The five obstacles to healing – how long will therapy take?

In the course of my work as a Marriage & Family Therapist, it is very common for me to work with the different aspects of a family. Sometimes the dad who feels disconnected from his family, other times a couple that keeps having blowouts, sometimes the whole family struggling to adjust with new realities. Even though the dynamics and treatment methods of therapy can differ substantially between individual, couple, and family counseling, I have found five challenges to growth that are common to every level of treatment.

While the treatment may be geared to address specific behavior or relationship issues, the ability of the individual, couple, or family to navigate the five obstacles to healing often determines the effectiveness and length of time in therapy. Let’s take a look at each of these and learn how you could help expedite your therapeutic process.

Like an obstacle course, where you face a series of unfamiliar and awkward tasks, the five obstacles of healing can feel overwhelming and impossible in the beginning. With planning, training, preparation and a good coach, the course becomes less challenging as you become more adept and familiar with each challenge. It other words, it may take time to develop your new skills. Don’t expect perfection in your pursuit to glide through the obstacles. In fact, prepare to deal with frequent failure as you become more aware of how often you actually trip in the process.

The first, and biggest, obstacle is The Honesty Ladder. Essential to healing is honesty. This is not easy for many. Like a ladder, each step propels the climber higher and higher. With each step comes a better perspective over the area they survey. The higher up the ladder one travels, the greater the climber has the ability to understand the big picture of their life situations.

What does taking steps on the honesty ladder look like? Here are a few examples:

  • Acceptance of seriousness of the life situation and the need for help.
  • Admission that you play “some” part in the dysfunction in your life.
  • Disclosing secret activities.
  • Acknowledging a past trauma.
  • Expressing your thoughts, opinions, and feelings.

Some steps will be bigger than others, but each gets you closer to your goal of ending the reign of any phony or fearful parts of yourself; thus, the real you can run the show.

The second obstacle is The Wheel of Accountability. Once honesty can be achieved about any event or behavior, then it is possible to look back and “re-witness” the past and learn how you may have participated in a harmful pattern that damaged others and yourself. Accountability is accepting that you answer to something or someone other than just yourself. Accountability lends itself to responsibility, where personal ownership of our life situation demands that we mend and make right our relationships with others to the best of our ability, even if sacrifice and inconvenience is required. Like a spinning wheel-style obstacle in a course, if you don’t know how to get through the spinning circle then you just wind up stuck going round and round.

Some examples of Accountability growth:

  • Acknowledging harms of the past to those you damaged.
  • Making emotional restitution.
  • Attending support group regularly.
  • Completing therapy work.

What makes the second obstacle so critical to growth is its direct correlation to giving and receiving forgiveness. Forgiveness is rarely enjoyed in its full magnitude when accountability is absent, which jeopardizes complete healing. More on forgiveness later.

The third obstacle is The Boundaries Bounce House. One of the fun parts about being in a bounce house (at least so my kids tell me) is that when one person jumps and lands, it can knock the others around. I describe good personal boundaries as one of the three pillars of sanity. The purpose of boundaries is to set personal limits on the ways you will interact with things so that regardless of how you feel, you have an honest, appropriate and accountable response. Done correctly, boundaries serve as a barrier and minimize exposure to harmful interactions, while creating a container of beneficial interactions to be immersed within.

So back to our bounce house. This means that even though there is a big kid jumping around, if we keep our distance the threat is minimized. A simple example of boundaries would be establishing the rules of engagement a couple would follow when they have a conflict. For example, the couple agrees that arguing in front of the kids is not what they want, so they self impose a rule or expectation on themselves to avoid having the kids come into contact with the negative interaction. Or the addict who creates a self imposed expectation to end Monday Night Football with his old buddies. He is honest in that he admits that the environment is overly risky. He allows himself to feel accountable to his family, employer, and friends and connect with the potential damage that could come from joining his friends. He self regulates his behavior as he accepts the reality of his life situation. He finds other connections that are satisfying that don’t risk his sobriety.

The fourth obstacle is The Forgiveness Fortress. There are generally two layers of walls when it comes to breaking into forgiveness. The first wall is forgiving those who have wronged you. While I think that we all have the capacity to forgive without the luxuries of seeing and experiencing what is known as emotional restitution (where the victimizer admits responsibility for past wrongs, validates the feelings of the victim and attempts compensation,) the chances of gaining forgiveness from another goes up substantially when restitution is offered by the past offender. I don’t want to create the image that forgiveness is earned, and therefore an entitlement if the restitution effort was put in honestly. Forgiveness is the sole choice of the offended and it is possible to damage something so badly that it can’t be put back together in a recognizable form. Even when the offended party is able to offer forgiveness to their offender, the second wall requires that the offended party is able to forgive themselves.

Often the thicker of the two walls, self forgiveness can be a difficult process as both offender and offended wrestles with their own roles in the dysfunction of their relationships. One of the misnomers of forgiveness is that it means a complete reconciliation. This is not always the case, self forgiveness may require ending or recreating existing relationships. How do you get over the walls? There are no guarantees in the forgiveness process, but it helps to have a tall ladder (See obstacle 1).

The fifth obstacle is The Giant Wall of Acceptance. Change is hard, scary, intimidating, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Like a giant towering wall with a rope dangling down from 50 feet above, the task of getting over the wall can feel overwhelming. Some, raring to embrace change, may grab the rope and eagerly head up the wall only to experience a burning and eventual shut down of their climbing muscles. As the pace slows the weight of their body begins to take its toll and each inch becomes grueling. Just as weight and muscle strength set the pace of the climber, so the ability of the individual, couple, or family to smoothly integrate change into their lives plays a role in the pace of therapy.

Some examples of energy boosts that can be used to reduce the strain of change include:

  • Creating new shared visions and goals with others important to you.
  • Joining a spiritual community.
  • Finding a rhythm or pace in life that works well for your whole family.
  • Ongoing consistent self care.
  • Reflecting on the progress made.

Having the flexibility to accept, integrate and endure change greatly affects the rate of healing. But just like the wall obstacle, the climber eventually gets to the top and realizes that they now need to descend the wall to complete the obstacle. In healing, it can become easy to be caught up in battle of the climb and be off guard when its time to slow the pace and settle into a controlled fall, or settling into a “new normal”, while descending the wall to assure a smooth landing.

So when asking how long your therapy might take remember that growth isn’t a paved road, it’s an obstacle course. Agility and patience may serve you better than speed.

See you on the couch.