While there is generally not one right way to grieve, there ARE ways that grieving can go wrong.
Instead of letting the grieving process run its natural course, people sometimes try to run away from the pain, and it is in these cases that grief can turn into depression, isolation, or overwhelm.
Typically these kinds of reactions to loss or grief happen because the natural grieving process is blocked, or because a person finds themselves without the internal resources or the external support to cope with the intensity of their own emotions.
In such instances, people may try to numb their pain by drinking, or try to distract themselves by cutting, or they may end up feeling stuck in a chronic state of depression, helplessness, or hopelessness.
These are the times when seeking help from a therapist would be beneficial.
Grieving Can Invoke Earlier Losses:
Typically what I find in my work as a therapist is that people who end up crumbling underneath their pain, do so because the recent loss they have experienced, re-invokes an old trauma or an earlier state of helplessness and aloneness they have not yet dealt with.
If, for example, it was not okay for me to cry in my family when I was growing up, then when grief calls upon me to release my pain by crying, I get blocked and have no resource to deal with it.
If I was frequently on my own or let down by others when I was growing up, then when grief calls upon me to lean on others or seek help, I cannot follow its command.
In such instances the challenge that grieving a loss presents me with cannot be faced without a call to resolve other unresolved issues first.
For me to cry, for example, I would first need to deal with the original situation or series of experiences that taught me to be ashamed of my tears.
For me to reach out for help and lean on others I would first have to address the reasons why I equated my sense of safety with being self-reliant and developed a distaste for depending on others.
These kinds of early glitches in my childhood or formative years that taught me that it is not safe to simply be myself often have an interpersonal origin.
Maladaptive Grief Often Involves Past Interpersonal Traumas or Disappointments:
It was because others responded to my crying or to my attempts to reach out for help with disdain, indifference, silence, awkwardness, or what have you, that I was forced to leave aspects of myself behind.
For this reason, any attempt to reclaim my lost parts, and disowned resources, is going to re-invoke old fears of others leaving me, turning away from me with disgust, or rejecting me in some way.
In other words, the reason I cannot fully grieve, is that I have not resolved old interpersonal fears and therefore cannot yet take ownership of certain of my human qualities which were abandoned due to those fears.
In my attempt to keep others pleased or keep others near, I contorted myself and became a little less whole and a little less human in the process.
Now when these abandoned qualities are called for, I am forced to either numb myself and distract myself, or to face the shame or aloneness which these now alien emotions or needs threaten to overwhelm me with.
Video Clip from recent presentation I did on maladaptive grief:
How to Deal with Maladaptive Grief:
If you or someone you know have experienced losses that they have not been able to deal with according to the principles described in my earlier blog post (Best Ways to Deal with Grief and Loss), I would recommend that you seek professional help.
You may not notice that you or your friend are really grieving, but may instead notice that you are acting in any number of ways that are either not characteristic of you or destructive to you:
You may be drinking more than usual
You may be more promiscuous or more careless about the relationships you get into
You may become morbid, suicidal, or nihilistic about life
You may experience panic attacks, health worries, or other anxieties about seemingly unrelated things
You may feel numb, dead inside, or like an observer to life
You may be cutting yourself or engaging in activities that you know are self-destructive
You may feel chronically depressed or isolate yourself more from friends
Grieving a loss should not involve any of these behaviors, at least not for an extended period of time.
If you feel stuck in your grief and unable to either deal with the pain on your own or talk about it with others, you should seek help.
Resources if You Are Grieving:
In Houston we have several agencies that provide free grief and bereavement support groups:
When it comes to dealing with grief there is no one best way. Everybody deals with the pain of loss differently.
In general, however, it is best not to fight or ignore the pain you are feeling, but to let the grieving process run its course.
Why Do We Grieve?
The grieving process is a natural response to finally letting go or saying good-bye to someone or something.
We don’t just grieve the loss of a person or of a relationship, but also the loss of a possession, or of an ambition. Maybe a business venture did not turn out the way you wanted it to, or maybe you find yourself in your mid fifties and feel like you did not really accomplish your hopes and dreams.
These are all examples of losses and whenever there is the realization of a loss there is also the need to grieve.
