January 16, 2023

Why You Don’t Think You Are Making Progress In Therapy

Goals. We all have them. Things we want for ourselves and hope to achieve: better health, more movement, and long-term relationships. Part of my work as a therapist is helping my client identify what they want to achieve and making it happen. One of the first questions I ask a new client is, "What do you want to see for yourself?”

Along the way, many get stuck. This is normal and part of the process. We're human; progress takes time, especially when changing long-held patterns, thoughts, and beliefs. But interestingly, it is not that progress is not happening. Change occurs in small, slow ways–small wins, small victories, and changes here and there. The issue is that many do not see this as progress. We often quickly dismiss the little wins or do not acknowledge them at all. Frequently, they will get a response such as, "who cares if I went on a short jog? My goal is to run a marathon." Or another, "I should have been doing that all along."

Therein lies the problem: small momentum is happening, but we are so focused on the big goals that they cannot see it. They do not recognize how these small steps will equal big results. People are so hard on themselves that they believe little wins do not deserve acknowledgment. This can be huge for perfectionists or people with all-or-nothing expectations. They either do it all 100% perfectly or not at all. But for many, it can be the nothing-at-all that ends up happening.

The problem with this mindset is that progress is happening. It is just slow and non-linear. Rarely does progress keep going and going without setbacks or challenges. If you've always had social anxiety, going to a party and starting a conversation with a stranger will take time. There will be hard days and stumbles along the way. This is why the little wins matter. They demonstrate that change is happening, even if it is slow. Okay, so the goal is to run a marathon, and you only went for a short jog? It's a step towards that marathon.

When We See Little Wins, It Boosts Our Brains

When we see the little wins, it gives our brains a boost that says, "See? Progress is happening here!". And our brains LOVE positive reinforcement. Remember those star charts your teachers in elementary school had? They felt good because your brain saw a visual representation of your success. Goals can be daunting, so our minds need to see change, no matter how small. If our minds do not see it, motivation and optimism cannot build. It's as if our brains say, "You want to run a marathon? I need to see results if you want me to show up.”

Dismissing small victories also occurs in our relationships. When couples hit a hard time, they often create a negative story about their partner. “They never listen.” “I'm always the one cleaning up.” “All they care about is work.” People can get so fixed on that negative story that they fail to see the times when their partner is making an effort and trying. Our brain will start to look for proof of that negative story instead of noticing the little improvements that may be occurring.

How Do We See the Little Wins?

First, know yourself and your self-talk.

Are you tough on yourself? Are you a perfectionist? Do you have all-or-nothing expectations? If so, chances are you need to see the little wins. Try being more gentle with yourself. It is proven that perfectionism blocks creativity and productivity. Nobody can be 100% every day. Accept the days when you can only give 60% or even lower. If you try to deliver more, you will likely burn out and go back to 0%.

Pay Attention to Small Changes

Keep your mind focused on any movement toward progress, even if it feels small. Ask yourself, is it something? Did it take some effort or discomfort? Is it the beginning steps of a goal? A short jog may not seem like much if you plan to run the New York City marathon, but it's something. It's more movement than you had before.

Keep Going and Celebrate!

Remember, you are not letting yourself off the hook by doing this. Validating the small victories is not saying, "Yep! I'm done. No more work to do!" You still need to push yourself gently. You did a short jog, so what's next? Add on a few more minutes. When you do that, celebrate! Say, “woohoo!” Or “Yes, I did it!”. Play "We Are The Champions" by Queen. Something that signals to your brain, we did something good here.

Final Thoughts

There is a saying by Lao Tzu, "every journey begins with a single step." There will be many steps along the way. Each needs to be seen and recognized. The little wins matter because they ultimately add up to big victories.

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