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The Dualities of Life and the Therapist / Client Experience

Self-disclosure moment:

Being a therapist, I witness—often hourly—the constant duality of our human experiences.  As a privileged observer into the lives of others, I see our best and most challenging traits exposed: our humility and our arrogance; our self-critic and our self-promoter; our need for attachment and our need for individuation; our cravings and desires to be validated by others versus our self-reliant, go-it-alone attitudes.

Part of the process of therapy is exploring our conditioned [often negative] ways of thinking and our habitual thought processes, and then working hard to replace them with more responsive and thoughtful new patterns—creating a more self-enhancing narrative. Often, we explore the strangeness of accepting our difficult feelings in an effort to bring them to the surface and intentionally process and express them, so that we may let them go; and yet, we also talk about the importance of detaching from so many of our instinctive emotions and reminding ourselves that “even though I feel something, it doesn’t necessarily make it true”—this is called Emotional Reasoning.  We explore our unique coping mechanisms and our ingrained behavioral strategies that have helped us to survive up to this point in our lives, and then we turn around and discuss behavioral modifications that will help us to shed our outdated defense strategies and implement new behavioral responses to boost self-esteem and to build steps toward success and self-confidence. The list of dualities can go on and on….

For me, the ultimate duality as a therapist is being privileged enough to play the role of psychotherapist, counselor, educator, life-coach, (or, my personal favorite—”Shrink”); and, in return, having my clients move me in such profound ways.  If I am open, present and mindful, I am educated daily on so many new perspectives in life; I am taught by my participants about novel and unique ways of coping and dealing with our challenges and struggles; and, I am reminded always how I too can be a more well-rounded, flexible, healthier person—both personally and professionally. How fortunate am I?

Moreover, I am consistently intrigued how I/we can be transformed through the power of our relationships. We can be accepting and welcoming of others and their opinions, and influenced by them; or, we can be closed-off to their insights and to their experiences, learning nothing new.  In my line of work, it is the unique duality of the client/therapist relationship that can be magical.  My clients have opportunities to be heard, understood, and accepted unconditionally. If they are open to me and to new ideas, they may learn new strategies and solutions. More importantly, they may learn how to see themselves with more forgiving and loving eyes, so that they can begin a personal and relational transformation to achieve their goals and to live a more relaxed, untroubled, and accepting existence. And, if I can do my job and enmesh myself into their worlds—losing myself, listening well and absorbing their perspectives, I find that I have at my disposal a treasure chest of new knowledge and reminders of how connected we all are through our universal struggles and humanness. This relationship (like all relationships) can produce feelings of heavy-heartedness and distress. It can also produce wondrous feelings of connectedness, gratitude, satisfaction and opportunities for me to step outside myself for awhile and to feel the warmth of the universal “oneness.” We are unique yet bonded through or human challenges and triumphs. This is the duality of the client/therapist partnership.

Ironically, it is the unconditional acceptance of our human duality that can be the most liberating of all, as we are reminded that we really do have the freedom to choose. We can resist change and stay stuck, or we can embrace it and challenge ourselves to be more humble, accepting, grateful and curious beings—overjoyed by our ever-changing experiences. We must understand that we have a conscious choice [once we learn to disconnect from our instinctive, habitual, reptilian brains], as to how we navigate around our human dualities.

Each day, each month, every year, we may be overwhelmed, confused, defeated and judgmental of and by our humanness and by our experiences. We will be frustrated that we have both a self-critic and self-promoter living within; annoyed that we must both connect and “feel” our difficult emotions in order to finally detach from them and to let them flow freely through us; and, exhausted that we must modify our outdated behaviors that have protected us in the past, yet now weight us down in the present. But, I encourage myself and everyone to continue to see the duality of our relationships and of our humanness not as an overwhelming task or cruel joke from the universe or a Supreme-Being, but rather as a gift. We are the only living species that has a choice between being tied to our limited bodies and conditioned brains or transcending our physical and psychological limitations. It is through our conscious, mindful and effort-filled curiosity that we will see our personal and relational responsibilities to both identify and accept our internal “stuckness” and relationally-closed habits. Once aware and accepted, we will be on the path to setting ourselves and others free through our shared connectedness and a personal commitment to evolve beyond the habitual and conditioned brain. How fortunate are we to have opportunities to navigate through such choices?

