What Does Having a Breakthrough in Therapy Mean?

Explore the meaning of a breakthrough in therapy with guidance from an Inkblot Therapy practitioner.

When it comes to the portrayal of therapy in the media and pop culture, one of the most common tropes we see is the concept of a "breakthrough." But what does having a breakthrough actually mean?

In this article, we connect with a practitioner from the Inkblot Therapy network to explore the concept of achieving a breakthrough in therapy. Through this discussion, we'll break down the true meaning behind the term and provide expert tips for tracking your progress with a licensed therapist.

What is a breakthrough in therapy?

The term breakthrough is used in therapy circles to illustrate the concept of a patient coming to a sudden or abrupt realization that will help them on their path to healing. Examples of breakthroughs in therapy may include finally discovering the root of addictive behaviours, uncovering a traumatic childhood memory, or releasing a fear that had been holding a patient back in life.

While a breakthrough in therapy may feel like the end goal, it's essential to understand that there are many layers to a mental health journey, and not all can or will end in what's popularized as a "breakthrough." Working with a therapist can be an effective tool for coping with mental health concerns or helping unconscious psychological issues come to the surface. Seeing the results of your hard work will take time.

Danny Seto, a Registered Psychotherapist and Registered Marriage and Family therapist on the Inkblot platform, believes dramatic breakthroughs in therapy are rare but not impossible. "A breakthrough isn't a myth, and it can happen for some people, but for most people, it wouldn't happen like that," he says. "There would be multiple steps leading up to it."

How to identify and track progress in therapy

Seto says that while he doesn't use the term breakthrough with his clients, he can see how it might be helpful when describing a moment of clarity gained during a therapy session. "I think the term 'breakthrough' does have some value. When I think of the word, I think of having an 'aha moment.' Sometimes, people think that when they've experienced an 'aha moment' or a lightbulb moment, a miracle has happened. Usually, it doesn't happen like that, though. It's more of a slow, steady progression," he says.

Subtle changes

While Seto tends to believe that the concept of a breakthrough could be accurate in some cases, he cautions it may also imply that to see any progress in therapy, people need to experience dramatic, earth-shattering changes in their lives in a relatively short period of time. However, he notes that this kind of thinking can be counterproductive — in reality, it’s the subtle shifts that can potentially leave a lasting impact on a patient’s life for years to come.

“A breakthrough doesn’t necessarily have to mean that something is happening on a big scale,” Seto says. “The person could just be looking out the window more often, and that’s a breakthrough for them. For other people, having a breakthrough could mean they conquered their fear of getting on a plane or reducing fear of heights. It really depends on the situation.”

Positive changes

Other common examples of a breakthrough could be realizing that someone in your life is having a negative impact on your mindset and behaviours, and from that place of newfound clarity, making the decision to distance yourself from that person. Or, it could even be as simple as finding the courage to express difficult emotions like anger, pain and sadness.

At its core, a breakthrough could take the form of any positive change that feels significant to you — no matter how small or inconsequential it may seem to others. It doesn't have to be earth-shattering to make an improved impact on your state of being.

Therapy tactics and techniques that support growth

Seto employs a variety of tactics and techniques to help his clients benefit the most from each session. Operating on a brief therapy model, he helps his clients set specific goals to achieve from the beginning and rarely sees the same person beyond a year of working together. He also notes that some of the most effective methods for achieving a breakthrough could include roleplay, exposure therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and more.

"I'm very much an eclectic therapist, so I use different modalities depending on the person," Seto says. "For example, if I'm working with someone with a phobia, my number one choice is always exposure therapy, which means imagining the fear — or talking about it through role-play scenarios."

However, for someone living with depression, Seto notes his number one go-to technique would be cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)BT, which helps the patient unravel negative thought patterns and instead replace them with constructive inner dialogue. Note that Seto's approach is one example. Each practitioner may offer a variety of techniques and recommendations for their clients.

Apply your learnings outside of therapy sessions

No matter the modality he’s working with, Seto always recommends tracking progress and doing the work outside of each weekly session. He notes that a common misconception about therapy is that therapists exist to “fix us” or do the work for us. Instead, therapy is a tool that can point us in the right direction, but it ultimately can’t make the changes for us. “Some people come to therapy and expect us to ‘fix’ the issue, which ethically we can’t do. Our job is not to ‘fix’ people; it’s not within our scope of practice,” he says. “We’re here to empower people to make their own decisions, so they can use what they’ve learned to help themselves.”

Inkblot Therapy can help you find a therapist that suits your specific needs

Remember that therapeutic techniques will vary depending on your specific needs and the practitioner you choose to work with. Inkblot Therapy makes connecting with a practitioner simple using our unique matching system. We'll direct you to a provider selection page where matches will be ranked based on effectiveness and your individual needs by answering a series of questions related to your symptoms, stressors, language, religion and more.

Inkblot Therapy

Danny Seto