Progress Isn’t Linear…Or Is It?

Progress isn’t linear. I’ve heard it said plenty of times in relation to therapy progress. It’s three words that can carry a lot of weight. It’s the thing you want to hear because you realize your therapy trajectory isn’t an anomaly. You want to know that you’re not alone in experiencing the downfalls and triumphs that therapy entails. The phrase “progress isn’t linear” can comfort you in those moments. It has a common humanity component to it whenever I see it said in the mental health community. The reminder I need that the shit-show I’m experiencing, is um “normal”?

There’s the flip-side to this phrase though. I think sometimes it’s the thing you hate to hear, because in an ideal world wouldn’t your progress be linear? Wouldn’t you go to therapy, acquire some skills, and voila be the person you want to be, living the life you’ve imagined? You know one of those people in a mental health advertisement, standing on the top of a mountain with their arms spread wide, looking like the most joyful person ever. There are moments when you’ll feel that joy, but I can say with certainty you aren’t going to stand on top of the mountain the whole time.

A positive therapy experience is incredibly rewarding. It’s helped me gain so much of my life back from the grasp of my mental health disorder. In the past few years, I’ve been able to do things that a previous version of myself never would have thought I was capable of. I’ve felt joy I didn’t know possible. I’m learning to live a value based life with a few sprinkles of self-compassion here and there (hopefully I’ll eventually douse myself with self-compassion). Initially I made a lot of progress when I started working with an OCD therapist. The further I got into therapy though, the more I began to find that big wins were often followed by self-proclaimed “losses”. I would have incredible moments where I felt things were clicking and I was winning things back from my OCD. I would be empowered by knocking out an exposure I didn’t think I’d be able to do. Somehow though, I always found myself feeling like something was off-kilter again. This feeling that I had messed something up because I couldn’t maintain the progress. That maybe I’m just not “good enough” at this whole therapy thing, or that I’m doing something wrong. I still find myself in this place from time to time three years into therapy. It has nothing to do with me doing something wrong though, or coming up short in some way.

Progress in therapy isn’t continuously linear, because by default it’s not supposed to be. Life can be messy and subsequently so can therapy. The expectation we may hold of ourselves to not falter in treatment or trip every now and then is unrealistic. For me the downfalls have stemmed from a variety of things. Sometimes it was unexpected triggers taking me out. Sometimes it was life stressors, or maybe I got stuck in a depressive phase. Sometimes I came upon an unexpected roadblock in therapy. The type of roadblock I wanted nothing to do with and it took me a whole lot of patience and time to work through. Sometimes I literally had no idea how the hell I ended up feeling “stuck” again. One thing’s for sure if you’re stuck and you hate yourself for being stuck, you’re just going to get more stuck.

It’s really challenging when you find yourself in in this mental space. The pain you feel in the downfalls, it’s hard to sit with, especially when you’ve felt the joy of the wins. You feel like the wheels are falling off, you’re exhausted from fighting that voice in your head, and the last thing you want to do is re-commit yourself to doing “the work”. But “the work”, that’s where the magic happens. When you can pull a therapy tool out you hadn’t used before, when you can say to yourself “you got this” when it’s the last thing you want to do, or when you reach out for help because you know you can’t do it alone. Or maybe it’s just that little bit of self-compassion you mustered up when you needed it the most that is most reflective of your progress. These things and so many more pull you out of the downfalls. While it may not seem it, these moments are powerful. Progress isn’t a word that comes to mind easily when you’re in the depths of your pain. You feel like you’ve gone backwards in time, and that you’ve reverted to a different version of yourself. You haven’t. You can never go back to “not knowing” you have a mental illness. That is one low you can never return to, the place of not knowing you have a treatable mental illness.

My perspective on progress has slowly changed over the years. I think the low points and perceived losses are just as much a part of the “progress” as anything. The empowering wins happen because of our resilience in these moments of pain. The work it takes to pick yourself up and push through whatever challenge you’re facing, it sets the stage for the big wins. Insights may come when things start clicking again. The next time you end up in that difficult place, you may find yourself making different choices and engaging in different behaviors. As long as there is some amount of change to what you’re doing, that’s progress. If there isn’t and if the cycle just keeps repeating and repeating, the progress comes in recognizing something needs to change. So while no one wants to experience the lows, I think the lows play quite an important role in that thing we call “progress”. By definition what is progress? It’s forward or onward movement toward a destination. In my mind I’m starting to recognize that downfalls and pitfalls of therapy are actually forward movement towards a final destination. It’s just when we’re in these moments it feels nothing like progress. The progress is there though. We do have OCD after all, so we should be pretty good at recognizing our feelings aren’t always facts.

I think when we say progress isn’t linear, we’re not giving ourselves enough credit for our progress. When we’re zoomed in to our current state in real-time we become hyper focused on the perceived drastic changes in progress. We see a mountainous win followed by a terrifying ravine of a loss. Progress feels far from linear in these moments. But what if you zoomed out really far, and you saw the big picture? There is the starting point of who you were when you started therapy, and from that place on there is a gradual line upwards. You don’t see the losses. You don’t see where you had to go down to move upwards. The moments where the climber has to take a step down to re-evaluate the route he wants to take to continue towards the top. Sure those dips and moments of struggle are there, but that’s not what you see. You see a line with a general trajectory going up. I think that’s the line we need to look at. So maybe it’s perspective. Maybe it’s how we look at things. Maybe you just need to remember to zoom out. I think the more you see the big picture, the less you see the dips or the downfalls. You may also start to appreciate them more. Remember to zoom out every now and then. You might be surprised at what you see.


(Artwork created for this blog by the wonderful OCD Doodles. Follow her on Instagram at @ocddoodles)