Stuck in Therapy? These 3 Patterns Could Be Contributing

Counselor writes notes on person in treatmentThough I wish it weren’t so, many therapies get “stuck” at some point, leading to premature termination or a less-than-ideal outcome. Here are three of the many possible patterns that could lead you to feel stuck in therapy. If any of these feels familiar, be sure to bring this up with your therapist right away. Hopefully you can put your efforts together to overcome the factors keeping you from making the progress you envision.

1. Waiting for the Therapist to Heal You

When we take our experience or difficulties to a helping professional, many of us harbor a wish, secretly or not-so-secretly, that the professional’s advice, explanations, or prescriptions alone will be enough to heal us. We wind up in a passive, dependent stance in therapy, approaching therapy as though it will be like surgery: I’ll lie back, and the doctor will diagnose my ailment and cut it out of me. Therapies can go on for years with the person expectantly waiting for a piece of advice or interpretation that will finally part the clouds. Meanwhile, the therapist is left puzzled, wondering why change has not occurred despite all the good ideas that have been discussed.

The omnipotent and powerful therapist is a nice fantasy, one that therapists (myself included) can accidentally participate in by overworking—providing unnecessary or unhelpful advice, explanations, or instructions, or taking full responsibility for therapeutic progress. Those of us who have managed to get out of such an entanglement, where the therapist is overworking and the person in therapy is passively waiting, have learned an important lesson: no therapist has ever changed anyone. Change cannot result from a therapist “doing something” to us; it comes from us doing something differently with ourselves.

Infants and children are completely dependent on others for survival, and the passive/dependent stance that many people approach therapy with may be a remnant of that need. My clinical experience suggests the yearning for a powerful, magical caregiver who will come along and make it all better often sticks around because it was not fulfilled at the time it was supposed to be—childhood. However, part of growing up is learning to think and solve problems for ourselves, and developing the ability to mobilize our own resources in the face of a challenge.

A good therapist will help you create the optimal conditions for you to do this but simply cannot do it for you. If you are waiting around for your therapist to do this, and if you have a sense that your therapist is not aware of this pattern or is reinforcing it somehow, the passive/dependent stance in therapy could be keeping you stuck. Talk to your therapist about what is going on.

2. Fighting Against Reality

Just as therapists cannot change people (a difficult reality for many to accept), therapy cannot change reality. Many of us come to therapy with a secret agenda: I want to change reality so that my anxiety-provoking feelings about reality will go away. We ask our therapist for “effective communication strategies” that might help us be more persuasive to a distant father, or detoxify a toxic spouse. We burden our therapy with fixing someone else’s problems.

There is, of course, a time and place for learning such communication strategies in therapy; however, if the goal of this learning is to change or control an unchangeable person or situation, the therapy will inevitably fail because the goal is unrealistic.

Believe me, if I could change reality, I would—reality can stimulate all kinds of uncomfortable, anxiety-producing reactions in us. I don’t like those feelings, either! But we’re all probably better off learning to accept and cope with the thoughts and emotions that reality tends to stir up in us, rather than continuing to chase after the fantasy of a perfect reality that we can control and change. After all, so many of our problems are a result of the difficulties we have in coping with reality and our feelings about it.

If your therapy has become focused on changing or controlling someone else, or a situation that is beyond your control, your “stuck-ness” may continue until you refocus on the things you do have some control over; namely, your inner reactions to outer realities.

3. Chasing Someone Else’s Goals

Many people, when asked why they are seeking therapy, reply: “Well, my wife/husband/partner/friend says …” They have not necessarily come to therapy of their own free will, but at least in part to meet the needs of another person. This can also be the case for people who come for court-mandated treatment and for adolescents. And it can limit the efficacy of therapy in a number of ways.

If your therapy has become focused on changing or controlling someone else, or a situation that is beyond your control, your “stuck-ness” may continue until you refocus on the things you do have some control over; namely, your inner reactions to outer realities.

First, because they are not internally motivated to achieve their therapy goals, people who are compelled into therapy by others may not put in the necessary amount of effort and energy that change requires. They may not even see themselves as having a problem or a goal to work toward.

They may submit to the will of the referring person and pursue goals that are not truly their own. They may decide to change themselves to make the other person happy, and their behavior may even change as a result. This kind of change can be quite transient, though, ending with a complete reversal and the refrain, “I only did it to make you happy!”

On the flipside of that coin are people who say, “I’ll be damned before I change,” and perpetuate their life problems out of stubbornness against the person who compelled them into therapy. This defiance, while sometimes pleasurable in the moment, can be quite self-defeating, as the person in therapy is intentionally perpetuating problems just to “stick it” to the other person.

Therapists can get caught up in this, too, pursuing outside parties’ goals rather than those of the person in therapy. Many of us learn the hard way that if someone’s will and desire for change are not on line, the therapy will inevitably get stuck. If you’re not in therapy of your own free will, complying with or defying someone else’s goals for you, or feeling like therapy is going nowhere, make sure to bring this up with your therapist. Together, you can develop goals that will help you get unstuck and lead to the outcomes you desire.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, Topic Expert Contributor

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

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  • tina

    January 28th, 2016 at 8:06 AM

    Oh I kind of read this the other way when I first read the title, like someone who was stuck and afraid to let go of the therapy process. That is my daughter I believe. She has a great lady that she has been working with about some things for about a year now and I believe that she thinks that it is time to start spacing out the appointments a little since she seems to be doing well, but I think that that scares my daughter. I am not certain what I should do at this point, keep going and keep her comfortable or try to move her past it so that she doesn’t feel like she has to see her all of the time

  • Randy

    January 28th, 2016 at 11:45 AM

    My thoughts are that if you are waiting on something from someone else that is so miraculous that it heals you then you are in therapy for a reason.

