Lois has five minutes left to her fifth session and is now having a flash of insight. “I’m bored to death with therapy,” she thinks. “This is getting me nowhere.” She feels close to her therapist and decides that he deserves more than a false excuse. “Look,” she says, “I think we can both agree that we’re nearing the end here.” Unsure about how to respond to his neutral facial reactions, Lois plunges forward. “Believe me, I’m as bored of myself as you probably are. There’s no reason to pretend that we’re making progress here when I’m just going over the same issues, again and again. You’ve been trying. I know you have. But I’ve got nothing else to discover about myself. I’m done. That’s all there is. I’m just done.”
There is nothing wrong with gaining the sense of well-being that comes with having a professional provide reflection and insight on one’s life. Lois is pleased with her therapist’s support and feels the first four sessions were a success. Brief therapy may have provided her the supportive boost she needs as she continues to apply new coping skills on her own. If, on the other hand, there are uncomfortable symptoms plaguing her (sleeplessness, worry, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, intense relational conflicts, etc), it will be worth her while to take a second look at the boredom that is blocking her way.
Lois and her therapist are at a common juncture in treatment. Research into the phases of therapy conducted by Kenneth Howard of Northwestern University outlines a progressive, three-stage sequence of change. In the first phase, the client experiences a restoration of subjectively experienced well-being. The second phase focuses on the resolution of the client’s symptoms. This phase occupies a greater number of sessions—generally, between the 5th and the 15th session of therapy. Curiously, over one-half of his clients had discontinued therapy by session four.
The Problematic Skill of Emotional Insulation
As children, most of us learn to create emotional boundaries around ourselves to keep us safe. Trapped with a negative or mean-spirited crowd, our emotional insulation kicks in and we can feel somewhat removed from harm. Dropping layers of emotional insulation while with a nurturing friend allows us to take in the nutrients of their care. By the time we become adults, this unconscious defense mechanism regulates our relationships automatically.
For those impacted by big or small experiences of neglect or harm from others, it follows that they would be prone toward a self-sufficient stance. This insulation might be felt in the emotional brain as apathy and irritability when the “threat” of an ongoing relationship is apparent. The cognitive messages associated with these feelings may be something like, “I’m fine not caring about this person. I’m waiting for them to leave so I can feel more safe.” Such feelings and thoughts get activated without permission from the conscious mind. Sometimes, as in the case with Lois, the realization of boredom can occur quite suddenly and emphatically.
Repairing Flaws in the Insulation
One does not need to be engaged in long-term psychoanalytic care to see the importance of the therapeutic bond. Even in brief, solution-focused therapy, progress results in large part from the trust established between those two people sitting in that room, taking time together to see what surfaces. Boredom is simply one of the body’s natural resistances to this process. Touching into that boredom gives one the opportunity to test and perhaps readjust one’s automatic reactions. Similar to removing an unnecessary layer on a hot day, the act of staying in a relationship even when bored can yield surprisingly pleasant results.
“So you’re feeling annoyed. I see that. Care to look at that feeling a little bit further?”
Lois laughs. Another minute or two, she thinks, and this will be over. “Oh, great. So now I’m going to pay you for the chance to look at my boredom.” She rolls her eyes and opens her pocketbook.
“Only if you want to,” he answers. She hands her check to him. The two stand as she makes her way to the door. Lois takes one last moment to collect herself before reaching for the doorknob.
“You know,” she says, “I’ve never done this before. I don’t know what comes next.”
She watches her therapist nod and smile. “I can be here if you want to find out.”
Navigating Boredom and Longing
Taking a look at the automatic effort to prevent intimacy is just as important as putting effort into stepping past the resistance. Examining the body’s reactions to closeness and distance can be an unasked for but enlightening part of therapy. As Lois drives home, she is no doubt reexamining that nod and smile from her therapist as she stood at the door. The boredom that prompted their last interaction has now been unmasked to reveal an underlying uncertainty and frustration. Beneath that lies an unanswered longing for connection.
There is no quick answer to Lois’s dilemma of whether to return for another session. There’s neither certainty that therapy is the ideal site for her to place that longing, nor an assurance that it’s better to listen to the call of her boredom and move on. She has her own mind to make up and her own body to tend to as she manages the ebb and flow of her tolerance for relationships. She is not alone in her struggle, though. Boredom and longing carry their unspoken and magnetic influences on our interpersonal behaviors, driving each of us to our own true north. Effective therapy simply offers us a safe place to unmask the process.
While managing the ebb and flow of your capacity for intimacy, remember that every moment offers an opportunity for healing. I find this piece of wisdom encapsulated within the following excerpt:
So that you may be filled.
Learn not to love
so that you may learn how to love.
so that you may be approached.
-St. Augustine Narration on Psalm 30:30
Howard, K. I.; Lueger, R. J.; Maling, M. S.; & Martinovich, Z. (1993). A phase model of psychotherapy outcome: Causal mediation of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61(4), 678-685.
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