The road to therapeutic change: Rome wasn’t built in a day


Wouldn’t it be nice if change always happened quickly; if Rome really could be built in a day? Imagine snapping your fingers and suddenly all your worries and problems are gone. Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a fast-forward button, and therapeutic change is no exception. Accepting that transformation can often be a slow process rather than a quick fix is a fundamental aspect of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).

REBT, pioneered by Albert Ellis, challenges the idea that we should always feel comfortable and happy (‘Life must be easy’ being one of the big ‘musts’ REBT challenges us to reject). It recognises the inevitability of discomfort and advocates for accepting this fact to foster lasting change. In the realm of therapeutic progress, one of the key REBT concepts is embracing the reality that change is often a gradual process that can require effort.

Of course, for some, insights and change happen quickly, but not for everyone. And sometimes, the change we want to achieve means having less of something in our life, if we know it’s not doing us good. But, at least at the beginning, less food, fewer cigarettes, no drama, can all seem a bit like hard work. Challenging in fact.

REBT tackles our irrational beliefs about change

These challenges, and the irrational beliefs we hold about them, can provoke discomfort. In REBT terms, people often experience Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT) to the discomfort of change. LFT is the belief that we cannot stand being uncomfortable, and that it is unbearable to not get what we insist on or demand. LFT can often lead us to avoiding the hard work and going back to the (temporarily satisfying or familiar) old behaviours.

In our culture obsessed with instant gratification, the notion of slow therapeutic change might seem counterintuitive. We’re used to seeking immediate relief, like reaching for our smartphones to Google the answer to any question. However, the mind, much like Rome, needs time to evolve and construct a new foundation.

Acceptance and tolerance are key

Acceptance, a cornerstone of REBT, involves recognizing that change might not be as swift or easy as we hoped. It requires acknowledging that there will be moments when progress feels sluggish, and that’s perfectly okay. Imagine trying to build a cathedral; the foundation work takes time, yet is absolutely vital for the towering success that follows.

Instead of the Low Frustration Tolerance, REBT encourages us to practice High Frustration Tolerance (HFT). This is the healthy, rational belief that we are perfectly capable of tolerating discomfort and frustration, and it is in our interest to do so. All of us will have experienced discomfort and frustration in our lives, yet here we are, still alive and desirous of change. If we have tolerated discomfort before, we can do so now.

REBT and the power of small, consistent change

Therapeutic change isn’t always about grand gestures or dramatic breakthroughs. It’s about the small, consistent steps we take every day. It’s about the quiet moments of self-reflection, the subtle shifts in perspective, and the everyday routines that lay the groundwork for lasting transformation. Sometimes, the most profound changes occur when we accept that we’re just going to have to sit there and tolerate the discomfort of not having the thing that we simultaneously want, but know we would be better off without.

Imagine a garden; you can’t force the flowers to bloom faster by tugging at their petals. They need time, sunlight, and nourishment. Similarly, therapeutic change requires patience, self-compassion, and the understanding that growth may not be visible every day.

But sometimes, therapeutic change comes quickly

As with all things REBT, flexibility is key. So far, we’ve talked about the art of gradual, progressive movement towards our goals. But it isn’t always that way. Sometimes, change can be swift, depending on how ready you are to make the change, and how much discomfort you are prepared to tolerate.

Therapists will often ask a client, ‘How quickly do you want to achieve emotional insight? Quickly, moderately fast or slowly?’ And secondly, ‘How much discomfort are you prepared to put up with? Intense, moderate, little, or no discomfort?’ Unsurprisingly, a common answer is quickly, and with no discomfort.

But how realistic does that sound? It sounds a bit like Albert Ellis’ ‘Life must be easy’ demand, doesn’t it? In reality, for some it really might happen like that: insight and change are just around the corner, waiting to be revealed. And for some, they come quickly but through hard work and the tolerating of a lot of discomfort (imagine an arachnophobe going straight to a ‘meet the spiders’ day at a zoo).

For most of us, however, progress is between slow and moderate, as we acclimatise ourselves to our new chosen realities and habits. We gradually tolerate and diminish the discomfort that change can bring by acknowledging and sitting with it.

All roads lead to…

So, the next time you find yourself frustrated with the seemingly slow pace of change, remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took meticulous planning, dedication, and the acceptance that some days would be more about laying bricks than putting up statues. Therapeutic progress can be slow, frustrating and challenging. But if you really want to achieve the goals you have identified and have been working towards, it’s absolutely worth it. Have you seen how beautiful Rome is?

Nick Jones
REBT/CBT therapist

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