Progress in therapy, and similar journeys

The meaning of progress 

Therapy is a journey of continually expanding self-awareness – in relation to one’s own psyche, and also in relation to who one is with other persons. By practising being with emotions and sensations that emerge in us in the therapy session, we nourish our capacity to stay with uncomfortable emotions and sensations generally in life, both in our solitude and in relationships. Slowly, our ways of changing the flow of our consciousness – constituted largely by emotions and sensations – become softer, more flexible, and more responsive to the needs of the outer situation, and less determined by trauma from the past. 

To understand one’s progress in therapy would thus mean to bring quantification to what is at its heart, the most qualitative of experiences – simply being with life as it flows into us. One can take a step aside from one’s emotions and sensations and observe what one’s relationship to them is on the following dimensions, among others:

1. Openness to life experience – openness here means the capacity to simply let the raw experience of life be, rather than feel compelled change it. 

Am I open to what I experience when I wake up in the morning – what takes place in my body, and mind, or do I begin to manage it in some way? Am I open to what I see at work, and in my relationships? Am I open to experiences that come from within, perhaps from both present and past – experiences of sorrow, anxiety, anger, as much as experiences of joy, calmness, courage? 

When I go to sleep at night, am I open to my sense of who I am, the life I have lived today, or is something in me busy wishing it were otherwise, how I wish I would have less of this or more of that, planning how to change it the next day, the next year. 

A basic openness to the ground of our being gives us a sense of stability and calmness, like the roots of a plant that invisibly go deep into the earth and give the plant the ability to face storms, rather than get blown away.

At its most intense, openness to life experience brings us to a sense of wonder at life. In its deepest absence, one experiences a jittery, unsettled relationship to moment-to-moment experience. The flood of feelings that life has brought to us is felt as far too painful, and a wish to die emerges as a final solution to our pain. More often than not, one may exercise this wish to die only partially – by turning away from people and spaces outside and within that are uncomfortable, and thus ending a part of us that could have reached out and grown through those experiences. In the depths of pain, however, this wish may result in the act of suicide.  

2. Organismic trust – it is possible to live with a visceral, very basic sense of what one is called to do in life. This is not an idea, but a natural movement of the whole mind-body organism, in a particular direction, as the roots of a plant move into the earth to find water and nutrients, and its branches move to the sun, effecting an expansion of the being of the plant. One day, the plant offers flowers and fruit, as also seeds for further life. There is no analysis involved here. 

One can have a broad sense of meaning about what is meant to be the work of one’s life, and a minute sense of meaning about what one is meant to do in a particular hour in a particular conversation with a loved one, where one is a caregiver, for example. 

Do I experience my life as guided by such a basic sense of meaning, or do I find myself often lost, troubled about my uncertainty, and grappling with how I am meant to respond to life, frequently analysing my situation? 

Does meaning flow into me and through me to others, or do I struggle to figure out what is happening to me? 

At its most intense, organismic trust is experienced as a sense of calling. In its deepest absence, one feels thrown about by the forces of life, in angst and anguish. To quote from Macbeth, life is a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”. One is marked by a sense of being tied up in knots of anxiety, anger, and sorrow. 

3. Authenticity – authenticity is the capacity to feel one’s desire in an intense and sustained way, and express it in words and actions. 

How much genuineness do I bring to how I express myself in relationships and in work? 

Do I say to people what I truly wish to say to them, or do I say what they wish to hear, or what will save the relationship from collapse? 

Am I able to express my inner world in my work, or does my work tie me into ways of being that feel unnatural to me and that I wish to break out of as early as I can? 

Does my life feel like a cage, or can my energy soar and expand in daily acts of work and love? 

At its most intense, authenticity is experienced as deep aliveness. In its greatest absence, one feels without life, without the dynamic movement of energy that living is, and thus, marked by lack of drive, an absence of sustained courage and passion to actualise our potentials in the outer world. 

