You did it! You decided you could benefit from therapy. You looked for a therapist. You found a therapist. You are going to therapy. So now what?
Most people come to therapy with some idea of what changes they would like to see in themselves. It is kind of like embarking on a fitness journey. You know you want to achieve a goal: run further, lift more, increase strength and stamina. When we are talking about something you can measure, gauging progress is pretty straightforward, as you can time your runs or track how much you can lift. Sometimes the gains are significant, sometimes you feel like you move backward or sometimes you are happy to maintain the status quo. This isn’t much different than measuring progress in therapy, but there is one glitch: there aren’t necessarily measured milestones that you can actually quantify. So, how do you know you are actually moving in the right direction when you are in therapy?
Here are four ways you can observe progress in therapy:
1. Ok, maybe you CAN measure!
Simply tracking what you are trying to achieve can be a helpful way to see that you are progressing or notice when you are hitting a plateau. There are many apps out there that can help track mood and make connections to what you have been doing and whether this activity actually enhances or detracts from your positive feelings. When we are stuck in the mud of depression, anxiety and overall negativity, we tend to give far more weight to the bad days than the good. Tracking helps you see the small glimmers of hope, even if they seem to be buried under the s#&t.
Daylio is an example of a simple app that asks you to reflect how you are feeling (think awesome, good, meh or crummy) and then asks you to choose from a selection of activities that you participated in that day. Over time, you will start to see patterns. For example, you feel better on the days you ride your bike. Or you notice a low mood when you spend time with a certain person. Tracking mood is a good way to look for patterns and activities that contribute or detract from your positive feelings, your sense of life satisfaction or areas where some change may be needed.
2. Journal your thoughts.
Be inquisitive! You can simply google online journal prompts that can help you quickly answer thought provoking questions that will ultimately allow you to “brain dump” your thoughts, see your emotions written down on paper and again, look for themes. Asking yourself a powerful question is a great way to dig deeper. Here are a couple of examples:
What do I REALLY want?
What was my role (in a negative interaction)?
What is life asking me to do differently?
What gets me out of bed each day?
What needs my immediate attention?
Just a few minutes of your time a couple of times a week can really help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself, the skills you are developing in therapy and the stuff you still need to work on. If you make a habit of engaging in these quick reflections, you will see progress when you look back at entries and notice how you may have changed perspective, what you are emphasizing or what changes you have actually made in your world.
3. Ask others.
It is okay to ask for a little feedback now and then. Most of us forget to comment when we see positive change in someone, and it is safe to say that your spouse, best friend or family member may not have taken the time to actually comment on your progress. Look to people you trust and ask them if they have noticed anything different about you and your actions. Maybe you are working on your anger and you have been trying to put a little distance between your reaction and your action. Maybe you are trying to connect with your partner more frequently. Simply asking someone you trust to share their observations of you can be a helpful way to know you are on the right path (not perfect, but walking on the right path!). If you are deathly afraid of negative feedback, be more direct with the question: “what am I doing well?” is a good question to ask. It forces the observer to look toward the positive things and share them. You may be surprised at their answer (and that’s awesome!).
If you need to muster up a little courage before asking, be observant. Have you noticed fewer conflicts with your teenager? Have you been getting more sleep, and waking up refreshed (and less grumpy) and the morning routine is not as chaotic as it once was? Small gains lead to big change!
4. Ask your therapist.
Always remember that your therapy is just that; YOUR THERAPY! Your therapist is working for you. In order for therapy to be effective, open lines of communication are essential. If you don’t feel therapy is working, tell your therapist! A great therapist will be happy to explore this with you. This doesn’t mean you are “doing therapy wrong”! It means that you want to talk about what is working for you and what isn’t. That is brave and shows a willingness to do the hard things!
The more information you give your therapist about how you see things, how you communicate and learn and how you are feeling about your sessions, the better. Therapists have a myriad of tools in their toolbox. If this means adjusting how you are working together, your therapist will be all for it. Now if you don’t feel like your therapist is hearing you, perhaps this therapist is not the one for you…and that’s ok. Sometimes it takes awhile to realize you need to do things differently. But the last thing you need to do is stay with a therapist because you don’t want to hurt THEIR feelings!
You do your best to choose a therapist who seems like a fit. The truth of the matter is that a therapist may have been a fit earlier in your time together, but you may have evolved and need to talk to someone with a different level of experience or expertise. Remember, you are the consumer. Open and honest communication with your therapist will clear the air around misunderstandings and roadblocks. It may mean your therapist will remind you that leaning into the tough stuff needs to happen before things get better (and that is part of their master plan), but hearing that and knowing they have heard you will help you know that you are walking on the right path, however slowly it may feel.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: small gains lead to big change! Look for clues that you are progressing, and create a safe space to track (your phone, a journal, your laptop). Look back at your observations frequently, but be patient and gentle with yourself. You’ve got this!