Life is difficult…
So declared the opening sentence from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s seminal 1978 pop-psychology book “The Road Less Travelled”. Within it he set out his understanding of how to live a fulfilled life. It starts, in his mind, by acknowledging that life is filled with contradictions and that part of the challenge of being human is to reconcile the multiple, complex and often conflicting factors that living entails. Through holding the tension of these opposing forces within ourselves we grow. The more we grow the more we are able to appreciate the enormity of, and fulfil the potential of, this gift of life.
As a counsellor I see evidence of the many challenges we encounter every single day. Be they difficult decisions in the present, painful memories from the past, self-defeating habits undermining our hopes, or troubling existential questions that demand our attention. I also witness the joys, the infectious kindling of courage, moments of quiet contentment and share the sense of achievement in problems overcome.
Happily, pain is not the only motivator for growth. Many philosophers and psychologists hold that the impulse to become ourselves is more powerful than the desire to avoid pain, although the latter often proves a helpful ally in confronting our fears of change. The impulse to ever evolve is well encapsulated by Abraham Maslow’s 1943 Hierarchy of Needs, in which he defines four levels of need – Physiological, Safety, Love/Belonging, Esteem – that form the building blocks that enable us to reach “self-actualisation” – becoming all we can become. Variations on this general idea have been central to many cultures – indeed Maslow drew much inspiration from the indigenous Blackfoot culture of North America, though that was not widely credited.
Historically the notion of humanity’s drive towards wholeness encountered a major stumbling block in the concept of “original sin”. As a western nation, one of whose ideological bedrocks is Christianity, innate goodness lost favour a long time ago. But in the age of scientific rationalism it received the final nail in the coffin when Darwin’s theory of evolution was unfairly reduced to the “Survival of the Fittest” concept.
Originally psychology made the same mistake, studying only mental illness, categorising symptoms and looking at the problem rather than the whole human being. Perhaps this contributed to the shame associated with needing the help of a “shrink” – the assumption that you’ve got to be severely mentally ill to seek therapy. But Maslow was part of the “humanistic” movement which has endeavoured to study the solution rather than the problem. That which helps you to feel good and how to increase your capacity to do so. Thus Positive Psychology has emerged. This in turn has been supported by more recent revisions of Darwin’s theory suggesting that it is not the “fittest” but the most adaptable that truly thrives. What better to assist adaptability than human collaboration?
So how do we do it? How do we change and grow into who we can be? This is a central question for all the spiritual traditions that have developed over the years, cultures and continents to assist humanity in living well. All have developed their methodologies and I often think of counselling and psychotherapy as a modern day, secular form of non-dogmatic ministry, based on acceptance and empowerment of the individual.
First we have to identify what is stopping us being fulfilled. This is easier to do in the safety of a confidential, non-judgemental, therapeutic relationship. Through talking about our difficulties, joys, hopes, confusion and innermost fears we get to loosen the stifling grip of self-doubt, peer beyond the obfuscating fog of confusion and move towards clarity on what we want. Through discussion and reflection on patterns of thinking and behaving, feeling and relating we develop self-awareness. With more self-awareness we cultivate the capacity to exercise more choice, instead of snapping back into default reactions. The therapist can draw on their training and experience to support the development of this capacity to think psychologically, thereby enabling clients to gain more clarity and response-ability. For example, we might find ourselves standing back from situations that used to trigger us into anger or collapse, instead finding the ability to observe the thoughts and feelings that are triggered, internally attend to the accompanying emotions effectively, and then chose to respond in new more empowering ways towards the world at large.
Therapy sadly doesn’t provide any magic bullets. The therapist tends to avoid the trap of offering explicit advice – how often do we ask for advice but either reject it, feel diminished by it or simply feel unable to follow it? So although therapists will offer their expertise in addressing particular problems, they are primarily looking to support people in changing their patterns of interpreting and responding to the world. It’s a case of “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day…”. The therapist’s role is to provide the conditions to help clients find their own discernment, courage and confidence to become themselves as fully as they wish.
People have expressed many concerns about entering therapy to me over the years. These range from getting bogged down in the past, to fostering dependency on the counsellor, to being “selfish”. A recurring worry is that it will encourage a blaming attitude towards parents or early care-givers, as often much power is attributed to the early developmental experiences we have in childhood in forming our attitudes and behaviours in the present. These fears cannot be unduly dismissed. I am familiar with instances in which all these damaging outcomes have occurred. Happily, they are usually a temporary, natural part of the process of self-examination and signal only the growing pains of therapy. Skilled therapists will notice the pitfalls of a blaming mentality or an inappropriate dependency on themselves and use those insights to help clients explore those disempowering patterns and assume ultimate responsibility for their current experience, whilst acknowledging the impact of the past, social, political and environmental factors beyond the individual’s control. Though it may take some time, with this newfound response-ability clients find the capacity to communicate more effectively, feel more empathy for others and support others more fully.
I am grateful every day to have, or be earning, the trust of my clients. I am conscious of what a privilege it is to hold the hopes, dreams, disappointments, fears and foibles of others. My training featured many hours of personal group and individual therapy, as well as hundreds of hours in placements learning how to work safely and skilfully with clients before receiving accreditation. It is vital to check the credentials of therapists before working with them and often a personal recommendation is a helpful way to find someone you can trust.
So, how do we choose to live this “one wild and precious life”, as the recently departed poet and champion of compassion Mary Oliver put it? The more we can find the capacity to open the more we can move beyond the difficulty and honestly declare: Life is beautiful.