“Hitting the Wall” in Therapy

Young man with long hair, beard, and headband running down country road in red and white tee shirt, breathing heavilyAs marathon runners pass mile after mile, many reach a point where they suddenly feel that they cannot go on. They may feel an unimaginable weight come over their body, a depletion of mental and emotional resources so complete that they can’t imagine taking another stride.  They have “hit the wall.”

A similar phenomenon can occur in therapy. You may enter therapy with the commitment and determination of a runner who has just begun to train for a marathon. Then, just as suddenly and inexplicably as a runner hits the wall, you may, at some point, feel unable to move forward in therapy. You may feel like you have painstakingly explored each and every issue that brought you into therapy, but that your life has yet to change and you are no better equipped to make decisions or take actions than when you entered therapy. You have “hit the wall” in your therapy work.

It is important to acknowledge that things likely have changed for you—the changes just might not be dramatic or easily noticeable.  Say, for example, you entered therapy because you feel a great deal of loneliness and have trouble maintaining relationships. After a few months in therapy, your loneliness has likely decreased somewhat, simply as the result of having a solid and stable relationship with your therapist: a relationship that you are maintaining.

So while you still may not have an intimate partner to go home to on a daily basis, you may feel a bit less lonely and might have developed some new relationship-building skills. This kind of progress may seem quite small and insignificant, but it represents the necessary foundation for achieving the ultimate goal of developing healthy, fulfilling and lasting relationships. The question then becomes: how can you break through this wall and continue making progress towards your goals?

First, talk to your therapist about your frustration with therapy. You won’t be the first person who has expressed frustration with the process and you won’t be the last. A good therapist is not going to take this personally or be offended; they will view it as a natural part of the therapy process. This conversation creates an opportunity for you and your therapist to explore the smaller changes that have occurred and put them into the context of the bigger picture. This may be enough, in and of itself, to get you moving again and break through the wall.  If it is not, your therapist may be able to suggest some different interventions that can be effective in moving therapy forward.

One such intervention might be bibliotherapy. Your therapist could suggest a book that might be useful to you, then, in subsequent sessions, explore your thoughts and feelings about the book. At first glance this may seem a bit like a really expensive book club, however, the book your therapist recommends will be a book that deals with the primary issues that brought you into therapy. The conversations in your sessions will be very focused on how your thoughts and feelings about book relate to your own issues. Therapy can, at times, be quite painful, and you can grow weary of constantly talking about yourself. Bibliotherapy affords you the luxury of being able to talk about yourself through a book, and can be a strong force in breaking through the wall.

Another possible intervention is dream analysis. Whether you view dreams as being a window into the subconscious, like Freud, or simply as your brain’s way of continuing to work through your thoughts, feelings, and events of the day as you sleep, they can certainly provide grist for the mill. If you and your therapist opt to use this intervention, you will likely be asked to keep a notepad and pen at your bedside. As you awake, you will immediately begin to write down the dream that you just had. Like, bibliotherapy, you will bring this into your next session and work through it with your therapist. Exploring your dreams and discussing possible meanings may be just what is needed to break through the wall and take your therapy to the next level.

Journaling is another potential way to break the wall. Your therapist may ask you to keep a small journal with you at all times. Record any strong thoughts, feelings, or experiences throughout your day. You may also be asked to set aside some time each day to write in your journal. Like both of the previously mentioned interventions, you will bring this into therapy, explore the content of your journal, and discuss how it relates to some of the concerns that led you to therapy in the first place. It can provide new material to draw upon in order to push yourself through the wall and into a more productive place.

There are myriad other interventions that can provide the nudge you need to break through the therapy wall. Like anything else in therapy, there is no “one size fits all” approach, so don’t be shy in telling your therapist what is and is not working. Remain open to the process and give honest feedback to your therapist about the interventions being used. You will almost certainly break through the wall, continue the work of therapy, and experience the joy of living the freer and more fulfilling life you deserve.

© Copyright 2011 by By Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • H.D.

    September 19th, 2011 at 2:08 PM

    Some people view seeing a therapist like seeing a fairy godmother or a wizard, don’t you think? They imagine the therapist will wave a magic wand and everything will be fabulous after a few sessions. I blame our instant gratification culture. Everybody wants everything yesterday.

    It takes hard work and a time commitment on their side as well as the therapist’s and that’s what’s not sinking in. Great post, Sarah.

  • j.w.

    September 19th, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    The idea of talking to my therapist about feeling we’ve hit a wall makes me feel nervous. He’s not what I’d consider approachable. I don’t think I’d be unjustified in doing so though because we go over and over the same ground every session about my fear of commitment. He’s stuck on that like a broken record and we both know I’ve got more going on that needs dealt with too.

