A Breakthrough in Therapy!!! Now What’s That Really Mean?

If you are in therapy, or have read about what happens in therapy, you have probably heard the word “breakthrough.” Clients in therapy use it a lot, and so do therapists.  Clients want to feel like their treatment is going to lead to breakthroughs, and therapists have the same hope for their clients.


So you may be wondering: “Just want is a breakthrough. And how do I know when I have had one?”


Generally, we think of a breakthrough a point in therapy when a client makes an important realization. A moment when a light goes off.  Here are some examples of breakthroughs that may occur in therapy:


  • Gaining deeper access to buried feelings. Opening up to your therapist about feelings can be a breakthrough in your therapy. You may have been unaware of these feelings but, in may have discussed a current situation or a memory from the past which, in turn, brought up feelings like anger or fear that you had been avoiding taking about or had buried.


  • Recognizing cause and effect. Therapy can help you to recognize self-destructive behavior patterns – stories that you may be reenacting over and over in your life, like repeatedly getting involved with people who don’t treat you well or setting yourself up for failure by overcommitting.


  • Achieving insight into what’s really important to you. You may finally commit to a goal that you had been avoiding out of fear or thinking that it was outside the realm of possibility. And decide to allow yourself to be who you are and not try to live up to someone else’s expectations for you.


Most likely, you are your therapist will recognize breakthroughs together. “I think this is a breakthrough!”  “Yes, I do too!”  This can be exciting, the payoff of a lot of hard work.  It can also be scary.  What does that mean for the future?


Of course, you may have another question about breakthroughs in therapy. You might be asking yourself if you have even had any breakthroughs so far.  And if you can’t identify any, you might also be asking if your therapy is working.  Or, if you or your therapist are doing enough work.


As you consider your own progress toward breakthroughs in therapy, here some thoughts to consider:


Breakthroughs are built on a foundation of trust.  As you become more comfortable with your therapist, and his/her approach to therapy, your trust in your therapist and the therapeutic process will most likely deepen.  With trust, you are more likely to lower your barriers to expressing your thoughts and emotions, to respond to your therapist’s questions, as well as his/her suggestions for alternate ways of perceiving the world around you.  If you are open to the process, and lower your defenses, you will be more likely to achieve breakthroughs.


Breakthroughs are based on goals.  Most likely, you and your therapist have created a list of goals and objectives for your treatment.  Since breakthroughs are essentially milestones along the road toward achieving your goals in therapy, without clearly defined goals, it’s hard to know if you have made any breakthroughs.  See what I mean?  Have you reviewed your goals with your therapist lately?  This is a conversation that, ideally, you and your therapist should be having periodically.  And as you review your goals, also discuss any progress, including breakthroughs, that the two of you feel you have achieved.  Keep in mind that a breakthrough in therapy may occur after what feels like a long time, weeks, months, of essentially “treading water” while you and your therapist work together to discuss and understand an issue that may be especially painful or complicated.


Breakthroughs come in all sizes.  A breakthrough does not necessarily have to be big and dramatic.  Therapy is a process that takes place over time, with progress based on the unique interaction between the client and the therapist.  A session might include reviewing the past week, discussing themes that have emerged in previous sessions, and learning new ways to cope.  You may not even be aware that a breakthrough occurred until you find yourself thinking or behaving in a way that leads to more quality in your life and in your relationships.  Surprise!  If you and your therapist look back over the progress you have made during your therapy, you may identify changes you have made, in the way you perceive the world, how you feel, how you behave, that are indeed breakthroughs.  Maybe it’s time for a belated celebration.


So how’s your therapy going? Progress in therapy isn’t only measured in breakthroughs. It’s also about coming back to each session ready and willing to do the work, whatever that means.   Patience with yourself, your therapist, and the therapeutic process is essential.