An important idea for CAT therapists is something called the Zone of Proximal Development – often shortened to ZPD. This is an idea which guides their thinking and practice. They may not use this term when talking with you. But they will pay close attention to aspects of you and your therapy relationship which give pointers to which zone you’re in at any one time.
So what does ZPD mean?
This term comes from the world of education. It means the difference between what a learner can do on their own without any help from a teacher, and what they can manage with help and guidance from someone with more knowledge or experience. In short, it means the zone where you are able to learn, grow and change, through your CAT therapy. Your therapist will try to help you move beyond your familiar ways of seeing things and doing things, but in a way that is supportive and manageable.
All therapies include a mixture of support and challenge. Too much support and no challenge can feel boring, but too little support and too much challenge can feel overwhelming. You and the therapist need to be monitoring this and the therapist should check in with you every so often and ask “is this OK? Does it feel like we are working well together?”.
So it’s not my comfort zone then?
Well, no. This is the area where you are getting mainly support. In fact, being in your comfort zone often means that you’re not actually learning, growing or changing that much. You are “where you’re already at”. You’re applying what you’ve learned about yourself and the world automatically, without needing to think about it.
In a talking therapy that doesn’t move beyond your comfort zone, this might translate to you feeling very supported and understood. This might be just what you need if you are in a particularly difficult stage of your life. Empathic understanding helps you build trust and feel safe. If you’ve had lots to deal with, but very little empathy and understanding in your life, this can feel really precious. For many, feeling understood and cared for by a therapist is essential to make you want to continue with therapy. Feeling calmer and more able to think straight can help you make small changes. However it’s often not enough to help you make big changes.
If you notice that you feel a bit bored, disengaged, or perhaps a bit frustrated by therapy, this might be a hint that you and your therapaist are too much in your comfort zone.
So what will help me make bigger changes?
In CAT your therapist is really trying to understand why you think and behave the way you do. They will be curious and ask questions when things are not clear to them. Some of this questioning can feel unusual at first.
CAT therapists want to collaborate with you as an equal party in the therapy relationship. You both come with your own knowledge and expertise. Therapy is about merging these, and working alongside each other.
Any changes in the future will depend on you doing things differently, after the therapist is not there. So you need to develop this ability to question your own reactions and ask yourself “why did I respond so strongly to that?”. This is part of what’s known as strengthening your “observing eye” in CAT.
In the zone where you can learn and change, CAT uses the idea that what you can do with guidance from a “more knowledgeable” other person today, you will be able to do on your own at a future point. Both the CAT tools, such as letters and the diagram, and whatever experience and knowledge the therapist brings, are resources for you to use in your learning. The aim is for you to develop different ways to understand yourself and cope differently.
So what sort of experience will the therapist bring?
In CAT another thing that the therapist brings is their own experience of you in the sessions. They will be noticing their own reactions to what you bring to therapy. They will keep an eye on whether the patterns you describe happening with yourself or with other people in your life might even be happening between the two of you. And at times they may raise that with you. Bringing up what might be happening between you is also an invitation for you to do the same.
This is what makes CAT a relational therapy. It includes a focus on the relationship between you and the therapist. At times, this might feel like a bit of a challenge.
How will challenge help me?
Well, in order to help you work towards change, a CAT approach requires a bit of challenge. Your therapist might point out to you times when you are behaving, or inviting them to respond to you, in a certain way, even though it’s hard to see it yourself. Of course, they may be wrong and won’t automatically assume they know what’s going on. But they will invite you to think about it with them.
Or, at the same time as showing you they understand your feelings or beliefs, they might also gently question your position, or offer an alternative way of seeing things. They might use their own experience of how it feels to be with you to invite you to think about it more. In this way they are also using themselves as a tool in your therapy.
What if challenge feels a bit much?
It’s not unusual in CAT therapy to hit points when you feel unsettled or even feel upset with your therapist. This might be because, despite their best efforts, they get something wrong. Maybe they don’t seem to understand an aspect of your experience that feels crucial to you. Perhaps they seemed to behave in a way that feels like people behaved towards you in the past. Or on the other hand, they may not have behaved in a way you expected and this leaves you feeling confused. In CAT any of these scenarios are know as a rupture.
While ruptures can be uncomfortable and unsettling for you both, they are valuable opportunities to think together about what happened, and the feelings that were stirred up. This is where the CAT tools like maps and letters are really valuable. They can help you both see how the rupture came about. By working this through together, you can find a different way to resolve the rupture, rather than just go down the same familiar path as usual – perhaps walking away, or blaming yourself, or becoming very angry at the other person.
