Boredom in Therapy: A Natural Form of Resistance

Bored womanLois 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:

Empty yourself,
So that you may be filled.
Learn not to love
so that you may learn how to love.
Draw back,
so that you may be approached.

-St. Augustine Narration on Psalm 30:30

References:
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.

© Copyright 2011 by By Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, therapist in Campbell, California. 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.

  • 8 comments
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  • Tudor

    Tudor

    April 15th, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    I don’t know how to react to this but would just like to say that if you feel you’re not making progress in therapy be open to your therapist about it and maybe try another therapy technique or even a new therapist. You have approached therapy for your benefit and dropping out of it is no good!!!

  • charlotte

    charlotte

    April 16th, 2011 at 6:09 AM

    is it boredom ir the unwillingness to open up and give her all to the therapy process?

  • Shortkut

    Shortkut

    April 18th, 2011 at 4:21 AM

    I can only say she is either not keeping up with the therapy or is better with having a friend to speak to and a self assessment whether she wants to be in therapy.If the patient is not finding it useful and has such a thought in his or her mind,it’s going to be very difficult for the therapist to deliver results.

  • amy

    amy

    April 18th, 2011 at 12:41 PM

    i loved reading this and found it very interesting. i have noticed many times in my relationships, and my relationship with my therapist, feeling bored and thinking ‘this is rubbish, nothings happening!’ i think for me it comes from a fear of ‘just being me’ will be not enough, that im at the core boring. I try to end the relationship befor the other person dissovers this ‘truth’ about me! Daring to stay with this feeling in therapy can be so rewarding

  • Jonathan Bartlett

    Jonathan Bartlett

    April 19th, 2011 at 9:32 AM

    Ending relationships because “nothing is happening” can lead to some very unnecessary isolation. I believe that we are in essence relational beings and that being able to stick through times of boredom is actually a key skill for intimacy. Good therapy is just an excellent place for practicing that skill, getting grounded in one’s own self worth and in the simple value of belonging with others. Bravo to those of you daring to see it through!

  • Hannah

    Hannah

    April 20th, 2011 at 2:46 PM

    If you have a therapist who is willing to dig in and go to all of those secret places that you feel like you need to hide then there will be no room for getting bored with therapy. A good therapist is going to get you engaged and involved in the communication and the healing process, and make you come to understand that this is something that is good for the psyche and the soul.

  • Robin

    Robin

    January 30th, 2012 at 6:38 PM

    I don’t like therapy or my therapist. How can you have a relationship when one of you is being paid by the other? It isn’t like real relationships at all. It never feels like anything is happening , talking isn’t helping and I’m not learning anything. I’m so sick of waiting and demanding for something to happen!

  • no

    no

    February 11th, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    Therapy is boring. I don’t care about Some person’s opinion of anything.

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