The mourning process is nature’s way of letting you take back the love or energy you have invested in something or someone so that it becomes available again for new ventures and new relationships.
In this way it is a process of recuperating ourselves, for when we lose someone or something we care about we don’t just lose something external to us, but we lose a part of ourselves.
This is why people who experience the pain of loss often speak of themselves as “broken” or feel that life is not “whole” or complete anymore.
When that relationship ended, so did the parts of you that existed in that relationship: The part of you that woke up content every morning knowing that you were loved, or the part of you that felt funny because your friend or partner laughed at your jokes. Losing an important person in your life is therefore like losing a part of your own existence, and this is why it hurts so much and makes you feel so depleted and broken.
The Importance of Grieving Properly
Becoming whole again after a significant loss is the task that grieving seeks to accomplish for us. It ultimately gets us back on our feet so we can continue to walk and to live life.
If we halt the grieving process because we just can’t bear the pain we get stuck in a limbo where we haven’t quite recovered ourselves or recovered our life. In the refusal to accept what is no longer, we are also refusing to live again.
When we are faced with loss we have two choices: we can either crumble underneath the pain of it or find ways to go through it and grow from it. If we choose the former life will seem as if it is ending, as if it has nothing more to offer us. But if we choose the latter, the bereavement process will help us recuperate our life and recuperate ourselves.
Turning Manure into Compost
Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh once likened the grieving process to turning manure into compost that can fertilize your garden and make new things grow. In other words, instead of stopping at the realization that you don’t like this feeling and don’t want it, you can find ways to metabolize the pain of loss so that some growth comes out of it and some wisdom is gained.
Great art and poetry, and other bursts of creative energy, are often fuelled by the pain of loss. Loss teaches us what is important and meaningful in life. Not having something brings us closer to the value of having. It makes us more sentient and sensitive to the very essence of existence as a process of loving and losing. It reveals to us that this life is impermanent and that nothing stays the same forever, and in doing so it brings us close to a truth about the conditions of this human life.
How to Best Deal with Grief
Since grieving is both natural and unavoidable we are best served to walk the path which grieving invites us to walk, which means tuning in to the pain, rather than dulling it, distracting from it, or drowning it out.
Here are some recommendations to help you honor the grieving process and let it do its healing:
Pay attention to what you need: The grieving process will be your guide to what you need from moment to moment. It will alert you to what you need whether it be sleep, activity, alone time, togetherness, or something to distract you or take your mind off of the pain temporarily. Listen to the signals your body is sending you, tune your attention inward, and honor what you need.
Be patient with yourself: Don’t fight the grieving process and your shifting moods and feelings. Expect that your feelings will shift quite rapidly. You can laugh in one moment, feel guilty in the next, want to cry in yet another, and be angry a moment later. Don’t criticize yourself for how you feel but accept that grieving can be a “bumpy ride” and give yourself permission to be exactly where you are and feel exactly what you feel.
Find ways to metabolize your pain: The experience of losing someone or something important to you is something that you should not go through alone or silently. Find people to talk to about it, or find ways to express your feelings whether it be through writing, painting, or deeds. Some people might channel their loss into doing good for others and might engage in volunteer work, others might start writing out their thoughts in a diary, and yet others might find opportunities to open up to family or friends. Whatever you choose to do, try to find ways to metabolize your pain, by expressing it somehow, and turning manure into compost.
Video from my presentation at the Harvey Recovery Bootcamp on Dealing with Grief and Loss, which was held at University of Houston on November 11, 2017:
Learning the Lesson of Grief
Although there is no one way to grieve, it is important not to fight the process. You don’t need to rush it or force it, but it is also important not to stifle it. Grieving a loss is a natural process that leads to rebirth and renewal. It ultimately makes you feel whole again and helps restore the energy and love you will need to live life.
About Me: I am Dr. Rune Moelbak, psychologist and emotionally focused couples therapist in Houston, Texas. If you are having trouble with the grieving process or overcoming loss, you can schedule an appointment with me by going to my therapy website.
Many people struggle with following through on their plans, commitments, or stated desires.
Sometimes it is as if there is another voice or person inside of us that gets in our way.
