You’ve been going to therapy for three months now. At first you felt like you were making amazing progress. There were insights every other week, you learned new skills and felt like you could take control of your schedule, your worries, your anger, your productivity and your relationships for the first time in your life. Why hadn’t you tried this years ago?
Then about the ten week mark something changed. You didn’t notice it at first, but after a little while you felt like you were going backwards. For some reason you couldn’t keep track of all your new skills and ideas. The insights didn’t come, the anxiety swelled and you felt like someone trying to hold too many blueberries in one hand; you’d either crush them or they’d all spill out between your fingers.
Where did all that blessed control go?
Today Greta and I are going to guide you through the basics of the therapeutic process as it applies to both humans and dogs. Greta’s hit that “partial therapy crisis” in her own training, and it provides a unique and adorable way for me to share with you some inside information about the often mythicized process of mental health counseling.
The Therapeutic Honeymoon
I often tell prospective and new clients that going to counseling is a little bit like trying to clean your room. Things will get messier before they get better, but in the end it’s worth the effort.
People usually enter therapy when they want something to change. It might not necessarily be themselves they want to change, but they know change is necessary and hope counseling can help. The first few sessions are like getting to know a new friend. It’s a little risky, sometimes a little awkward, but it can be exciting if you “click” with the therapist quickly enough. Let me know if you’d like a post on what to do if you DON’T click with your therapist, btw.
As you talk about yourself and answer questions about your life you’ll begin to see things in a slightly different perspective. It feels good to be listened to by someone who is wholly devoted to what you’re telling them, and empowering to put your life into your own context for once.
The honeymoon phase also includes a new way of seeing yourself, and that’s where all the exciting insights tend to come from. Learning how to analyze your own behavior in new ways can give you the impression of finally gaining control over that behavior. If you understand it, you can influence it, right?
Unfortunately, impressions are not the same thing as reality. Just because you feel a new-found sense of control doesn’t mean you HAVE any more control than when you started. Here’s why.
The Therapeutic Hiccup
“Anneliese, you promised us cute Greta stories!”
Yes, yes I did, and I intend to deliver on that promise right now.
Greta’s honeymoon phase got a bit protracted due to health issues. She started learning her Coping skills a couple years ago, but is just now getting to put them to good use. Despite our initial Misgivings about her health, she has thrown herself into the work with a robust enthusiasm and proved us all wrong!
Kim, the trainer and Doggy therapist, and I have been taking Greta to a very central public park frequented by joggers, dog-walkers, ducks, squirrels, muskrats, strollers, wheelchairs, families, street vendors, and other exciting distractions and intense stressors about once a week for the past two months. We chose this park because, busy as it is, it offered lots of semi-distant patches of grass onto which we could escape and give Greta breaks in between her immersion therapy.
Greta struggled at first, but seemed to thrive under the challenge and began to make tangible progress. Her reactivity reduced in intensity, though not yet in frequency, which is the normal trajectory for both human and canine anxiety. But in the last 2-3 weeks she began engaging in a new unhelpful behavior. She started actively avoiding stressors.
Now, refusing to look at another dog, shying away from someone staring at her, or gently nudging me onto a different path might not seem as problematic as barking and jumping in the harness, but it could be just as dangerous. Her attention is still on the stressor, not me and her job. She’s not paying attention to where she’s going, or where she’s leading me. Or what she might be leading or nudging me into.
What was going on? Was she back-sliding? Was she just not capable of learning?
This is, believe it or not, a good thing.
When you set about cleaning your room you may pile all the clothes you find into one place, all the books in another, all the papers into a third. Now you’ve got piles on the floor that look a lot less organized than the thin veneer of flotsam that once covered your flat surfaces. And the “miscellaneous” pile, with pens and video game controllers and broken flip-flops and an obsolete charger cable definitely don’t help the picture!
What you’ve uncovered are weeks, months – hopefully not years – of incomplete tasks. And after the initial honeymoon of therapy is over, you’ve finally managed to organize your thoughts and feelings enough to identify patterns of pain, fear, and loss that go much deeper into your past than you’ve realized. You have unfinished business lurking in your heart and soul that hurts to look at, let alone truly remember.
And Greta? She’s begun to comprehend that her previous behavior isn’t acceptable, and is struggling to decide what she ought to do instead. It’s been so long since she did things right, she can’t remember what that feels like yet.
She’s starting to question the old behavior, experiment with new ones. For the first time in years she can see through the haze of the status quo to other possible reactions. She knows that what she’s been doing doesn’t work anymore, and finally feels comfortable enough to risk a foray into the unknown.
The Therapeutic Heart
This is when therapy really begins – and incidentally, when most people quit. It’s not surprising, given that things suddenly feel worse. Why continue doing something that causes problems, right? Hopefully reading this post will give you the courage to push through, should you choose to embark on such a journey yourself.
Subtly at first, but suddenly you become aware of just how much there is to work through, how much pain and rejection and fear lurk within you. It’s a lot to tackle, and not very pleasant. But your initial assessment was right; if you can understand it, you can influence it. You just need the courage and strength to stare at the pain long enough to grasp it.
Did I say “just?” That’s a tall order. But that’s why you spent 10-12 weeks learning how to ground yourself, how to soothe yourself, building trust in your therapist and close relationships. All that was groundwork for this, gently, tentatively touching painful areas to begin applying much-needed salve of acceptance and forgiveness and love and care.
Greta knows that, bark or dodge, my hand is nearby with a treat and a pet whenever she looks for it. I’ve seen her improved trust in me when we flop onto a picnic blanket to take a rest from distractions. She crawls into my lap, rubs her head up underneath my chin, and lets out long, relaxed sighs as she flops her tail against the ground. She hasn’t felt calm enough to do that in public in a while.
Your own puppy brain may try to avoid therapy, knowing it’ll bring up hard choices and uncomfortable memories. Be gentle with it. Praise it and reward it for even the tiniest victory. Go to one more session. Breathe deeply ten more times. Write just one line in that journal. Keep going, just a little longer. You don’t have to do all the work at once, just what’s directly in front of you.
Greta has made some remarkable progress and I couldn’t be more proud or optimistic. The chiropractor has used the term “reverse aging” in that beautifully exaggerated enthusiasm I’ve come to expect from Southerners, and I see her renewed energy and zest for life every time we go out. I do believe she’ll be a working girl once again someday!
But not any time soon. At the end of this week I leave to visit family in Oregon. I mentioned this trip before as a goal. I wanted Greta to come with me. She’s not ready for that, though. She’s a home-body, and the stress of being out of place, out of routine, and not getting to go home and rest would push her beyond a good challenge and into “strain” territory. She’ll stay home with my husband, who has promised to spoil her rotten in my absence!
In all seriousness, I know she’ll be anxious without me but perfectly safe and content and well cared-for in my husband’s charge. He’s good with routine, sensitive to her needs, and both knowledgeable about dogs and trustworthy with all my concerns. I’ll miss her. I’ll fret about leaving her, but that fretting is about me, not her and certainly not him.
We didn’t make this goal, but we learned more about the journey ahead. It doesn’t feel like a failure so much as an adjustment of expectations.
Today your favorite blindfluencer asks “whose expectations about yourself feel the most supportive?” Thank that person for seeing you for who you are. And if that person is you, do something nice for yourself on this holiday weekend.