4. Empathy – in my relationships, do I experience the emotions that the other experiences, as my relational partner at the moment, as much, or nearly as much as I experience my own emotions? Or do I experience the other more as a thought in my mind, while I am very aware of my own emotions? 

Are they a planet that revolves around my star, or do I see both of us as stars with light of their own that meets the other’s light? 

Am I able to stay with the emotions of the other, or do I quickly return to what I feel about the other’s emotions and wish to do about them? 

Empathy is distinct from, although at times coinciding with sympathy, which is the capacity to take the side of the other, in emotion or act, rather than actually feeling – in a full and sustained way – what the other feels, without a compulsion to change it. Empathy often leads to sympathy. However, if one prioritises sympathy over empathy, such an act may effect an end of the latter. 

At its most intense, empathy is experienced as communion, a sense of oneness with the other – be it a person, another being, or a beautiful piece of art, or nature. In its deepest absence, empathy is the fraught, anguished sense of isolation

Sympathy, without empathy, can foster a deep isolation under the appearance of togetherness. 

These are some of the indicators of psychological health, described in the work of Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, Rollo May, Abraham Maslow and others. 

There is a continuity between these qualities. 

The first relates to one’s experience of the self, the second to one’s experience of the self as a self acting in time, in the world. The third relates to the actual depth and intensity of that action when it takes place, and the fourth to the capacity of the self to see what it is that the self is touching and impacting in the world when it acts. 

The first relates essentially to the self, the fourth relates essentially to the other. The second and third exist in the in-between space between self and other, that the two create together. 

A balance between the four allows for the emergence of an actualised personality. An excessive inclination towards one usually makes its expression distorted and self-centred.

The deeper one experiences these in a sustained way, the more one is usually free of constrictions that we often place upon ourselves and others. To use a medical term if we must, the deeper one experiences these in a sustained way, the more one is free of symptoms of psychological illness. 

Measuring progress

If you wish to measure your progress in a process of psychological work, such as therapy, or another such process, you could consider each of the above qualities on a scale of 1 to 5, and mark where you were when you started out, and where you are at certain intervals – every three months is usually a good time to make this assessment. Most people will experience a particular quality on different points of the scale at different times, so where you put yourself on the scale is a function of which point you find yourself at most of the time. The scale can be understood as follows, when applied, for example, to openness to life experience.  

1 – most of the time, there is an absence of the quality of openness and wonder in the person’s life, and they are usually jittery, uncomfortable, with little wish to live. 

2 – more often than not, the person is unable to be open to experience, but at times, they are. 

3 – the openness is present in about half their waking time

4 – the person is usually open to experience but there are frequent phases of being closed. 

5 – by and large, the person is open to experience, with only occasional absences – this is a very unusual state for a human being at this juncture in human history. 

Secondly, if possible, find someone you trust and who has empathy, rather than either hostility or strong attachment towards you, and ask them to make this assessment for you over the last three months, or another period. 

Having made this assessment, share with your therapist or the person who is your companion in this journey, what it is that has enabled any forward movement that you see – the words, tones, and actions that create an atmosphere where this movement can take place, just as the right amount of light and moisture, and not more and not less, allow the seed to grow into a plant, the particular plant it is meant to be. 

The journey from point 1 to point 5 on the scale is the journey all of us are called to make, and the pain we experience at the bottom of the scale is, in essence, a pointer to us to find such an atmosphere that will allow it to be fully experienced and transmuted to new experiences. 

This atmosphere is usually constituted of someone bringing a genuine interest in us, a caring attention to who we are rather than a wish to change us, and an honest, humble presence of the listener, rather than striving to be what they are not. Having identified this atmosphere, seek it where you can find it, be willing to pay its cost, emotional and material.

A person who is around point 3 on these qualities should be relatively free of psychological symptoms. Unfortunately, the psychological crisis of our times is that a large proportion of us remain in the space of points 1 and 2 regarding most of these qualities. To seek therapy or another such process is a sign of health, an innate urge of the inner plant seeking light and nourishment, experiencing discontent with how things are in the world within and without.

