One of the challenges clients face when entering therapy is knowing whether they are improving. Unlike coaching, where clients enter the process with clearly stipulated goals (not dissimilar to hiring a golf coach to improve your swing), therapy is much deeper, and clients often come in with great distress. They only knew one thing in starting therapy: they want the pain to end, all of it!
But pain will always be with us. In fact, to hurt is human.
Due to their great distress, clients can hold on to the notion that therapy should get rid of all their pain. It doesn’t and it is not meant to. What therapy does is to help individuals, couples, and families learn how to manage pain and conflict more effectively.
Perfection is not the goal of therapy. Therapy is to help you improve in your process to the point where you can continue to improve on your own, ready to terminate your work with your therapist. The pain is still there, but you can move on.
A client once asked me, “if the pain is still there, how can you know if you are improving?” Here are three helpful indicators.
(1) Shorter duration of the negative occurrence.
If you are struggling with deep sadness over a loss, there may still be moments of pain, but it does not last as long. For example, rather than feeling the sadness the entire night, it only last half the night. That’s an improvement!
For a couple, if an argument typically lasted 30 minutes, being able to end it after 20 minutes is an improvement! Or if the argument used to result in a silent treatment that lasted a week, finding yourselves returning back into normal conversation within 3 days, although still not ideal, is an improvement as well!
(2) Lesser intensity of the negative occurrence.
There is a difference between feeling so sad that you want to end your life and feeling so sad that you don’t want to go out and hang out with friends. Even though the sadness that causes you to stay at home is still quite intense, it is lesser in intensity than the sadness that leads to wanting to commit suicide. It is an indictor that things are getting better, even if just a bit. Give yourself a hug even for that tiny bit of improvement!
For a couple, the argument that used to result in slamming doors may now only result in raised voices. Or instead of using profanity and blaming, the words are now more consciously chosen to lessen the impact on the partner — for example, instead of “you are a f**king idiot!” the words become “I am feeling really angry at you!” These are small indicators that help us to realise that the intensity is lessening. Build on them, continue to stay in a state where you can be engaged in productive conversation and remain more reasonable.
(3) Longer duration between negative occurrences.
Lastly, you know you are improving when the bad spells happen less frequently. The length of time between bouts of sadness is longer. Instead of feeling sad every night, you notice that there are times when sadness is not experienced for two nights in a row. That’s a great sign!
For a couple, instead of finding yourselves arguing once every two to three days, the arguments now happen once every two weeks. Yes, there are still conflicts, but they are lessening, which is a cause for celebration!
Focusing on the improvements–even small improvements–is much better than focusing on the negative occurrences and feeling frustration that they are still there. In therapy, the tendency is to want to get rid of all negativity because of how distressing it has been. But that does not help. Choose to focus on the small positives instead — it will help to improve the recovery process!
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