    This is a person who is simply going to facilitate and guide your process, but the journey is yours as well as the eventual reveals that this journey will uncover.

    But you cannot place all of that on the shoulders of someone else. This has to be something that you come to on your own.

  • James

    January 28th, 2016 at 12:23 PM

    Unfortunately there is this underlying image that therapists have a magic wand and they will wave it and everything challenging will disappear.
    Not the case I am afraid, there is however a vast number of professional therapists highly qualified in thier relevant fields whom do pocess the techniques to assist anyone with thier challenge and find that end goal whatever that may be. As the writer of the article says, the therapists is their to guide and facilate the journey of the client to the end goal. In my opinion there is a start time of therapy and and End time so once therapy begins there shuold be an approx lenght of time / sessions where one will see progress and hopefully reach the end goal. There then however are those therapists whom just keep going and going and whom actually become a crutch for the client and the client becomes dependant on the therapist which is not a good thing in my view. The therapists job is not easy and whilst with all good intentions may keep a client much much longer than required should acutally pass the client on to another therapist if therapy comes to slow down and not be progressing. After all it is Our clients best benefit that we actually can admit therapy has stalled and we need to transfer them to another to see if they can assist further. All my sessions are client focused and I have no problem in reccomending another therapist if I feel my work has stalled and is not progressing because my whole interest is in seeing the client change and overcome thier challenge that is why I chose this profession in the first place.

  • Taylor

    January 28th, 2016 at 1:51 PM

    Going into therapy for all the right reasons can be quite empowering and life changing.
    But going into it for the wrong reasons? A nightmare that you cannot emerge from
    Do it for you, by you, and you will be someone who will come out on top feeling inspired and changed in all the right ways

  • max

    January 29th, 2016 at 7:41 AM

    tHese all sound so good, I just wish that more of us would truthfully look at our reasons for entering therapy

  • AbigailA

    January 29th, 2016 at 1:07 PM

    Do you ever have that feeling that there are those who are looking for someone to save them? From themselves, from their reality, and they are always in need of help instead of learning to depend on themselves? This is how they go through life, looking for ways to get others o help them out. What makes someone that dependent on others and feel like they will never be able to count on themselves to do it alone?

  • josie

    January 30th, 2016 at 6:30 AM

    I sometimes want to look at others and ask why they are even there if they are not willing to do the work and make the changes that supposedly they are seeking?

  • Helena

    January 30th, 2016 at 7:57 AM

    This text is the usual type. The patient is wrong and expects the wrong things. The only mistake the therapist maybe does is that he tries too hard. I find it very irritating. The patient is there because he or she needs help. If the therapist has nothing to offer he should say so. The patient does not expect a magic wand, he or she expects help. If help is some kind of magic for the therapist he should admit that. “I know nothing, I cannot help you, the only thing I am capable of is to tell you what´s wrong with you.” This is what therapy very often is. And then we are all very surprised that it so often leads nowhere.

  • Ron

    January 30th, 2016 at 2:45 PM

    While this may not be the most popular suggestion, it could be time to find someone else to work with if you are feeling stuck. That does not mean that your therapist is not doing a good job, but maybe this is just not the right fit for you. You could also consider taking a break from the process for a little bit, you know, to clear your head a little and really come up with what your goals are for this and if you truly think that this is what you can achieve by working with this person. Sometimes it takes having to take a little bit of a step back to get a good clear picture of that which needs to be done.

  • celia

    January 31st, 2016 at 7:05 AM

    It could be that you have seen what lies ahead and you are simply still too afraid to confront it.
    Please know that that is okay, we are all afraid of things in life, but if you think that this is something that is keeping you from being everything that you can be, there will come a time when you must face down those fears and confront it

  • Terri

    January 31st, 2016 at 2:45 PM

    Could it work to try a different method?

  • melody

    February 16th, 2016 at 9:28 AM

    What I miss here is that the reason for therapy can be the same reason that therapy does not work. The problem from the patient can be that she expects solutions to come from outside herself (for example the therapist). The therapist may say that this is the patient failing or boycotting the therapy, in my opinion it is exactly where the work is. To work with the obstacle. Similar with trust; it might be essential to trust the therapist for good results. But staying fixed to that principle may mean that no therapist can work with a patient who trusts nobody including the therapist. The obstacle for therapy and the real reason or need for therapy might be the same issue.

  • Kyle

    November 26th, 2018 at 7:01 AM

    I’m stuck in Number 1. But I still think my therapist is the problem. While I know it is up to me to make the change, and I’m experiencing my therapist as a parent figure, shouldn’t it be up to him to emphatically point that out and encourage me to take the steps I need to take? I find myself coming in depressed, him asking me meandering questions, me getting impatient 30 minutes into the session, directing him what to ask, what to remind me, to which he does ask and remind me, but now i feel resentful and frustrated I had to do the heavy lifting as the client to get us there. I feel like I end up being the therapist. Shouldn’t it be his responsibility to be proactively on top of things like these to make sure they don’t happen?

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