Deep, sustained discontent is always the first step towards radical change. Momentary discontent, even if repeatedly experienced, usually finds quick solutions, and thus fails to bring light and catalysis to life. 

Growth is not easy. Apart from changing our ways, it always involves shedding off some of the chains that our environment has put on us. Else, we are merely adjusting to our chains, not growing.

The pace of growth

Every human being has a different starting point and a unique journey to become who they are meant to be. The pace of growth, therefore, is different for each one of us. 

There is a substantial proportion of the population that does not wish to come to therapy. This scale, therefore, is relevant only to that portion of human beings who do wish to engage with therapy, of their own initiative. 

Among them, one can see a continuum. A large number of them have experienced their early life in such a way that it has left wounds that make it extremely difficult for them, as compared to others, to stay with pain, and not suppress it. Hence, they find it much more difficult to find a moment of acceptance, catharsis and release of painful emotion that lies at the core of what it means for a human being to actually change the structure of their consciousness.   

Keeping this in mind, we can make some careful, tentative and necessarily imprecise statements about the pace of growth in therapy. 

Usually, therapy lasting less than six months does not make a deep change at the level of consciousness being addressed here. It may bring some immediate, practical changes, though, such as in the form of important insights that can make a person re-consider their choices in life, or tools that can help them manage difficult inner states to some degree. 

Short-term therapy, that is, six months to a year, should be able to bring most persons, though not all, to a stable space between numbers 2 and 3. It should also leave the person with the capacity to sustain that state and a capacity to grow slowly on one’s own, through insights one has reached about the self and through tools to practice. It can also offer them repeated glimpses of what a life in points 4 and 5 is like, through experiences of the qualities discussed above, during and after the therapy sessions. 

Long-term therapy, extending over several years, in my experience, can bring the majority of people among those who do seek therapy to a sustained space around point 3. Of these, many – perhaps half or more – can experience further growth, although the path would be much slower and with more obstacles for some than for others, given their early experiences in life and their basic psychological make-up. 

For a few, a deep interest in healing and in the contemplative life can be evoked in the heart, thus making the journey, with its varied sights that lie at different points on the scale, more valuable than the destination itself.

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A few points to conclude. 

The psyche is as fluid and polymorphous as water. Therefore, these quantifications are innately limited in their capacity to portray a human being, even if temporarily useful for a discussion meant to bring some precision to one’s understanding of oneself over time. 

Two, these qualities can be seen in individual human beings, but they are also characteristics of a relationship between two or more human or non-human beings. The relational space in itself can be understood deeply when seen as an alive, dynamic being – an ‘us’ that comes alive when two or more persons meet, an us that is permeated by or devoid of these qualities, and also observed on a scale, similarly. This applies to all relationships, including the therapy relationship and thus, can be an indicator of the quality of that relationship. 

If you find a relationship in your life closer to the second half of the scale, that is points 3 to 5, than your individual life, engage with more depth and time with that relationship. Your relational partner there is a guide on the journey of life.

If you find a relationship in your life further from those points than you, see if you are able to engage in a soft exploration of how things can improve in the relationship. If this is not possible, you may wish to reconsider how much time and depth you wish to offer there. If your commitment to those persons is profound and meaningful, yet the relationship is unhealthy, you may wish to cultivate some detachment to them while sustaining the relationship in its depths and care.

Finally, let us not forget that the above qualities are not prescriptions for what one should try to be. They are simply descriptions of the direction in which one changes when one practices being with painful emotions and sensations. Usually, holding these qualities as ideals, and striving to achieve them only makes one’s inner peace worse. It also requires certain emotional violence upon one’s very valid and valuable feelings of pain and sorrow. 

Having read all this, you may like to sit with a felt sense of the four qualities, how they feel in your life, what they mean to you and your relationships. Let them dip into your consciousness, and if you have any thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear from you.

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