Be well~

Ryan

Future-Tripping

I often have to slow down and ask myself: “What’s the rush?” “Why am I so eager to get somewhere else?” “What’s pushing me to want to escape?” An objective outsider might suggest that my life appears to be on the right track; but for me, I’m riddled with thoughts about what I “should” or “could” be doing differently and better. Do you have similar types of thoughts or images?

Slowing down and asking ourselves these types of questions, can help us to respect and to observe more closely our present situations, while gaining a better understanding of why we often think and live in the future. Our efforts to be somewhere else, to be someone different, to have a different experience, can be fantasies or efforts to avoid our authentic experiences—especially in reaction to a difficult or traumatic present-day event. But, more often, escapism, future-tripping or fantasizing about being “anywhere but here” is a habitual form of thinking. After-all, our evolution has been determined by how well we predict future threats, so these habits of thoughts are deeply embedded into our neurocircuitry. Ironically, our habitual need to look to the future no longer helps keep us “safe” in the 21st Century. Instead, (and, as we suggest to ourselves that our present-day experiences are “not good enough”) we are often plagued with guilt, frustration, stress, impatience—more anxiety and depression, less safety.

It can be helpful to remind ourselves that our “old brain” is at work when we are daydreaming of being somewhere or someone else. [Old brain refers to instinctive or conditioned ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.  In other words, “outdated” survival techniques.]  Reminding ourselves that our present-day survival is no longer based on how well that we can predict future threats can help to pull us back to the reality of the day and reduce our overarching stress. We must also suggest to ourselves that opportunities for becoming a happier, healthier, less anxious, more centered and balanced species is determined by how successful we are at staying grounded in this very moment. When we let the past remain in the past, and we let the future remain a mystery, we often become more settled and at ease. I no longer have to feel remorse for “missed opportunities” or frightened by the mountains ahead that I “might” have to climb.

I can relax into the day and be calmed by the idea that all I really can and have to do today is stay focused on the present moment. Only then can I actually see with clarity who I am, where I am, and what I might want to explore in the future anyway. And, I just might get to feel and experience the safely and security that already exists in this very moment.

Be well~

Ryan

Self-criticism (self-evaluation) and anxiety can serve a useful and productive purpose too!

This morning’s session was a great reminder to me about good anxiety versus bad anxiety and productive self-criticism versus destructive self-criticism.  Many of us might automatically suggest that “good” and “productive” have no place next to words like anxiety and self-criticism.  For the most part it doesn’t feel good to be “anxious” and the term “self-criticism” is usually associated with someone having poor self-worth or struggling with self-esteem issues.

Unhealthy or extreme self-criticism—if left unattended—can limit you from interviewing for jobs that you are well-qualified for, can discourage you from going on dates, and can lead to depression and dysfunctional belief systems.  If you’re constantly telling yourself that you aren’t good enough, you’ll eventually believe it and manifest that negative self-image into everything you do.  Dysfunctional belief systems can take hold and statements such as, “plan for the worst in all things and hope for the best—if you’re lucky,” can begin to dictate your life.  This belief system, recognized or not, draws us toward the worst in all things…(but, that’s for another blog posting).  And, we all know that chronic or acute anxiety can be paralyzing and create social isolation, severe emotional distress, and can eventually lead to physical health problems such as high blood-pressure, migraine headaches, chest pain, and much worse.

But, I want to focus on the useful types of anxiety and self-criticism today.  My first meeting—with a very insightful and magnanimous client—focused on differentiating between good and bad anxiety and productive and unproductive self-criticism with the focus being more on the usefulness of both the conventionally termed “negative” traits.

We’ve all been in situations when self-criticism (let’s use self-evaluation instead) can help us to take a closer look at our behaviors and question what was behind our intentions when we’ve reacted unfavorably to someone when we felt stuck in an anxiety-provoking situation.  For example, have you ever been at a dinner party and someone asked you what you did for a living and instinctively you wanted to or you responded with, “Why is that always the first question at a dinner event?”  Or, the person sitting across from you asked about your relationship status and you sarcastically responded with, “I’m single and I’ll always be single, why?”  No matter how frustrated we were by the questions [we may have felt that they were predictable ice-breakers, shallow attempts to connect, or questions that should be off limits—and they just might have been], the reality of the situation is that our reactions and responses most likely came across as harsh and crass.  If you’re part of a reality TV show this makes for good-selling drama; but, in real-life social situations, it makes for awkwardness.  In many cases, our attempts to make a point or divert from the questions themselves make others feel that we are jaded and unavailable for further conversation, and it pushes them away.

