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Is Therapy Working? Consider the Wall

Many of us come to therapy looking to be “fixed” quickly. Yet, one of the confusing (and potentially frustrating) aspects of therapy is that it can make us feel worse in the short term while sowing the seeds of long-term change. This can cause us to ask ourselves: is therapy working?

Most of us end up seeking therapy when the things we’ve used to keep us afloat in our life/relationship/mental health stop working, and the painful emotions or realities we’ve been avoiding begin to cave in on us. We come to our first session in pain, and we want the pain to stop immediately.

So, how do we get the pain to stop?

Here is a metaphor I often to use to explain why getting the pain to stop is a process:

Imagine that we have been pressing against a wall to keep it from caving in on us for a long time. We’ve been able to successfully keep the wall standing straight and looking “right” for years. But over time, our arms begin to tire, and we find it harder and harder to hold up the wall. Or perhaps a sudden storm comes and blows against the wall, and the force we had to exert to hold the wall up gets so great that we simply can’t hold it anymore. And so, in both scenarios, the wall comes down.

At this point, we’re trapped beneath the fallen wall, and just want to get it to stand straight again. We’re pushing and pushing, but it won’t budge. Often, this is the point when we come to therapy and say to our therapist: even though my arms were constantly tired, the wall worked great at protecting me from bad things when it was standing straight; can you help me push it back up?

Sure, but what if we didn’t?

If you have a good therapist, they will tell you that you can continue to try to push the wall back up (and will likely eventually be able to do so all on your own), but that you will have to use twice the amount of force you once did to get it to stand back up, and then continue to exert force to have it stay in place. Then, they will present you with an alternative: instead of trying to push the wall back up, have you imagined what it might be like to crawl out from beneath it and move freely about without having to hold anything up at all?

If you’ve been holding the wall up your whole life, you’ll likely think this is impossible. And you might also be scared, since even though the wall is heavy and tiring to hold up, it has always kept you safe from bad things. But a small part of you might be intrigued by what it would be like to live without the wall, and so you start considering it. You start imagining it. And if the small part of you that was considering trying it grows, you eventually decide to do it.

Therapy helps you live life beyond the wall.

Crawling out from underneath the fallen wall and looking at the painful things it was protecting you from is the work of therapy. It is not easy work, but it is courageous work. More than that, it is liberating work. And like most things worth doing, it takes time.

You’ll likely notice benefits of moving away from the wall within the first few sessions of therapy, but depending on how thick your wall was, it can take awhile before you feel you are living without the wall entirely. And if ever you get frustrated with how long it’s taking to get away from the wall (dammit!) then you should talk with your therapist about it. Because doing so might actually be a crucial step in leaving the wall behind for good.

As a therapist, it is an honor to walk alongside people as they move out from beneath the wall. Over the course of therapy, they learn that living without the wall, though painful at first, is not as scary or hard as they once believed. And perhaps most movingly, it is incredible to watch them discover that life without the wall is so much richer and more vibrant than they imagined it could be.

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