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How to Avoid Plateauing in the Quest for Personal Growth

Lessons from the therapy couch

Ryan Engelstad
Jul 20, 2017 · 7 min read

Think back to the last time you had a coach. Maybe you were on a high school sports team or learning a musical instrument. Think about the progress you made (or didn’t!). Did you practice the same thing day after day, or did you gradually develop various skills at once? Did you practice on your own, inspired by the skills you were learning? Or were you like me with the trumpet, knowing I should practice on my own, that practice would make me better, but letting my skills stagnate anyway?

Plateauing, or reaching a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress, is very common in therapy—and in goal setting in general. The less accountable or committed you are to your goal, the more likely you are to plateau. Having a coach makes you accountable to someone. Having a therapist who consistently reviews your goals helps make you accountable as well.

“If nothing changes, nothing changes. If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting. You want change, make some.” —Courtney C. Stevens

Even people in therapy can plateau, despite the best efforts of both patient and therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy, one of the more widely researched and empirically supported therapeutic approaches, is generally considered a short-term therapy, meaning results are expected within 10 to 20 sessions (three to six months). Despite this, patients can often end up in treatment for more months or even years. Often this is through no fault of their own, and it may even be the case that remaining in therapy does not mean the patient is not benefitting from treatment.

Nevertheless, getting stuck when you’re trying to change or improve something in your life can be one of the most frustrating experiences, and it causes many of us to give up on our goals.

There are many different prevention and interruption strategies we can use to deal with plateauing in our goals. Here are some that have been useful to my patients.

Clarify Your Goals

Often when people come into therapy, all they know is that they want to “get better” or “feel happier” or “fix their relationship.” These are fine goals, but they are far too broad to know if or when progress is being made. In session, I’ll ask my patients specific questions to help them drill down not only on what they want to improve but also how they will know if it is improving or not.

These questions are useful when the plateau is starting to set in and can help jump-start new approaches or behaviors:

  1. Imagine this wasn’t just a plateau, but the beginning of you failing to reach your goal. If we were to work backwards, where would you say you stopped making progress? (This premortem question is asked primarily at the start of work but can also be useful prior to or during a plateau.)
  2. How will you know you are ready to end or reduce the frequency of our interactions? What will be different?
  3. Is there a way to make your goal absurdly specific? For me, I have frequently wanted to “get better at basketball.” I have been better served by deciding “I want to develop a left-handed layup.” Similarly, dieting is much more likely to be successful when we choose to cut out something specific like soda rather than just having the goal to “eat healthier.”

Keep Introducing Changes, Even Small Ones

Often people plateau in their progress because they slip back into old routines or ways of thinking. There are a lot of reasons this happens, but if you think about how long we have had to settle into our behavior and thought patterns, we often set ourselves up with unrealistic expectations. We think and act the way we do because of years, even decades, of conditioning. Those patterns are not so easily changed by flimsy New Year’s resolutions or a couple of therapy sessions. That being said, there are ways to throw these patterns off and make change more accessible.

Here are some examples of small changes that have helped kick-start progress for my patients:

  1. If you’re trying to cut down on a negative behavior like smoking or biting your nails, use an app or a small notebook to track the number of times throughout the day that you commit the offending behavior. This helps make the automatic or unconscious behavior more conscious.
  2. Change your physical environment. This could mean rearranging your bedroom or your workspace. If you see something differently, you just might think and act differently, too.
  3. Practice tiny habits, or baby steps to restart the change process.

It’s a myth that you must have all these strategies in place on day one. And likewise, just because you have some success early doesn’t mean you should stop adding changes.

Practice Forgiveness

When I worked with patients struggling with drug addiction, it was very important that they not let a relapse (or recovery plateau) turn into ongoing drug use. Unfortunately, the guilt and shame of having a setback or making a mistake (like indulging in fast food while on a diet) often turns into people completely abandoning their diet instead of acknowledging that relapse (or plateauing) is often a part of recovery. When framed this way, you can acknowledge that you are technically right on track in your quest for personal growth and need only forgive yourself and return to working toward your goal.

Create Accountability

It is much more difficult to hold ourselves accountable than it is to be accountable to someone else, whether that be a therapist, coach, parent, or partner. This is also why having a sponsor is a main tenet of Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. If you know that you aren’t the only person who would be let down if you don’t achieve your goal, you are more likely to push through those early plateaus, and you would also have the encouragement to help you avoid it in the first place.

Accountability resources:

  1. I have used this resource as a client and as a coach and have found it to be very effective in helping people stick to their goals and preventing plateaus. [Editor’s note: I run, so take Ryan’s recommendation here as biased.]
  2. I have used this service as a client to help hold myself accountable to regularly posting to my blog in the past. The general way it works is you link your bank account and assign a referee (I used my mom). If you don’t meet your weekly commitment, your referee informs the website through email check-in, and then a predetermined amount of money is transferred to your Stickk account. You can choose to have this money moved into a separate bank account or sent to an “anti-charity”—a charity to which you would not want your money sent. This concept is known as “loss aversion” and has been shown to be a strong motivator.
  3. The personal route: This includes everything from getting a friend to be a gym buddy to finding a writing partner through a writers’ Facebook group to telling your family about a new project you’re working on, because you know they will ask you about it every time they see you.
  4. The social media route: Announce your goal and progress on your social network of choice. Knowing your goal has been announced to the world will make you more likely to stick to it—or it will make you delete that social network account to avoid the embarrassment of not following through, which will have its own benefits!

A Note About Working with a Coach/Therapist

One thing I cannot emphasize enough when working with a coach or therapist: If you are plateauing in your work with that person, don’t be afraid to question their approach or methods. Coaches and therapists may be experts, but it doesn’t make them (or me) perfect or infallible. Ask if they have any alternative approaches that they are willing to try with you. If it really isn’t working, you can even ask for a referral to another coach or therapist. You don’t owe your coach or therapist anything, and you deserve to work with someone who will help you continue progressing toward your goals.

In summary, even though plateauing is often a part of the behavior change process, it does not have to be, and using these methods can help keep you on track.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Ryan Engelstad

Written by

Therapist writing about mental health and behavior change. Check out my podcast, Pop Psych 101:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.