Therapy can be daunting. Even if you’re considering working with a psychotherapist, you might not know much or anything about the therapeutic process.
Like all clients, you will want to make progress so you can live a happier life and develop cognitive skills that will help you cope with various challenges. It can seem like a shot in the dark, though. What if you have no idea what the journey will be like or what you need to do?
To illuminate your path, we outlined the phases of making progress in therapy. Rather than forging blindly ahead, you can use this article to navigate the process.
Your Therapeutic Journey Will Be Unique
Before you read up on the phases, keep in mind that your progress will occur in a unique way. Depending on your personality and experiences, you might move through the phases in a different order or speed than the one we present below.
If you are the kind of person who dives head in and aggressively pursues goals, you might skip the orientation phase and come back to it later. On the other hand, clients with trust issues will most likely extend the parts of therapy that involve building trust and rapport.
Here are a few more factors that impact how people journey through therapy:
- Whether they have been to therapy before
- Whether they are starting with a new therapist or coming back to an old therapist after ending therapy
- The issues they want or need to work on
- Whether they have a mental health condition and how severe their symptoms are
- If they are working individually or as part of a couple, group, family, etc.
- The type of psychotherapy their therapist is using
Phase 1: Orientation — Beginning to Build a Relationship with Your Therapist
Both you and your therapist will not be completely comfortable with each other at the beginning. During the initial meeting you might be trying to make a good impression. Maybe you will hold back a little.
That’s OK. It’s normal. As you chat more with your therapist, you’ll become more open about what you are expecting, thinking and feeling.
This is the time to build a rapport with the therapist. You’ll begin to understand how the therapist is trying to help you help yourself.
During this time therapists should try to validate clients’ experiences, truths and struggles, according to therapist Jeanette Raymond. This builds trust and safety. Sometimes this phase offers a small reduction in symptoms.
If you have questions about how the therapy will work, this is the best time to ask them. Later the issues that brought you in will take precedence. You can ask questions about the process at any time, but you might forget to do so once you start exploring juicier issues.
Phase 2: Identification — Figuring Out What To Do
This is when you and your therapist start deciding exactly what you want to work on. If you had trouble opening up in the beginning, you might now find it easier to be genuine.
If you still have defenses up that are hindering progress, your therapist will gently try to help you lower them. He or she might test your boundaries a bit. This is also the beginning of the therapist’s work to empower you.
Phase 3: Exploration/Working Phase — Making Progress
The first two phases are setting you up for this, the part of therapy where you make the most progress. This is where you’re diving into the issues and working on yourself. It’s the hardest part of therapy.
During this phase you might temporarily feel worse than you did before. That’s OK. It stinks, but it’s part of making progress. Digging into the pain is a step toward developing a better mindset and becoming a better version of yourself.
Some clients start to look inward, Raymond said, rather than only focusing on external challenges. They begin to regain a healthy sense of power and control over their lives.
Clients learn to reframe painful experiences during this stage. They also rethink their beliefs and other people’s motives. Hidden thoughts and feelings usually rise into consciousness.
Your therapist might become more direct about the process and the work you are doing. This is usually when therapists assign homework more regularly.
If you feel like you are entering this phase too early, inform your therapist immediately. Beginning this phase prematurely can damage the therapeutic relationship and impede progress.
Remember, there is no rush. Progress will happen if you try your best.
Phase 4: Resolution — Saying Goodbye?
Once you feel like you’ve accomplished everything you can with your therapist, it’s time to consider leaving. Keep in mind you might not reach this point. Some people stay in therapy for life, and that’s OK.
Sometimes people need to switch therapists if they feel like they have reached a limit with their current one. There is also the option of stopping therapy and coming back once you feel like there is more work to be done.
For some clients, therapy is a solution to a problem. They want a way to feel better or work through issues. Once they’ve accomplished that, there is no reason to continue therapy.
For others therapy is a lifelong journey to become better versions of themselves and maintain good mental health. They aren’t concerned with reaching an end.
Once you arrive at this phase, you can think about which kind of client you are. There is no correct answer. They are different but equal.
If you decide to leave your therapist or end therapy, you might feel sad. That’s OK. Chances are your therapist will be feeling similarly. It’s a normal sadness that comes with parting with someone you have become close to.
Try to achieve a sense of closure. Your therapist will want this, so he or she will help you along.
This is also a time to reflect on everything you have accomplished. Be proud! You did something not many people have the courage to do.