What Exactly Is A 'Breakthrough' In Therapy?

Therapists explain what progress looks like in sessions and offer advice on how to get there.
Illustration: Yukai Du for HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Illustration: Yukai Du for HuffPost; Photos: Getty
Illustration: Yukai Du for HuffPost; Photos: Getty

If you scour the internet, it’s difficult to find a definitive explanation of what it means to have a “breakthrough” in therapy. Yet, despite not having a conclusive definition, breakthroughs are something clinicians and patients strive to achieve in sessions all the time.

In reality, breakthroughs in therapy are different for everyone. Understanding what a breakthrough looks like to you can help you notice if you’re progressing and the work, time and money you’re putting into therapy is actually paying off.

“Sometimes breakthroughs occur on a cognitive level like an ‘aha’ moment, and sometimes, they’re more visceral — like finally understanding something deep within you,” Bianca L. Rodriguez, a licensed psychotherapist, told HuffPost.

From a therapist’s point of view, a breakthrough is “when a patient finally realizes what we realized six months ago. It’s like a lightbulb going off,” said Kati Morton, a millennial mental health specialist and author of “Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.”

Though breakthroughs are often thought of as these huge, cinematic moments, both Rodriguez and Morton agree that they can be much more subtle — like adopting a new, healthy coping skill, or making a small step toward a goal you’ve been trying to achieve in therapy for months.

Furthermore, these “aha” moments tend to look different from person to person, and from session to session. Breakthroughs in therapy are, in the simplest of terms, small or large enlightening moments that mean you’re making progress.

“They always alter the way a person understands themselves and the world. It’s like something clicks, and you gain a deeper understanding of yourself that serves your growth and healing,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a shift in perception.”

“It’s like something clicks, and you gain a deeper understanding of yourself that serves your growth and healing.”

- Bianca L. Rodriguez, psychotherapist

Breakthroughs are a sign you’re growing thanks to your mental health sessions, but they’re not always the ultra-positive or heartwarming moments they’re portrayed to be in many TV shows.

“A realization can come in many forms. It could almost be a negative one,” Morton explained, adding that it’s not uncommon for breakthroughs to bring to light toxic behaviors, patterns and unhealthy relationships. Albeit uncomfortable, these “negative” breakthroughs often play an important role in the therapeutic process, and in your self-growth over time.

Despite the misconception that a breakthrough in therapy is a destination, it is less like a finish line and more akin to the first day of training for a triathlon.

Oftentimes, once you have that “aha” moment and identify a pattern or a change you want to make, the real therapeutic work toward a larger goal is just beginning.

“I have had several breakthrough moments in therapy [...] From that moment comes a surge of courage to work through it,” said Achea Redd, a mental health advocate, author and the founder of Real Girls F.A.R.T. (Fearless, Authentic, Rescuer, Trailblazer).

While it’s normal to plateau in therapy from time to time, there are things that can block you from having a breakthrough and from generally progressing in therapy.

According to Morton, defense mechanisms such as avoidance, not being truthful with your therapist and acting “overly logical” can keep you from moving forward in your sessions. In some cases, you simply may have the wrong therapist and should try seeking help elsewhere. Finding a mental health professional who validates or cheers you on when those small “aha” moments happen along the way is crucial to not losing motivation during your mental health journey.

DjelicS via Getty Images

When it comes down to it, patience and acceptance of your progress (and the normal setbacks) is key. All the tiny victories you have in therapy, the little heartaches, or seemingly small goals you reach can be breakthrough moments — whether or not you realize it at the time.

“I think being compassionate and empathetic with yourself in the process is so crucial to having a successful time in therapy,” Redd said. “Sometimes, you need to adjust your expectations away from what you think should happen, and celebrate the fact you are committed to seeing your transformation to the end.”

In truth, there’s no recipe to having a “breakthrough” in therapy. There’s no magic amount of hours you need spend in mental health sessions, correct words you can say, or step-by-step formula you need follow that will lead you to having one of these lightbulb moments. You — with the guidance of your therapist — get to decide what a breakthrough looks like to you, and that can empower you throughout your therapeutic process.

“You will have a breakthrough when the time is right,” Rodriguez said. “You can’t rush the healing process, and everything that comes before a breakthrough necessary to the process.”

You Should See Someone is a HuffPost Life series that will teach you everything you need to know about doing therapy. We’re giving you informative, no-B.S. stories on seeking mental health help: how to do it, what to expect, and why it matters. Because taking care of your mind is just as important as taking care of your body. Find all of our coverage here and share your stories on social with the hashtag #DoingTherapy.

Popular in the Community


HuffPost Shopping’s Best Finds