the process. Here are my thoughts on how you can tell you’re making progress. Keep in mind that some of these milestones may take years to attain for people, depending on their pace and psychological makeup.
The goal of these questions is to give you a sense of how people have realized they are making progress when they look back on months of ongoing therapy at different points of the journey. Some milestones may feel more or less relevant than others, depending on what you want to work on.
Self-discovery and self-awareness
Have you made progress in identifying your feelings?
Are you better able to tolerate a broader range of emotions without immediately giving in to the urge to act on them?
Can you better identify self-defeating patterns, thoughts and behaviors you engage in?
Do you recognize situational and internal triggers to your symptoms and emotional reactions before they spiral out of control?
Have you discovered fears, desires, and needs you were unaware of?
Do you feel an overall increase in self-esteem and self-compassion?
Understanding your past so you can live more fully in the present
Are you gradually building a clearer picture of how past experiences contribute to patterns in your emotions, thoughts, and beliefs?
Have you identified unresolved issues that are happening outside of your awareness?
Have you identified intergenerational patterns that were unknowingly passed onto you? Our family and ancestors have often faced incredibly challenging and traumatic events like war, torture, poverty, the loss of culture, family, community, violence, racism, or exploitation. If these traumas are not worked through, they are transmitted onto the next generation.
Are you confronting, processing, and working through these issues in therapy?
Have you learned healthier ways to deal with these issues so that you can live a more fulfilling life?
Develop more fulfilling relationships
Are you better able to identify red flags in others and set boundaries?
Have you identified and worked on how to relate to others more authentically
Are you addressing ongoing insecurities and trust difficulties that get in the way of connecting with others?
Have your interpersonal communication skills improved?
Again, the goal of these questions is to give you a sense of how people have realized they are making progress when they look back on months of ongoing therapy at different points of the journey. This is not an exhaustive list of the indicators that you are healing in therapy.. the human psyche is too complex and multifaceted! Some milestones may feel more or less relevant than others, depending on what you want to work on and your psychological makeup.
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Role of your therapist in your healing
Choosing a therapist is not only about finding the right therapeutic modality; it’s also about the connection between two humans and how well they can collaborate on the path toward healing and personal growth.
Once you have researched and found a competent, qualified therapist, your therapist should be committed to creating a space where you feel heard, valued, and supported. Your voice and your perspective matter immensely in this process. Your therapist aims to provide you with a safe and trusting space where you can explore your thoughts, feelings, and experiences without judgment.
Offering guidance & insight
Once your therapist has a good enough grasp of your psychological struggle and emotional terrain, they may use their expertise and trained modalities to offer individualized guidance, insights, and perspectives that can help you better understand your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. This understanding of your psychological and emotional makeup may take weeks to months to formulate and will continue to evolve as the work deepens. These insights are shaped collaboratively, leading to increased self-awareness and personal growth. Depending on your needs, your therapist may teach specific coping skills and strategies for managing stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges.
If your therapist works psychodynamically, they will also listen for the unconscious thoughts, emotions, and conflicts shaping your current experiences. They may offer interpretations and insights that can shed light on the unconscious dynamics at play in your life. Through this process, you can connect your present emotions and behaviors to past experiences, leading to greater self-awareness
Your therapist is attuned to the relationship
Your feelings and reactions, including those towards your therapist, are essential aspects of the work. Transference and countertransference—your projections onto your therapist and your emotional responses to them—offer valuable clues into your unconscious world and interpersonal dynamics, which you can explore together to deepen your self-understanding.
Your therapist’s commitment to the therapeutic relationship includes a willingness to listen, learn, and adapt. If you ever feel that your connection is strained or that your perspective has not been fully understood, please know that you can always communicate openly with your therapist.
Your feedback is essential information that will help your therapist understand you and your needs more. Working through these moments of rupture can deepen your understanding of one another and ultimately lead to a more secure and trusting therapeutic relationship.