    Why doesn’t he drop it and have a crack at something else, seriously? Obviously we’re getting nowhere having been on this merry-go-round for six months and no breakthroughs.

  • zia

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    I think that those who hit the wall with therapy are the ones who enter into it with unrealistic expectations. This is not a person who is going to solve the problems for you; they are going to give you and lead you to the tools to show you how to resolve the issues that you have on your own.

    But you and I both know that this is not what many people are looking for. They think that they will be just as happy to let someone else do the problem solving for them, And when they see that this is not the goal that they shoulfor then they give up on therapy altogether.

  • D.G. Clancy

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    Baby steps. Every journey begins with a single step, ladies and gentlemen. You cannot rush what cannot be rushed. You didn’t get to where you are in life overnight that ultimately brought you to the therapist’s office. Why would you think that accumulation could be resolved overnight then?

    Like Sarah said, look for the small gains. Appreciate them for what they are: progress.

  • Elsa Brent

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:41 PM

    I can understand why folks want to see faster results and can feel frustrated at the speed it’s all going. Not all insurance companies are that happy about paying for therapy long-term. If a client knows their insurance company is like that, of course they will want to get a move on and get something out of it before their provider pulls the plug.

    That’s not helpful to the therapist who’s dealing with them at the pace they feel is optimal. However it may help them to understand that the pressure a client feels can come from there too.

  • alphonso s.

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    That was an interesting post, Sarah! Thanks.

    Whatever you do, people, promise yourself this: you’ll never give up.

    “On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.”

    – Friedrich Nietzsche

  • J. Swanson

    September 19th, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    Hitting the wall is something that happens to me on occasion, not with therapy but with things like finding a job. After my hundredth rejection I felt like I had tried everything and that I was hopeless in terms of finding a job, It was so bad that I stopped submitting my resume for 2 weeks. The way you mentioned of trying something different is how I got through my slump.

    Much like you suggest trying out a new therapy method like bibliotherapy, I tried I different job seeking technique. It gave me the energy and the power to continue forward so I’m sure it will work for therapy too.

    As for running you’re on your own, haha! I don’t know anyway you can switch that up (run backwards?).

  • brad clark

    September 19th, 2011 at 9:58 PM

    well I have been through this but never really paid attention.hitting the wall can happen in any sphere of life and one has to tell himself that no matter how sluggish it might feel,we are moving. and we should try to move in the right direction.that is what is important. we may feel like we have stalled but if we put in effort in such a scenario,then we can be true fighters and go beyond the ordinary!

  • Maranda

    September 20th, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    You might have to take a step back from time to time in order to get the most benefit. I know that athletes have said that before,and I have even had that experience myself before when dieting so why not therapy patients too? If not you might stand the chance of getting burned out on it all together and decide that therapy is not worth the effort at all anymore.

  • Naomi C

    September 21st, 2011 at 11:42 AM

    When I’m exercising and I feel like I just can’t go on,I set an award for myself mentally.If I do this then i can treat myself to this.But make sure the reward isn’t going against your goal..LOL ;)

    Maybe you can follow this technique for things other than exercise too?

  • Sarah Noel, MS, LMHC

    September 21st, 2011 at 9:17 PM

    Wow, I am overwhelmed by all of the very thoughtful and insightful comments – thank you all!

    Alphonso S., I love the Nietzsche quote. It captures the hope that even the smallest of gains can inspire.

    J.W., I hope you will consider addressing your concerns with your therapist. I know it makes you anxious; beginning therapy probably made you anxious too, but you did it. Overcoming your anxiety and talking to your therapist may be healing in and of itself. If it doesn’t go well, consider talking to your therapist about the possibility of working with someone else.

  • Lori Packer

    August 3rd, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    My therapist left for private practice after working with me for a year on EMDR therapy. I was told not to worry, and I was doing better, learning so much about where my behavior was coming from. I’m now going into a clicnial depression, has not happened in a long time. Not from my loss of therapy, but not having it does not help for sure. I hate the medicaid, medicare,circle.

  • Leslie B., LPC

    December 1st, 2013 at 3:29 PM

    J.W. Apparently you are not committed to working on your commitment issues, which makes sense because you obviously have difficulty making commitments. Talk with your therapist about making small commitments to goals that interest you. Once you start reaching small, achievable goals you will find the bigger commitment issues much easier to tackle. Learn to find rewards in maintaining everyday routines, and praise yourself when you honor your commitments. Jumping ship to a new therapist may seem to reinforce your lack of commitment, but a good therapist will meet you where you are at your level of readiness. If your therapist can’t meet you where you are, maybe it’s time for a change. But remember, the therapist cannot do the work for you. If you’re not ready yo make changes in the area of commitment, you’re wasting precious therapy time rehashing the issue. Good luck!

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