This part of us might tell us to postpone an important task until tomorrow, or might tell us that we shouldn’t aim for that promotion. It seeks to lead us astray and ultimately keeps us from accomplishing our long-term goals.
At other times, not only does this alternate voice get in our way, it actually harms us.
Richard Schwartz who has invented an approach to therapy called Internal Family Systems Therapy, has a word for these harmful urges or parts of us. He calls them our “fire fighters”.
What is a Fire Fighter?
Fire fighters are the parts of us that seek to stamp out unpleasant tensions or conflicts from within through impulsive and ill-conceived actions.
They are the impulses to get drunk to deal with a break-up, to go on an eating binge to distract ourselves from unpleasant memories, or to cut ourselves to overcome emotional numbness.
They seek to solve a problem, but ultimately end up causing an even worse problem. Their intent is to put out fires, but their means of doing so are harmful to us.
According to Richard Schwartz, fire fighters are parts of our psyches that have been necessary to prevent what we perceive as unbearable emotions and internal conflicts. Without their rash attempts to distract us, our fear would be that we would not survive or would not be able to cope.
When we look inward we often find that what has necessitated the need for fire fighters are other parts of us which we have exiled or banished from our conscious awareness. Richard Schwartz refers to these parts as our “exiles.”
What Are Exiles?
Our exiles are parts of us that we don’t like and that we find to be threatening to our self-understanding and our everyday functioning.
They are often emotions or experiences that have been labelled shameful or threatening and have had to be banished to the basement of our psyches so as not to flood us with unpleasant emotions or jeopardize how others see us.
These exiled parts of us can get activated or triggered by situations that remind us of how we once felt, and it is because we are not at peace with these parts of us that our fire fighters get called upon to quickly distract us.
Whenever there is a fire fighter at play, there is typically also an exiled part of us that is threatening to enter into consciousness.
Why do We Sabotage Ourselves?
One of the reasons we sabotage ourselves is therefore that we have a divided mind where several parts of us are at odds with each other.
Our fire fighting impulses, for example, are often at odds with our exiled parts which they try to distract ourselves from.
At other times our banished parts are odds with our conscious intentions.
A part of us that feels inferior and rejected might get activated when we sit down to study for an exam because we start to feel that the material is too difficult and that we are going to fail. This might start a battle inside of us between a part of us that tells us to plough through (often referred to by Richard Schwartz as a “manager”) and the exiled part that threatens to flood us with shame and feelings of worthlessness. Another part of us might therefore think of a justification for why we should not be studying but should instead be cleaning our apartment, or a fire fighter might compel us to go on an eating binge.
In this way multiple parts of us might be at odds and take charge of us, ultimately defeating our stated purpose to study and excel at our exam.
How to Stop Self-Sabotaging?
If we accept that we have multiple voices or parts of us that often vie for control of our conscious actions then it follows that every act of self-sabotage is an instance of one part of us that is acting up and defying another part of us which we identify with as our true desire or intention.
The trick to stopping our self-defeating habits or behaviors is therefore to get to know the part of us that gets in our way and understand what other parts it might be reacting to.
If, for example, I find myself being defiant of my boss in spite of knowing that this might get me fired or prevent me from getting a promotion, then it would serve me well to get acquainted with this side of me that is not cooperating with what I say my stated goal is.
One way to do that is to ask the non-cooperating part some of the following questions:
What does the sabotaging part of me feel?
What does it look like in my mind’s eye?
Where is it located in my body?
What does it say?
What situations activate it?
What is its positive intent?
What is it protecting me from?
Oftentimes, when we approach a part of us which we don’t disagree with or wish we didn’t have from a place of curiosity instead of judgment, it will reveal to us its function and role within our larger psychological reality and will show itself to have an ultimately benevolent intent.
For example, if I approach the part of me that defies my boss, I might discover that it wants to stand up for me to prevent me from getting taken advantage of. I might learn from it that its mission is to protect me from another part of me that was bullied when I was growing up and was too weak and defenseless to cope with the situation. I might also learn from it that it feels angry toward others for imposing themselves on me and I might get an image of it as a fighter with boxing gloves whose presence in my body is felt in the clenching of my jaws and a strengthening and hardening of my heart.
