A Path to Personal Growth and Successful Therapy
What Makes Therapy Successful?
During a recent job interview, I was asked about what makes therapy successful. This topic sparked my interest, and I would like to share some insights that can help us get the most out of therapy and personal development. These insights are not content-specific; instead, they are valuable tools to help us navigate life’s challenges. They represent common traits that hold true regardless of the type of therapy or inner work we engage in. Over time, I have observed these traits in my clients, and they have become specific topics I address once the intensity of their symptoms subsides. I hope these learnings can serve as pivotal turning points for you, just as they have been in my own personal development.
The Three Pillars Of Change
I have come to refer to these traits as the three pillars of change:
To better explain these concepts, I will use the example of being stuck in traffic and running late to an important meeting, offering suggestions on how to practice each pillar.
Awareness is the first pillar. Our thoughts can easily become overwhelming. When I ask people what they were thinking or feeling during a stressful situation, many respond with elaborate stories that often involve generalisations about their entire being. Others say they feel blank, not knowing what they are thinking, which is usually a sign of being overwhelmed and numb.
Awareness involves observing what is happening and distinguishing the situation from our interpretation of it. We can either be aware that we are thinking or get caught up in the story. Our awareness can only focus on one thing at a time. For example, when we’re stuck in traffic, our minds can spiral into endless negative thoughts about others’ driving skills, the lack of better roads, why these situations always happen to us, and various other inward or outward stories. The first step is becoming aware: “This is the story I am telling myself now!” By recognizing the story, we break free from its grip. However, thinking is a strong habit that can quickly pull us back in. For those of us prone to overthinking, grounding ourselves through bodily sensations can be helpful.
Focusing on a sensation takes our attention away from the never-ending stream of thoughts. One effective practice is to check in with our posture, noticing how we are standing or sitting, the contact points between our body and the environment, and other related aspects. Another useful anchor is the breath, which becomes more accessible with practice. Both techniques have worked well for me, and over the years, I have developed various practices. I recommend trying different approaches to find what works best for you. Additionally, establishing a regular meditation practice is an excellent way to improve awareness. Setting random alarms or placing reminders around the house can also help us remember to check in. Continuous practice allows new neural pathways to develop in the brain, strengthening the role of the hippocampus in downregulating the alarm centre that is often overactivated in stressful situations. Over time, our bodies settle into a lower stress level, making it easier to shift our awareness away from our thoughts and fostering a positive cycle of personal development.
In this step, we acknowledge whatever is happening in the stressful situation, such as being stuck in traffic and accepting we are late for an important meeting. The inner critic may start lashing out with self-critical thoughts like, “How could you mess up this meeting by being late? Why didn’t you leave earlier? You’re going to ruin everything again!”
Thankfully, our regular awareness practice allows us to quickly recognize when the inner critic is triggered. To counter the flood of thoughts, we bring our attention to our hands and maybe notice how tight our grip is. This is the first step. We then take a deep breath and consciously relax our grip. The second step is acknowledging that we are stressed because we are late for the meeting and accepting the potential consequences.
The key is to change our response to the situation from one based on fear to one of love. We acknowledge the fear and welcome it as an alarm signal. For example, we might acknowledge that the traffic is unusual due to an accident. If we are busy parents, with children to take care of, arriving early may not have been an option. Even if arriving late was our fault, we acknowledge our mistake and take responsibility for it without judging ourselves as failures. Making mistakes is part of being human, and it’s an opportunity for learning. So instead of responding with self-criticism, we might say, “Hello, inner critic. I welcome you. I understand you are angry because we are late for the meeting. I will learn from this and change my behaviour in the future. Thank you for being the alarm signal that reminds me to learn.” By acknowledging our emotions and responding with kindness, we prevent them from transforming into aggression directed inward or outward. The key to this step is practicing kindness in our responses.
Integration is the third pillar of effective therapy. Here, we return to the principles of neuropsychology and the famous quote by Donald Hebb: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” To develop new habits, we need consistent practice. Each time we respond to ourselves with kindness, we strengthen our inner supporter. Each time we stay with discomfort a little longer, it becomes lighter. Sometimes, awareness of old habits arises quickly; other times, it takes longer. Regardless, we can choose to respond with kindness, slowly developing new habits that serve us in achieving our desires.
It’s important to remember that awareness alone is not sufficient to change a harmful habit; we need ongoing practice until the desired response becomes our default. The integration process involves a combination of old and new habits, and we respond with kindness to both. This change, over time, makes a significant difference. Personally, I used to get silly angry while driving, and still have moments when I catch myself aggressively honking at other drivers. However, these instances occur less frequently now, and honking has become a powerful practice that helps me connect and express gratitude. Sometimes, honking can be lifesaving, while other times, it serves as a precious reminder of what is alive inside me and offers liberation from misery.
The Formula For A Successful Therapy
In conclusion, regardless of the specific challenges we face, cultivating awareness, acknowledgment, and integration can serve as a transformative foundation for personal growth and successful therapy. Embracing these three pillars of change empowers individuals to navigate difficulties with compassion and fosters personal development.
Remember, when in doubt, choose love.
Main – Photo by Tyler Lastovich