The Value of Patience and Self-Empathy in Therapy

Many of those who start therapy know or soon realize that it’s a long, slow, and difficult process. Even knowing that, people still sometimes feel frustrated. This is understandable: we all want for our problems to end as soon as possible, especially if those problems are so heavy, blurry, draining, and have been present for decades.

Therapeutic Expectations and Challenges

A unique thing about therapy is that there is no clear end point. To a degree, self-work involves healing from trauma, growing, and maintaining your mental health, and your well-being in general. And this, naturally, last all our lives. Self-work is an ongoing process.

However, therapy can—and need to—have goals. In my work with clients, in the first session I ask what their expectations are and how they will know that we have made progress, so that the person would have some sort of point of reference, even if it’s very broad.

It is interesting to note that a person’s expectations sometimes are a part of the problem they are in therapy for. It is common that people, especially those with perfectionistic tendencies and chronic sense of overwhelming responsibility, feel that they have to fix themselves here and now. They also feel that having problems make them unworthy of love and acceptance, and that it may result in rejection or abandonment from people around them. So the urgency is burning.

But therapeutic progress, while sometimes rapid and empowering in some regards, can be slow and exhausting. Moreover, it often involves a lot of repetition. Healing and growth happens in a spiral: you encounter the same thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and situations, but over time all of it becomes a little bit better. It’s not an on-or-off switch: I have a problem or I don’t.

However, many people often do believe that it’s indeed all or nothing. In order to feel okay, they have to have all their problems resolved, and if it’s anything but that, then it’s not enough and is the same as failure, which, in their mind, will result in them being bad, unlovable, and hurt by others for it. They also have problems celebrating their therapeutic accomplishments, because there are always problems to work on, and therefore there is no time nor value to stop and celebrate their progress.

Therapy does oftentimes include talking about the same things over and over again. Some people even feel ashamed to bring up the same issue because they think they should be “over it” already since they talked about it already.

The Value of Patience and Empathy

Understanding the process and accepting where you are in it is vital in feeling content with your therapeutic status. It is normal that you can’t overcome the problem that have lasted for decades in a few weeks or months. It is normal that you need to think and talk about the same issue again, until you don’t.

It is helpful, even necessary, to be patient and empathetic with yourself. For many, this is the opposite from the treatment they received growing up so they are not used to it. This is where having a caring, competent therapist can help a lot. You need to learn to self-relate with kindness, patience, and empathy, not with self-attack and impatience. The former is a part of the solution, the latter is a part of the problem. Instead of self-attacking, learn self-connection.

What also doesn’t help is comparing yourself with others. Many feel that they “should” be somewhere else on their path than they are, because somebody else is seemingly doing better. There are a few problems with this mindset. First, oftentimes people are really bad at evaluating others people’s level of healthiness and resolvedness, for a myriad of reasons that I won’t get into here. Second, there will always be people who are doing better than you, just like there are always those who are doing worse than you. This in no way changes your problems. Third, instead of thinking about others and feeling bad about yourself, you could think what you can do to improve your situation, or at least think about why you’re thinking what you’re thinking now.

In my work with clients, we regularly reflect on the work we’ve done, so that the person could see the progress they have made. They always feel better after realizing how far they have gone already. It can be easily missed or overshadowed by all the unresolved, never-ending problems and challenges waiting ahead. Furthermore, a lot of people tend to dismiss or minimize their achievements. However, when they really examine them, they quickly notice that they have made a lot of progress.

Summary and Final Thoughts

Self-work and therapy can indeed by challenging and long-lasting. However, it’s important to see it realistically, to accept where you are in it, and to learn to relate to yourself in a loving, empathetic, and patient way. It also helps to occasionally remind and reassure yourself that you are going in the right direction. A good, caring therapist can always make your journey less foggy, less lonely, and more bearable—but at the end, it is your journey.

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