How to Align Your Actions and Your Intentions:
What is needed for my internal boxer to relax and not sabotage my future goal for a promotion is therefore a greater degree of confidence that my bullied child can stand up for itself. For this to happen, I would need to heal the bullied part of me and endow it with resources to fight its own battles. This in turn, would require more in depth exploration of the needs and reality of my exiled part.
Only when I get acquainted with all the parts of my psyche can I begin to negotiate all my opposite wishes and actions in a way that gives all parts of me a voice but ultimately contributes to the one and same overarching goal of acting in the way that is best for me.
If you would like to learn more about how to work with different parts of you in order to achieve more harmony within yourself, I highly recommend reading Jay Earley’s book: Self-Therapy, which will guide you through the steps needed in order to befriend your parts and help them work together rather than against each other.
Richard Schwartz, the inventor of IFS (Internal Family Systems Therapy) has also written an easy introduction to some of the concepts introduced in this blog post. It is best ordered through the website for The Center for Self-Leadership which is the official home base for Internal Family Systems training and products.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people resolve inner conflicts and get to the root of their self-sabotaging behaviors. Visit my website for more information.
It may come as a surprise to some, but sadness and depression are not the same.
It would be easy to mistake the two if we simply listen to how people generally talk about their feelings when they are having a bad day or feeling down for some reason.
Most people tend to use the terms sad and depressed interchangeably, not knowing what the difference really is.
This confusion, however, does a disservice to us since it inadvertently gives sadness a negative reputation, while also minimizing and confusing the issues that are really at stake when someone is truly depressed.
I therefore want to clarify this confusion once and for all and make it clear why depression is not always about being sad.
What is sadness?
We all feel sad sometimes. Sadness is part of the normal human spectrum of emotions, just like anger, happiness, fear, and so on. In fact, the ability to feel sad is a sign of healthy human functioning. Sadness is how we cope with loss and reinvest our energy in something new that takes the place of what we have lost.
We feel sad when we lose a relationship, but also when we lose a job opportunity, or when we reminisce about good moments in childhood which are no longer part of our lives.
Sadness in this sense is the indication that we have lived fully, that we have dared to love, that we have dreamed of things, and that we have enjoyed life. And loss, of course as we all know, is an inevitable part of life since life is ultimately a change process.
What is Depression?
So now that we know what sadness is about, let’s discuss how it is different from being depressed.
Depression, is different from sadness in many important ways.
Unlike sadness, it is not an emotion. Rather, it is a response to not dealing well with one’s emotions.
Studies have shown that depression often relates to a person’s difficulty with accepting, tolerating, or expressing certain emotions.
It short-circuits emotions because something about these emotions seems overwhelming, threatening, or uncomfortable. The result then is a sense of being stuck in certain emotions or a general flattening of emotional experience that leads to lack of vitality and lack of excitement.
Hence a frequent cause of depression is the inability to tolerate loss and the experience of sadness.
Rather than allowing the natural process of grieving to occur, a person who finds it difficult to let themselves be sad, may instead numb themselves to feeling, collapse into helplessness, or let it affect their basic sense of worth.
In these cases sadness is no longer experienced and expressed as part of the natural process of life, but is instead short-circuited and turned into a depressed state.
Depression is in this sense not an emotion, but an anti-emotion. It is a result of life turning against life, or forces from within working against the natural process of living fully.
But isn’t Depression about Feeling Sad?
Research performed by emotion-focused psychologists Leslie Greenberg and Jeanne Watson, has actually found a greater connection between depression and anger, than depression and sadness.
Only in 39% of the cases studied did depression involve themes related to loss or sadness, whereas it involved anger in 66%.
By anger, I of course mean, unexpressed or repressed anger which keeps a person in a powerless or subordinate position, or expressed anger that masks underlying feelings of low self-esteem or unfulfilled needs.
It has been noted in particular that when men become depressed they are more likely to express outward anger than to feel inwardly sad. This is because men in general feel less comfortable and have been less encouraged by our society to fully embrace sadness as an acceptable emotion.
The relation between depression and emotion is therefore much more complex than we normally think of when we simply conflate feeling sad with being depressed.
What is the Cure for Depression?
Since depression often short-circuits the natural experience and expression of emotion, the cure for depression often consists of helping people experience, express, and cope with their banished or threatening emotions.
