What is a “breakthrough” in therapy, and how can I achieve one?
If you’re considering therapy, know people who are in therapy, or are currently in therapy yourself, you’ve likely heard the term “breakthrough.”
It sounds great, right? You’re showing up consistently and doing the work, then one day … BOOM – the clouds part and you have an epiphany or gain a new insight that explains everything.
Do these moments really happen in therapy?
Yes, they do.
What is a breakthrough, exactly?
We think of a breakthrough as that moment in therapy when a client makes an important realization, has a shift in perspective, or thinks about something in a whole new way.
It’s an “aha” moment when a new insight causes them to gain a greater understanding of themselves and their behavior, or when they think, “Oh my god, I never thought about it that way.”
There’s nothing better than when a patient experiences a lightbulb going off moment that leads to greater growth and healing. Emotional breakthroughs are some of the most rewarding moments in therapy for both patient and therapist alike.
The heart of most emotional problems
At the heart of most emotional problems is something called the “triad,” three negative emotions that everybody hides from: anger, neediness, and sadness. These areas are where we often see breakthroughs occur.
Many people feel that anger is “bad” or “wrong,” neediness is weak, and sadness is not normal. So, they try to bury or hide those emotions, believing that they shouldn’t be experiencing them, convinced that if they are, it means they’re somehow defective.
These feelings are perfectly normal, though. Everyone has them.
The trouble comes when you’re hiding and pretending that these emotions aren’t present. That’s what’s known as “defending,” when you feel that an emotion or feeling is wrong, so you end up defending against it by displaying the opposite behavior.
Here’s what this “opposite” behavior might look like: you’re always taking care of other people’s needs, always trying to make sure everyone else is ok, when it’s really it’s you that needs something; you need some support, or assistance, or to be taken care of in some way.
Defending or denying behavior can be similar with sadness – often people think they should be strong and / or hide any kind of sadness; they believe sadness makes them ineffective and weak. These are the people who will smile and say, “Everything’s fine,” when it’s anything but and they’re miserable inside. They don’t want to feel the sadness, in case they crumble or break. The truth is, if you allow yourself to feel the sadness, that’s when it begins to dissipate.
Even if we’ve never been in therapy, most of us understand that suppressing emotions and denying our true feelings is bad for our mental health. While it might feel comfortable in the short term to try to avoid feeling anger, sadness, or neediness, in the long run, living in denial can cause anxiety, feelings of isolation, and even more sadness.
Breakthroughs that can occur in therapy
If I’m talking to someone using defending behavior around neediness, I might say something like, “It looks like you’re taking care of everybody else because you want to deny that you have any needs yourself.” They might respond by saying, “I don’t need anything,” because they believe that neediness is a weakness, when in reality it’s normal.
Another way to refer to this kind of behavior is “pathological altruism.” How can altruism be pathological, you might wonder? When people are helping other people to the point where they’re hurting themselves, it becomes pathological.
But when those who experience neediness as a character defect become comfortable and start to see the light, when they begin to understand that needing support is “normal” – it’s not just normal for everyone else, it’s normal for them, too! – that’s an emotional breakthrough in therapy.
Similarly with sadness, if someone denies feeling sad because they don’t want to appear weak, we can help them see that sadness is a normal human emotion that everyone feels, that releasing that sadness through crying, or talking to a friend or therapist is, in fact, healthy, and seeking help when sad makes them a positive role model for others. Understanding this is another kind of emotional breakthrough.
When people realize that it’s ok that their childhood wasn’t perfect – because nothing is, especially childhood, and likely no one else they know had a “perfect” childhood, either – that can be an emotional breakthrough.
Emotional breakthroughs in therapy aren’t one-size-fits-all; they vary from person to person. They can be large or small. They can feel like a huge, lightning bolt moment, or manifest as a smaller, quieter realization.
Sometimes an “aha” moment even precedes therapy – you start to notice an unhealthy pattern repeating itself, and you want to heal it.
However and whenever they appear, emotional breakthroughs are the evidence that you’re making progress.
If you’d like help in your quest for greater healing and happiness and want to experience some breakthrough moments of your own, here are a couple of resources to support you on your journey:
Listen to this podcast where I talk about dealing with emotions more constructively, especially those we often judge as “bad.”
If you’d like to set up a coaching appointment or get other one-on-one assistance, check out your options here.