There’s a process you start to realise when you’ve been doing therapy for a while – either as a therapist or a client. After the initial meetings when you’re getting to know what the situation is and make a plan, you move into a slower phase of ‘doing the work’. Depending on what kind of therapy it is, this could be very directed or this could be a more organic process. For example, a process of looking at situations and considering how they are being interpreted – and what that says about how your client views the world and their relationships in the world.
Often, regardless of what kind of therapy is involved, you reach a plateau. A few sessions may pass where not very much happens at all, sessions may feel more like a ‘chat’. Maybe you’re just discussing what happened that week, and there aren’t any real breakthroughs. Maybe the same issues keep coming up time and time again. It can start to get a bit frustrating. As a client, you might question why you keep seeing someone who is just having a chat with you. You might start to wonder why things aren’t progressing – maybe my problems aren’t real? Or maybe they are SO BAD that therapy isn’t going to work? Maybe my therapist is bored of me? Sometimes you might bring this to therapy – feeling angry or sad about how you perceive things are going.
As a therapist, you might wonder if there’s something you’re not seeing in the relationship, or whether you need to try a different method. You might also feel frustrated – with your client, with yourself. You might question your methods, start to wonder if what you’re doing is helpful at all.
And then – sometimes with a conversation about the progress of therapy, or sometimes all on its own – the plateau will end, often with a major breakthrough. Emotion will run a little higher (or a lot higher), lightbulbs start going off and a step forward is taken.
I think about this a lot in my parenting – how plateaus fall right before a big step forward. My go-to bible when my babies were tiny was the wonderful book ‘The Wonder Weeks’ – which is not at all a book about parenting (yay!) but a book about understanding baby development. The premise – based on 35 years of studying infants and parents in their homes – is that babies go through a number of major developmental ‘leaps’ in the first twenty months of life. And, essentially, preceding that is a ‘fussy period’ – where the huge neurological changes which are a precursor to that leap are demonstrated beautifully in lots of clingy, cranky behaviour and sleepless nights.
For me, the book was brilliant as it explained why my baby might be laughing hysterically one minute and crying inconsolably the next. We learned to check for a leap whenever we recognised that I was starting to tear my hair out with wildly unpredictable behaviour. If anything, it let me know it wasn’t anything I was doing wrong, but rather a signal that life was about to change. And, on the other side of those leaps, was the pleasure of witnessing an amazing new skill – whether that was being able to pick something up, or learning how to walk.
Although the Wonder Weeks stops at 20 months, the authors do state that such fussy periods and leaps may continue more irregularly throughout childhood and the teenage years.
In our home, we’ve just been through the joys of starting school – a very clear life change which resulted in a period of crankiness (for the whole family!). The anticipation before starting and the stress of learning a whole host of new expectations resulted in a few weeks of – shall we say – very little impulse control. Which resulted in the now very cheerful and content school-goer I find myself with. Thankfully, although it still takes me a few days to realise, I now recognise those stormy periods and brace myself for their duration, knowing that they will end in a period of calm.
Often when we feel unsettled, we respond exactly as we did when we were newborns. We get cranky. Maybe we cry – or we stop ourselves from crying by drowning it in wine or numbing it with a box set. In our busy lives we don’t have much time to reflect, and it’s hard to know how to talk about a vague unsettled feeling. So it’s far too easy to stay in the plateau. But those feelings tell us that there is a potential to leap forward if we can just tune into it. To let the sun come in.