Your therapist knows how to handle ruptures and misattunements. If you tend to be conflict-avoidant, know that moments when you may feel disconnected or misunderstood are an expected part of the therapeutic process, and they can be valuable opportunities for growth and learning.
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Your role in your healing journey
Your role in therapy is pivotal, and your unique experiences and perspective are at the forefront of the work.
This may sound cliche and unsurprising, but it’s true– your honesty about your thoughts, emotions, and experiences gives your therapist important information they can work with in order to create a safe and nurturing-enough space where you can explore, understand, and address your concerns. We cannot help if we do not know the full picture, and we can only know what you think and feel if you communicate it!
Applying discussed insights and coping skills to life outside the sessions
You are the expert of your life. No one knows your own life better than you. While your therapist has the wherewithal to guide you toward understanding your issues and the expertise to offer different directions you can take, you are ultimately the one who decides how or if you want to try out these insights and suggestions in your life.
Participating in therapy involves delving into self-reflection, examining patterns, and actively trying out new perspectives or coping strategies. It can also include openly sharing your hesitance or emotional resistance to trying out suggested coping skills. If you decide to implement strategies discussed in therapy, active participation may involve paying attention to and sharing in therapy how your mind and body responded to trying out a new coping strategy.
Feedback doesn’t always involve confrontation. In the therapy process, feedback comes in many nuanced, neutral, and positive forms. Feedback involves letting your therapist know when their understanding is off, and communicating that with them so they can “get” you better.
For some psychodynamic and experientially focused therapists, honesty may also include letting them know your moment-to-moment thoughts, feelings, and bodily reactions to what they said and what is discussed! All of this informs how they tailor the session and interventions to your individual needs.
It involves being open when you feel stuck in therapy and being willing to explore how you feel stuck.
Show up consistently!
This may sound obvious but show up for sessions! This can be especially challenging during days when it feels like you’re better and don’t need therapy, when there is something on your mind that you don’t want to talk about, and when you don’t know what to talk about. In fact, it’s helpful to let your therapist know when any of these thoughts pop up.
Believe it or not, showing up during these periods and communicating your mental state to your therapist will contribute to your overall progress. Think of it like going to the gym. The days that you show up and go through with it may feel uncomfortable, but talking through them with your therapist actually contributes to your emotional tolerance, your therapist’s understanding of your psychological terrain, and their ability to use more nuanced interventions.
Healing in therapy unfolds in its own time, and it’s natural to experience ups and downs. Your ability to be patient with the process of therapy, to accept setbacks as part of the journey, and to talk through these uncomfortable feelings are fundamental to making the most out of your therapy.
Not knowing and not having the answers is part of the process. It can be frustrating to not know the immediate answers to “Why am I such a people pleaser?” or “What should I do to get out of depression?”
Therapy often involves exploring the depths of our people pleasing tendencies, depression, and so on and this exploration can reveal complexities and questions that don’t always have immediate solutions. Why? Because our inner world is ambiguous and quick fixes do not fully address the root of why these uncomfortable feelings are there. Many times, the only way out is through.
Have patience with yourself and the process. As you and your therapist explore the questions and challenges that come up, you’ll gradually shed light on the areas that were previously unclear.
As a therapist..
As a therapist, I’ve sat through many of these moments with my clients. When ups and downs are worked through between a therapist and client dyad who is a good enough fit, the rewards are powerful!
That being said, you may have to use your discernment to gauge when it is not a good fit versus when it is a matter to be worked through. Not every therapist is a good fit for every client. Even within the same modality, there are so many variances in a therapist’s working style and personality. Here are three examples of red flags: (1) a therapist who is overly defensive when you provide feedback or criticism, (2) a therapist who imposes their social, political or religious beliefs onto you, (3) a therapist who is obviously not listening or responding to you.
If you are considering therapy and reading this blog, I hope that I was able to answer some of your questions about what healing in therapy looks or feels like. Our therapists, licensed in NY, NJ, and DC, are available to talk through any questions you have about starting therapy. Feel free to schedule a consult with us here.