Feeling stuck in therapy? Change is on the horizon!
Recently, a client and I were musing together: “It’s so interesting, isn’t it? Being right on the verge of a breakthrough sometimes feels exactly like being stuck!”
And that’s the theme. When you feel stuck, it’s often because something within you is ready to move forward, to do something new. You’re tired of things being the way they have been. You’re ready for change.
That’s why feeling stuck in therapy can be a good thing. A really good thing!
But often, people feel, right before big change, like they can’t change. They don’t know how. They don’t know what’s next. Some people call this a “tipping point”: Things can’t stay as they’ve been, but they haven’t shifted to a natural new balance yet.
But other times, there’s genuinely something missing in the therapy. And how on earth do you tell the difference? How do you get unstuck?
Here are five tips for gaining more clarity about your stuckness.
1. Talk about it with your therapist!
Mention what you’re feeling. Notice the thoughts that go with the feeling of stuckness.
Work with the present moment. That means that, when you sit down with your therapist, let yourself notice what happens right then. Do you start to tense up and get ready to tell lots of stories? Do you notice a vague sense of unease, or boredom? Do you notice that there’s something you’d really like from your therapist, but you can’t put your finger on it? Do you feel an impulse to be a “good” or “interesting” client? Talk about that stuff — these realizations make for some of the richest sessions!
One of my clients calls this focus a focus on “form rather than content.” For her, it makes a real difference when we together shift our attention to how she’s speaking and how she’s feeling as she speaks, rather than focusing solely on the story.
How do we do this? When a client tells me a story, I will listen to what they’re saying and acknowledge the story, and I’ll also remark on the telling of the story: “And as you talk about that, it looks like you’re on the edge of tears,” Or, “Your body went very still right when you started talking about your ex,” or even, “I begin to feel angry on your behalf when you mention how he hurt you.” You can do this for yourself, too, with practice! Start noticing what happens in you as you talk. And see what new directions that can lead you. Because really, all of you is right here in the present moment as you speak, and we can learn so much together by listening below the words – to that activation that keeps emerging, or the tears that seem to want to fall but can’t, or the anger that gets blocked, or the yearning in your eyes or the holding in your chest, or SO many things you and your counselor will find if you look at the moment together. SO much is happening, and working with any one of these present moment things can do a lot to help you to get unstuck.
2. Do something different!
Sometimes, the feeling of being stuck in your therapy is maintained by doing the same things over and over again. That can include the little things: Sitting in the same place, talking on the same topics, doing everything the same way. So getting unstuck can be pretty simple, and you can get the momentum going again by doing most anything differently: Sit somewhere else. Talk on different topics. Do something, anything, differently!
3. Either go lighter or go deeper!
Sometimes people start to feel stuck in therapy when their feelings are becoming so intense that they’re feeling overwhelmed. And then, something inside of them starts wanting to put the brakes on the feelings, and that looks and feels like being stuck.
In fact, it can be a natural impulse to “come up for air,” and it can be very helpful to support this sense of wanting to lighten the talk for a bit. Therapy doesn’t need to be all about hard stuff, and sometimes, it can be very helpful to spend a whole session focused on resources in your life, or things that you love to do, or the things that are working well for you, or on something you’re interested in. You don’t want to do this week after week, perhaps, but talking about something lighter can give you a chance to connect with yourself and your counselor from a different vantage point, and it can give you a sense of relief that supports going deeper, but with more resources.
On the other hand, if all you’ve discussed recently is daily life stuff, or the same old stresser, or the same story, you might ask your therapist to get beneath the surface, and to talk more about your emotions, or beliefs you hold about yourself, or a feeling or pattern that comes up for you over and over again.
4. Ask your counselor what they think!
Maybe your therapist and you both feel ready for a change. Or you’ve both gotten into a sense of routine, and it can help you both to talk about how best to move things forward together. You’ll learn something new about your therapist and about the quality of your collaboration together when you bring up your sense of stuckness. That is a good thing.
5. Maybe it’s time for a change.
Feeling stuck for a few weeks, or even for a month or two, can be the beginning of deep change, especially if you keep landing on the same difficult feeling, and you and your counselor continue to work with that. But if the feeling of stuckness is staying or deepening despite your hard work on it, it might be time for a bigger change.
Sometimes you might be in a therapy that was great for you a year ago, but no longer fits with where you are now. Part of how you can find this out is by discussing what’s happening with your counselor, and by seeing if things start to gain momentum. If they stay pretty much at a standstill, it might be time to say goodbye. When this move is done in the right time, the goodbye is a great chance to honor the work you’ve done with your therapist, and to have a solid goodbye done from a grounded place of knowing that you’re making a good decision for yourself. And that you’re empowered to do your next piece of healing in a new way. This is good news.
You can be surer that you’re making a solid decision by avoiding a hasty goodbye and really sitting with the feelings the prospect of goodbye elicits. This can lead to a deeply healing ending, or to a beginning into a deeper, richer direction with your same counselor.