I’ve had better Mondays. After a disappointment came a cancellation, then another one. Sometimes people are just too busy to get better.
Rolling around a conversation from my own therapy that morning (it’s part of ethical practice to make sure we therapists sort out our own heads to avoid any possibility of us doing so through our clients) I was reflecting on a few seemingly disparate questions which later converge in my mind into one core theme. Do we feel an entitlement to happiness? What is it that causes us to constantly fall into the same emotional holes? Why do the same things hurt us over and over again?
In modern society we are encouraged to hold dearly the belief that anything is possible, but even further, that anything is our right. If I want it, I can have it, but that’s not really the case is it?
You’d think that having identified a hole in the ground would give us the required ability to walk around it rather than tumbling into it. We scan forwards and around with our adult eyes but, in an instant, find ourselves tumbling down into the deep earth staring up at a pinhole sky feeling the same inadequacy and frustration that we felt the last time we took the fall. Slowly we begin the painstaking business of clambering out berating ourselves for being so careless and full of assurance that it won’t happen again. Until the next time.
There are many opportunities to feel pain in our lives and they largely boil down to situations in which we believe we are not enough. Not smart enough, not loved enough, not worthy enough, not strong enough. Whenever we are exposed to the situations which might invoke this emotion the pain is as vibrant and resonant as it ever was, sometimes even more so as the years pass by.
So, we might have ever increasing expectations that life will go as we would wish it, but then we keep falling into the same holes which suggest that the world is not as straightforward as that, and then we start to ask ourselves why we can’t find happiness and keep faltering coming up with an obvious answer, it’s probably something wrong with us, we’re not enough.
The basis might lie in the past, way way back where it’s hard to see, back in our childhood selves. We might have learned that it’s better just to get on with it even when life is tough. We might have learned that strong emotions are not displayed but instead held tightly to our chests. We might have learned that the devil makes work for idle hands. We might have learned that sadness or stress or any emotional difficulty is weakness, and that weakness is a sin. We might have learned a good many things that have turned out to be unhelpful or just plain wrong.
It sometimes happens that people cancel their sessions with me because they are too busy. Too busy to recover? Perhaps what they are focused on is too important to leave alone, certainly more important than their own happiness and peace of mind clearly.
Sometimes people ask how much it costs to come and see me and, when I tell them, they go silent. Perhaps they have found another therapist better suited or cheaper or both, or perhaps they have decided that their recovery isn’t worth as much as it costs. Perhaps they just don’t believe sufficiently in the process.
People used to tell me all the time to put testimonials on my website and I have always declined. A testimonial from someone is contextually so personal that it is rendered of zero value to anyone else, but in addition I have no interest in persuading people that they might need help to get better. The very first step and arguably the most important one is to recognise that you need something, you might not know exactly what, but you know that help is required. It is this central conflict between wanting to be enough and feeling we are not which can prevent us from stepping in and pulling ourselves from the fire.
This is not to suggest that all therapy with all therapists is successful because it plainly isn’t, but it is true that many clients abandon the ship long before it has reached the port. Our expectation that improvement is needed and it must happen now combines with our continued predisposition to fall into the same holes and we figure that our therapy isn’t working. When we overlay that with the underlying belief that going to therapy in the first place is at best a bit self indulgent and at worst a huge sledgehammer to crack a tiny nut we don’t sail much further before we leap out into the lifeboats making urgently for the shore we only recently left. A combination of feeling something isn’t working fast enough and that we’re not worth it anyway is an intoxicating mix strong enough to pull us out of any chair or off any couch.
Therapeutic work can be very challenging because there is no prescriptive requirement as to what you must look at, talk about, examine. The client can control how far we both look together and can keep hidden what it feels too frightening to reveal. It is predictably in the painful and frightening revelations that change tends to happen most enduringly, but even then fast paced change is far from a certainty.
One of the most clearly frustrating aspects of any emotional therapy is that once a problem is brought into sharp relief the breaking it down, dismantling, correcting, adjusting, circumnavigating can be a process which frequently appears painfully difficult. Like a ball floating in a stream, bobbing gently, going nowhere but just agonisingly out of reach we are faced again with the contrast between the world as it is and the world as we would want it to be. To retrieve the ball might require sitting patiently until the wind changes direction and blows it toward us, and the alternative is to relinquish the need to get the ball back at all and instead turn attention to that which is reachable. Patience and acceptance are perhaps two of the most valuable tools we have in the box.
Sometimes a problem emerges into the room that at first sight looks to be impenetrable. Death and ageing are two such examples. What are we to do about either? To set about changing them is as pointless as holding the hands of a clock and expecting time to stand still. Similarly a realisation after sometimes many years that change is required is unlikely to be satisfied in an instant. It’s always possible to get better, but it’s rarely instantaneous.
Talking to my friend Martin yesterday our discussion turned to the topic of this blog. As a recovering alcoholic now over three years into his recovery he offered a pithy but accurate insight into why it might take us time to make changes. “It takes practice to fuck up” he told me. Yes, yes it does, it is rarely the case that we wake up one morning and find that the world has fallen apart, we have to work hard to make it fall apart through our strong held negative beliefs, through our systematic self abandonment and destruction, through our refusal to acknowledge what is good in preference for a focus on all that isn’t. To stay in one depleted state for months and years takes great skill and practice because as human beings we are constantly changing so to stall the change in favour of remaining solidly less than we are takes effort. What is true for the physical is true for the emotional.
When I was a small boy I used to love to sit with my father watching TV. I would hold his hand and run my finger idly along the rough skin of his index finger. It was soothing and comforting. A short while after he died I realised that I had scratched a similar patch on my own index finger presumably so that I could feel the comfort and connection I had lost. It took me consistent effort to create that assimilation of my lost father and now I have a scar there which I sometimes find myself rubbing. If I wanted the skin to heal I would need more than a couple of days because I have created something lasting and substantial and we do the same to ourselves emotionally. But having created the emotional mark, wound, scar we can have an expectation that it should improve instantly otherwise whatever we are doing must be failing.
Whatever you do in life you might have to give yourself a chance to get the result you desire. It might take money, it might take time and it might take both but most of all it will take faith. It might well take faith in someone else but it will definitely take faith in yourself. Whatever you do don’t undervalue yourself and convince yourself that everything is important apart from you.
Every day there are reminders of the fragility of life. Earlier this week Australian cricketer Phillip Hughes died after being hit by a ball. The impact of such a tragic event is far wider than simply the loss of a young life not yet in full bloom. There is nothing that he can do anymore but for everyone left, however deep the grief and pain, hope endures, always. Never snuff it out.