“An unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
Have you ever truly taken inventory of your life? Have you looked at what is and isn’t working? Who presents challenges for you? Is it a co-worker, spouse, child, friend, or neighbor? Maybe it’s a pet! In considering what isn’t working, where is there room for improvement? As a father of two young children, in a dual-income household, the stress inherent in maintaining a healthy family is significant. As rewarding as it is, the moments of joy are sometimes clouded with stress and anxiety. With that, it’s easy to get caught up with uncomfortable thoughts, such as: Am I a good parent? How can I create more time to spend with family? How can I dedicate more time to work? Think about the endless number of questions running rampant through your mind, on a daily basis. Asking questions aloud can be very helpful, but it can be ever more effective when somebody is truly listening, with their undivided attention. Therapy is, at the very least, an hour for me to let my thoughts and feelings run wild, in the company of a close and trusted confidant. Do you have a place where you can think aloud, free from judgement or criticism, where your companion sees your side of the story and accepts you unequivocally for who you are, somebody who sees your inherent worth as a human being? A therapist who is doing her/his job well creates an environment where one feels comfortable enough to share the circumstances of their life that have created roadblocks.
In considering these barriers, a therapist can help figure out what you need to do to push through and relieve emotional distress. Therapists understand that people often seek therapy at different stages of change. Some individuals are better at addressing challenges head on, as they occur. Others do choose not to take action until circumstances have caused their life to come to a crashing halt. No matter the stage of change that you currently find yourself in, a therapist is always ready and willing to walk the path with you. Alan Watts wrote, “…the first step on the Path is to know what you want, not what you ought to want.” What do you want? What do you need in your life, to get what you want? A therapist can aid you in finding answers to these questions. A therapist can work with you to develop new, and strengthen existing, psychological tools available to you, to help overcome current and future challenges. Are you having trouble ridding yourself of the prevailing sadness that bears down on you, which interferes with every aspect of your life? Do you have a friend or neighbor that you are having trouble communicating with? Is your romantic partner or child driving you absolutely crazy? A therapist can help you make sense of your life. Do you feel hopeless? Do you feel that your life currently lacks meaning, but somewhere inside you believe that there is a purpose out there for you? Are you coping with the loss of a friend or loved one? Are you attempting to come to terms with having recently been laid-off? Are you fed up with the current state of things, and need somebody to serve as a target while you sound-off on this topic or that? A therapist can aid you in overcoming challenges tied to your relationships, or they may simply aid you in gaining clarity and peace of mind. Sometimes, for a moment, you may simply want to sit in silence, without a word. It’s true that the fifty-minute hour, as it is sometimes referred to, in the grand scheme of things is a very short period of time. But, that hour of your life finally belongs to you, and nobody else.
One might argue that there are as many different styles of therapy, as there are therapists. Regardless of the theoretical orientation—the set of tools that each therapist has to work with—each one brings a unique set of life experiences into the room. Ideally, at the most fundamental level, a therapist is warm and caring, and is able to create a strong sense of trust. In this safe-space, as the therapeutic environment is often referred to, an individual can evaluate what is and what isn’t working in their life. In other words, a person can explore the aspects of their life which are contributing to excessive feelings of distress, in order to make changes, so that one can choose to move forward in different ways. Think about the powerful impact that one simple event, one simple change has had on the course of your life. A small change here, in the present moment, can lead to massive changes later on down the road. Think of a ship at sea or a bird in flight; a change in course, of even one degree, can alter the entire trajectory of the journey over time. In our personal lives, the same idea is true. An individual might struggle with hesitation about whether to have a child, for example. Holding this person back might be the thought that they don’t know whether they would make a good parent, or that they don’t want their children to suffer the way they did as a child. Working-through thoughts like this, often called “limiting beliefs,” can lead to great rewards down the line. It might be the difference between a profound sense of loneliness and unending joy, for the remainder of their lives. The decision whether to switch careers might allow an individual to live out their remaining days with a profound sense of purpose, where no day feels like a “work” day. Taking action on carrying out the trip of a life time can alter one’s complete outlook on life, forever shifting their perspective on people from other walks of life. With these thoughts, a familiar phrase comes to mind: “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result.” What can you do differently to improve the quality of your life? Adopting this idea does not mean that you have to fundamentally change the person that you are, but rather to make small adjustments here and there, as a mechanic might do to improve the performance of an already high quality machine, still keeping the underlying framework in-tact.
Carl Rogers, a giant in the field of psychology known for his warmth and grace in working with his clients, stated this of his role in the therapy room, “I would like to go with him on the fearful journey into himself, in the buried fear, and hate, and love which he has never been able to let flow in him.” Rogers believed that the individual has innate potential waiting to be realized. He believed that the individual alone knows what is best for her/him. Are you concerned that a therapist might coerce you to think, feel, or behave in a certain way? Certainly, nobody can take your thoughts away from you. Nobody can coerce you to think this way or that. Each of us is unique, as are our fingerprints—no two are alike—replete with unique gene sequencing, unique life experience, unique perspective, a unique sense of purpose, a unique sense of spirituality and understanding about how and why we exist in the universe, and a unique vision of what our life course should be. Marcus Aurelius, the noble Roman ruler who truly understood the value of a great advisor, wrote, “Accustom yourself not to be disregarding of what someone else has to say: as far as possible enter into the mind of the speaker.” Therapists are trained in the art of listening, but beyond having simply been directed there by their training, therapists are people who are concerned with the overall well-being of other individuals. In many cases, therapists have chosen the field of psychology because they have overcome significant challenges in their own lives, and, for one reason or another, they believe in people, they see the inherent worth in each individual. Additionally, in their lives, they have often been placed in the role of caretaker. Much like a doctor or nurse, therapists are healers—healers of the mind. Therapist and individual, both, work as psychological detectives, seeking to unravel old patterns of behavior that no longer serve a purpose. Once, these means of operating may have been useful survival strategies, but now many of them just seem to get in the way. It is critical to replace these old patterns with new, more empowering beliefs and actions.
The guidance that a therapist has offered me, through the years, has been far too great to capture with words. A therapist has served as a fellow traveler on my journey, working with me at pivotal moments in my life to make major life decisions. During this period, some questions that came to mind were: am I capable of raising well-adjusted children? Would it be the right decision to make a major shift in career, choosing to attend graduate school—an intense two-year program which would place significant strain on my family and my sense of well-being? These are just two of many important life decisions, to go along with a number of crises I faced which my therapist guided me through. These are decisions that have forever altered the course of my life, for the better. Sometimes, at the very least, the therapy room is best served to allow an individual to simply vent or “burn-off” thoughts and feelings related to a particular day—a “crisis” at work, a child-rearing challenge, a spouse’s quirk that drives us nuts.
Whatever your challenge is, a therapist can help you make sense of your world. Therapy is not always easy, but we often must do the hard work, in order to grow. Remember, small shifts now, lead to massive changes, down the road. An influential person in my life once told me that therapists are “brokers of hope.” At the very least, a therapist carries the hope that things can and will get better in your life. Sometimes, a belief that things can improve is one small step toward achieving an overall state of well-being.