I believe these types of responses serve as ways to reduce our own anxiety about our work or relationship challenges.  Most likely we are struggling with a volatile or challenging partnership.  We may be in the process of trying to work through a miscommunication at home, struggling with difficult news from our partner, or we may be in the process of breaking-up.  We might have lost our job and be on our sixth month of collecting unemployment, and we’re frustrated, embarrassed and uncertain about our career and financial futures.  Our automatic responses yield the exact results that we’re looking—although only temporarily.  We get the attention diverted away from us and it assists us from having to deal with the difficult and challenging questions.

In these situations a good dose of self-evaluation (being more critical of self) can be useful.  It can help us to understand that the questions themselves (as superficial as they might have seemed) were mere attempts to relate to us and connect; and, we might instead see that we reacted from a place of defensiveness in order to cover-up for our own insecurity and present doubts—not because of someone’s poor social skills.  Being a bit more critical of our reactions can help us to begin to do the tough internal work needed to make changes to ourselves in order to make us more available, attractive, approachable and relatable to potential friends, lovers, employers, or simply the person sitting across the table from us at a dinner party.  Furthermore, dealing with our anxiety directly can also serve a huge purpose in helping us to connect to others.  After-all, if the person sitting across the table from you has blood running through their veins, chances are that they too have struggled in a relationship, failed at a relationship, had difficulty on the job or lost a job themselves.  Being more truthful in our responses and reactions and less defensive will actually help lessen our anxiety as we provide for opportunities to relate to others through our shared experiences.  We might just actually stumble upon the much needed support and validation that we needed and deserved at a very challenging and difficult time.

Ryan

It’s not all about the “Answers.”

Who am I?  Why do I behave this way, feel this way, and think this way?  How has my past shaped who I am today and how will I ever become insightful enough to make the changes I want in my life?  

Although answers to these questions can indeed bring about a better understanding of who we are and create personal and lasting results, too often we become bogged-down in discovering the “truth,” and we forget that the search and the exploration process is just as important—if not more. 

The 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche stated, “Truth is an illusion without which a certain species could not survive.”  Today’s renowned existentialist and psychotherapist, Dr. Irvin Yalom followed-up by suggesting, “Anointed, as we are, with an inbuilt solution-seeking need for truth, we cling tenaciously to the belief that explanation is possible. It makes things bearable, it anoints us with a sense of control and mastery. But, it is not the content of the intellectual treasure trove that matters but the hunt.” 

As we seek-out explanations to uncover the answers and truths in our lives—in an attempt to feel more powerful and in control, it is important that we remind ourselves that what matters most is not necessarily the answers themselves, but rather the self-invested energy and time that we put into learning about who we are and how and why we function the ways in which we do. The key to success, even when uncertain, is to keep moving forward and to keep exploring the aspects of our lives that challenge us; more beneficial some can argue, to dwell on the aspects of our lives that enrich and fulfill us. Paying closer attention to the difficult struggles and the challenging areas in our lives helps us to find better and more manageable strategies for living and lessens our freedom-anxiety (the anxiety that comes from knowing that we are now responsible ultimately for the outcome of our lives—both positive or negative).  Focusing on and embracing our positive attributes fuels our gratitude for being alive and offers us renewed hope, security, and a more optimistic perception of our existence. 

So, we must remember that it’s the explorative “process” alone that offers us the opportunity to change and to better understand ourselves and to establish greater insight along the way.  The process is what keeps us energized and engaged in the “self.”  Through the patient, loving, and dedicated exploration of our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and our past and present experiences and future fantasies, we will begin to change and to see ourselves differently and without such limiting assumptions, perceptions, and interpretations of the truth.  In Yalom’s words, “Though we take for granted that insight leads to change, by no means is that sequence established empirically.  In fact there are experienced, thoughtful analysts who have raised the possibility of a reversed sequence—that is, that insight follows change rather than preceded it.”  Rather than attempting to strive for the “truthful” answers to our lives [interpretations or illusions that often don’t have a simple or clear-cut explanation and that can often limit us or create gridlock], let us focus a bit more on exploring alternative ways to coping and thriving in the present moment and on creating roadmaps and milestones for our future. 

Definitive answers need not necessarily always be the goal! Forward movement is…