This is also where change can happen. As long as the challenge is manageable, and you work through it together, you can find ways to repair a rupture. This can be a very important part of change. You’ll be very much in the zone of change and growth – in your ZPD.
But what if it feels TOO much? What if we can’t repair it?
Well, this is obviously not therapeutic and can be damaging. Your trust may be broken again, you may feel very hurt and let down, understandably so. Or you may leave therapy feeling even worse about yourself, blaming yourself for what went wrong. No CAT therapist would want this to be the outcome of therapy.
This is why your therapist will be thinking about your ZPD and trying to keep this in mind throughout your therapy. They will draw on their own supervision to help them do this. Their supervisor will be one of the tools that helps them do their job. Your therapist will also be checking with you regularly if therapy is helping you and how you feel about the working relationship. It is important that you tell them if you feel things are too intense or moving too fast.
What would tell me we’ve gone beyond my ZPD into something unmanageable and unhelpful?
Well, you’ll probably know it when you get there. The outer limits of your ZPD might be due to emotional, sensory or cognitive issues. Or circumstances in your environment may set a limit on what’s possible to change at the current time.
If you have just gone through a crisis in your life, such as a bereavement or the diagnosis of a serious illness, you will have less emotional energy and thinking space for therapy. Your therapist should go back to being much more supportive and less challenging for the next few sessions. If lots of stressful and unsettling events are happening in your life, now might not be the right time to do a therapy like CAT. Perhaps you could return to it when events are further behind you, and life is a bit more settled.
At certain times in your therapy, you may feel very distressed and distraught, and feel unable to talk about this with your therapist. Or you may feel so anxious or agitated in your session that you can’t concentrate or recall anything afterwards. When feeling very stressed or traumatised some people dissociate and cut off from feelings. These kinds of overwhelming emotions are more common if you have had trauma in your early relationships.
Sometimes very strong feelings come up without much warning to either you or your therapist. Hopefully if this happens, your therapist can help you to reduce your alarm, and come back to a level of emotional arousal that you can cope with.
The focus of the therapy may change to include learning ways to prevent or manage this in the future. However if a therapist is not sensitive to your needs here, and not helping you to manage such overwhelming emotions, then you may be outside of your ZPD in that session.
CAT therapists have training and supervision to help them stay sensitive and careful around these kinds of issues. However no therapist gets it perfectly right all the time.
Cognitive and sensory issues including neurodiversity
At other times in the therapy, you might feel confused and unable to make sense of what’s going on. You might have sensory issues, or cognitive or memory problems, that mean you struggle to process information or remember things. The pace of the sessions might feel too fast or demanding. Lots of written information, even words on a map, might feel too much if you have dyslexia or a learning disability. Pictures might work better for you. Or very open questioning with lots of choices or uncertainty might feel really difficult if you are on the autistic spectrum.
If you have particular needs like this, it’s okay to tell your therapist. They should be able to adapt therapy so that it works better for you.
Limits in your environment
You could be living in an unsafe area or in a domestic situation where you’re at risk of violence. In these situations there will be very real limits on what is safe for you to try to change. If your therapist is not keeping these considerations in mind you may feel that what’s being raised or expected in therapy is not relevant or reasonable.
Your environment may set limitations on what’s possible for you to try out as a change. Think of the lockdown period during the Coronavirus pandemic and the limits this set on us all. Or if you are living on a very low income you may have fewer options for self-care and other things than others who have more to spend.
So can I bring it up if I think therapy is going too far outside of my ZPD?
Yes, of course you can. In CAT being open about these sorts of issues helps you and your therapist work together and collaborate. Sometimes people find it difficult to raise important issues like these if they have not already been picked up or noticed by the therapist. You might worry that it will come over as a criticism and your therapist will feel bad. Or you might feel embarrassed or ashamed by naming something that is important but very private to you.
If you feel there are important practical or emotional considerations that your therapist is not understanding, let them know. Remember that a good therapist will be open and accepting about them.
When you and your therapist are working in your ZPD there will be a good enough balance between you feeling supported, understood and having the chance to express your feelings and opinions, and you feeling a bit uncomfortable as the therapist questions or disagrees with some of what you are saying. You and the therapist both have some responsibility for trying to make sure that the therapy stays in your ZPD. This may be different at different times. If something really difficult has just happened in your life, try to tell your therapist at the start of the session. Then they can take it into account.
Sometimes this struggle between the two of you, trying to get things right and make things work, valuing the relationship enough to really talk things through, is as important as anything else you might learn in therapy.
Thanks are extended to Glenys Parry for her helpful contributions to this page.