Like most things worth our effort, therapy is hard. It’s hard in the way that running a marathon, birthing a baby, cooking a seven-course dinner, or climbing a mountain is hard. At various points in the process it is thrilling, frustrating, overwhelming, and discouraging, and sometimes all at once. It is also eventually quite gratifying. Along the way we usually have a number of smaller rewards before we hit that big therapeutic mother load. The smaller rewards, for example learning to use new coping skills or having a different perspective on a problem, are the carrots that keep us going on a path that may seem to have more than it’s fair share of sticks. We collect these carrots, hopefully periodically taking them out to appreciate their existence, as we strive toward the big payoff, the primary reason we entered therapy in the first place.
One of the great challenges of therapy comes at the point when we have developed a better understanding of the problem and what we need to do differently but we seem unable to make the change. Often despite our efforts to the contrary we find ourselves repeatedly face to face with the same old problem. Although this span in therapy seems at times to go on forever, it doesn’t. Let me repeat that. Really, it doesn’t. It gets better, though not in a linear fashion. Over the years I’ve had many conversations with clients about this rather frustrating period in therapy and have an analogy that I think illustrates it well.
Let’s say that you entered therapy because of your propensity to step in big piles of dog poop. You could be anywhere: work, school, home, dinner with your boss, a first date, and you never fail to step in a big pile of dog poop. It doesn’t matter that you don’t have a dog and none of your neighbors have dogs, you invariably step in it. So after a great deal of work in therapy on what it is that you’re stepping in and how to identify it in advance, coping skills for avoiding dog poop, how to say no to friends who want you to step in dog poop with them, and how to clean your shoes after a misstep you feel ready to go for a walk. Unfortunately, right out of the door you step in a big steaming pile. You feel frustrated and wonder if perhaps this whole therapy business is a waste of time and money. Maybe you should just invest your therapy budget in rubber boots and bleach.
The bad news is that you will step in more dog poop. The good news is that you will step in it less frequently, and perhaps eventually not at all. The next time you go for a walk you again step in dog poop. However, this time you notice it much earlier than usual and you have a handy dandy dog pooper scooper off-er with you. This happens a few more times and then you get to the point where you realize what you are doing just as your enters the heap. You are still in need of the pooper scooper off-er but you’ve made some progress. This is where your therapist is particularly helpful because you are probably much more focused on the fresh dog poop on your shoe than you are on the fact that you noticed what was happening as you were doing it, which, despite the poop on your shoe is an improvement. Your therapist will point out what a success this is.
The real bonus comes when you are out for a walk and realize just BEFORE you step in it that there’s a sleeper mound waiting for you, hidden in the grass. Victory at last! Your advantage over poop piles continues unhindered until you discover that you can go for a walk and go around the dog poop piles. Life is sweet and you decide to decrease therapy to every other week or maybe even one time a month. You are pleased with your work in therapy and feel ready to go shoe shopping. As you’re stepping off the curb and heading to the mall… you guessed it. You step in another pile and it all comes flooding back, the smell, the humiliation, the new shoes you’ll never wear, the hard work that you thought was over. Thinking you have to start all over again you call and make an emergency appointment with your therapist. However, in the appointment your therapist points out how long it’s been since you’ve stepped in any dog poop and all the recent times you’ve been able to avoid piles that were lurking around, how much progress you have actually made, and that the occasional dog poop pile is just a part of life. You realize that you have made significant change in your life. You leave the appointment feeling content. As you walk away you spot a fresh deposit of dog manure way off in the distance and you walk the other way.