Often, in therapy, it can feel like you’re taking one step forward and one or more steps back. There will be days when you feel like you’re headed in the right direction and others when you feel like you’re back to square one. When progress is slower or less consistent than you’d like, the challenge is not to get stuck in demoralization and hopelessness. Even if you’re not in therapy, this experience of feeling right back where you started is common. I’ve often reflected on the past and wondered why I did or said some of the things I did or said when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I figure I’m wiser, and my brain has finally matured. I’d never do or say those things now, right? Well, sometimes, but not always! I sometimes see myself doing things I know are ineffective, and when this happens, I wonder why. I mean, I certainly know better, don’t I? I think I do, actually. One way to avoid getting stuck in the experience that you’re back at square one is to recognize that you can’t possibly be back at square one. Throughout therapy, you learn new things about yourself, other people, and how to cope and manage stress, emotions, troubling thoughts, and so on. You might develop new insights about your past or about where you would like to head in the future. The things you learn don’t simply vanish; thus, you can’t actually return to where you were before. You are, quite literally, a different person than you were when you started. Biologically, we know this to be the case. Our organs, tissues, and even our brains are constantly in a state of change. Moreover, the things we learn at one point are still in there somewhere. Some of the latest research on exposure therapy (a powerful treatment for anxiety-related problems, such as phobias, trauma, and OCD) suggests that the things you learned in the past don’t go away. The bad news here is that, if you learned to be afraid of certain things (dogs, spiders, heights, etc.), that learning doesn’t go away. You might always have the potential to be afraid of these things again. Through therapy, however, you learn new things, such as the fact that people or things you used to be afraid of are not actually as dangerous as you once thought. The good news is that, just like the old learning (that these things are dangerous), the new things you learn that help you overcome your fears don’t simply vanish (see Craske et al., 2014, for an excellent summary of this, related to the topic of exposure therapy). When you learn new things in therapy, new connections in your brain become stronger. There’s even some preliminary evidence that DBT might lead to important changes in brain regions related to the effective regulation of emotions (Goodman et al., 2014). So, whenever you feel like you’re back to square one, remind yourself that this is impossible. Imagine that you’ve moved forward on the path, and the path keeps disappearing behind you. You can’t go backward, and you can’t stay where you are for long. When you experience a setback, try your best to accept this as a normal part of the recovery process. Avoid judging yourself, remind yourself that you’ve learned and changed, and do your best to keep moving forward. ~Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.