At the beginning of a session recently, a client asked me desperately how he can change himself. He had recently moved home and was quickly swallowed inside his messy family dynamic while caregiving for a dying parent and managing his partner’s destabilizing mental health. He had a lot on his plate, was hardly sleeping, and had little space for himself.
Highly aware, he talked of his reactive behaviors and impulses, like wanting to run away or raging against family members. He couldn’t accept himself and he was at war with his feelings. He pulled me to give him something concrete about how he could stop the desire to get high.
I didn’t bite.
I spent most of the session validating, normalizing, and assisting him with identifying his boundaries and how he didn’t uphold them. I highlighted that he was hard on himself, which made sense, given his early trauma. I aimed to shift his perspective, so I made it okay that he wanted to run away. Radically, I made it alright that he wanted to get high.
We had a push-pull session: I focused on wondering where he could make more room for himself while he ruminated about how to stop himself from himself. He wanted to change the family dynamic and get others to take more responsibility. I highlighted his over-functioning and advocated for his needs. We’d meet in the middle for a moment before he’d pull back and again attack himself.
I realized that I need a different intervention before he left. On his way out, I showed him a Carl Rogers quote that has helped me shift my self-perception: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
My client felt he had to change himself before he’d feel better. He wanted to be able to look in the mirror and like himself. He asked great questions and was putting in the effort, I thought he only needed to shift his approach. I asked him to look at his situation differently- get a new perspective. It’s not always about changing oneself but accepting ourselves as we are, now.
It’s impossible, and hard, and you can’t fix it. I said to him. Might as well be kinder to yourself through it.
My job isn’t to help my clients not get high, which is nice because that would be a lot of pressure and responsibility. My job isn’t even to help clients resist the urge too high. I don’t pretend that those feelings aren’t there: I know the desire to run away and escape from painful and stressful situations is a feeling that lives within all of us. Some of us are more aware of it, and some of us have more we want to run away from.
My role is to help clients discern the differences between feelings and their actions in reaction to those feelings.
My client seemed to be running from the impossible realities of his life and feeling guilty for it. Some people get high to soothe the self-criticism. Some to quell the rage of injustices they’ve occurred. Others need to escape boredom (hello quarantine.) We’re human, and we are always trying to self-soothe, be it through shopping, alcohol, social media or drugs.
Self-criticism, anxiety, anger, grief, fear, and uncertainty are all normal emotions. They’re also uncomfortable and difficulty to tolerate. To avoid the now, we can so easily get caught up in and focused on the idea that we’ll feel better later on, down the line, when such-and-such happens.
I’ll feel more secure when I make more money.
I’ll be happier with myself when I lose weight.
After COVID, life will be better.
I’d like myself more if only….
Clinging to that-which-is-not-now is magical, enticing, and normal. It’s also not real.
Having goals and working towards them is an essential aspect of growth, but if we place our happiness on and attach to those ideals to feel better, we can tangle ourselves up in anxiety, depression, and self-sabotage. The act of willing ourselves to feel better has a boomerang effect when the focus is solely on the future potentials: we end of feeling worse.
If we keep waiting to accept ourselves or our situations, we’ll never be satisfied until such-and-such things happen. We’re dependent on things that are not now, always believing that having the thing will bring us the satisfaction. To fill the void. My client felt he had to change himself in order to live with himself. An admirable feat, there was just so much to change, and so very much to process, which would take time. Until then, I thought, let’s make peace with how things are now. That’s all we really have.
Our critical and evolving mindset is beneficial for our growth, and yet, it can get in our way when we can’t accept how we are right now. Our frustration is exacerbated when we cannot control our situation or the others in our lives. Our only power is to focus on the self, and work there. We can try to find ways to feel better now, before we have those things we dream of.
The truth is, so much of what goes on outside of us is beyond our control. Reality. We can’t control the people we’re in a relationship with, be it partners, co-workers, or our children. We can only ever accept and govern ourselves and find ways of connecting with those people in ways that support and serve us.
People often assume that therapists have the answers and help fix what appears to be wrong. This mentality contributes to the shame and stigma that keeps people from embarking on psychotherapy because no one is broken.
What if nothing is wrong? What if we only need to shift how you are viewing it?
Therapy can be a process of changing your relationship with yourself—a place to learn how to accept our imperfect, flawed, dysfunctional ways of being. When another person can sit down and look at the mess of life that is real with us, something changes.
The resistance we have against our current realities causes us the suffering that manifests in a variety of ways: we all have our preferred defenses. Sometimes we only need to ask ourselves different questions.
When might be it beneficial to accept, rather than force change?