This process often involves the following components:
Freeing up blocked or inhibited anger or sadness so it can be dealt with and understood
Helping a person work through fear, shame, or guilt about acknowledging, embracing and expressing their natural emotional responses
Helping a person not feel overwhelmed by their emotions
Helping a person discover the cause of the emotional responses that have been blocked or deemed threatening, in particular the underlying unmet need for love, safety, approval, or mastery
Allowing oneself to be sad as a means of coming to terms with some loss or unfulfilled wish is oftentimes part of this process, but the process also often involves resolving other stuck points as they may relate to anger, fear, shame, or guilt.
The ability to feel sad fully without stopping the process prematurely due to discomfort or fear is therefore often part of the antidote to depression and not part of the problem of depression itself.
As you can now see sadness and depression are very different entities and should not be confused. Although depression may involve sadness, it often distorts or blocks sadness from its true purpose. Depression is therefore often just a way station on a journey toward fully recuperating one’s emotions, including the ability to experience and express sadness as a natural part of life. About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist in Houston Texas. I specialize in helping people get unstuck from their depression by using a variety of the most effective psychological methods. You can learn more about therapy for depression by visiting my website.
If you like this article, you might also like:
The Ultimate Self-Help Guide to Winning Over Your Depression:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a label often given to people who worry excessively about many different things. They worry both to the point of making themselves significantly distressed and to the point where others start to get exasperated because they really don’t find the anxious person’s worries to be justified or realistic.
Why Do People Worry?
The first step in understanding the tendency to worry is to acknowledge that worrying is generally intended to be a helpful mechanism that reminds us of things to watch out for. Its purpose is to keep us from getting in trouble.
Worrying in itself is therefore not a problem. It is what makes me move my car from an area with unclear signage to avoid getting a parking ticket, and what makes me arrive 30 minutes early for a job interview just in case there would be an unexpected accident that would slow me down on my way. These kinds of anticipations of bad things happening generally serve me well. They help me plan for eventualities that could harm me and make me feel more in control of my life circumstances.
When Do We Worry Too Much?
In the life of someone with generalized anxiety disorder, however, worrying no longer serves it’s intended function to help us adapt well to genuine risks and challenges in our environment.
Here the worries have a number of characteristics that make them more burdensome than helpful. This is because the nature of the worries frequently includes a number of different exaggerations that distort the true risks involved.
These exaggerations fall into a number of different categories, which it will be helpful to understand so we know what we are dealing with…
Here they are one by one…:
Frequent Worries of Highly Anxious People:
“I take too much responsibility for others instead of setting healthy boundaries:”
This kind of worry places excessive blame on myself if something were to happen to someone else. For example: “If my friend feels alone or depressed, it is probably because I am not doing nearly enough to hang out with them” or “if my boss gets annoyed or frustrated with me, it is probably because I am too lazy or unintelligent, or because I am a bad employee”. Not only does this kind of worry tend to turn to self-blame and excessive guilt, it also makes me feel that I constantly have to prove myself to others in order to be a good friend, good employee, good spouse and so on. It is therefore not unusual for people with generalized anxiety to overextend themselves, to take too much onto their plates, and to leave very little room for themselves and their own needs.
“I look to others for answers rather than trusting my own intuition:”
People with generalized anxiety often have a fundamental mistrust of their own decision-making. They fear that they would be unable to cope, or would be responsible for other people’s suffering, if they were to make a wrong decision. For this reason, people with generalized anxiety will often seek expert advice rather than consult with their own intuition, or they will defer to others about which restaurant to go to instead of feeling within what they are really in the mood for. This other-oriented living is just another way that the person with generalized anxiety silences their own voice and lives in hiding from their own needs, rights, wishes, and feelings.
“I externalize my anxiety rather than looking for the cause within:”
People with generalized anxiety live in constant anticipation of bad things happening around them that they think they would have prevented if only they were proactive enough or paid enough attention. Their constant attention to dangers in the environment conceals the fact that the real danger in generalized anxiety is often a danger from within. Clinical wisdom tells us that the fears that underlie my worries in GAD are really fears related to the eruption of emotions such as sadness, anger, or insecurity that I feel within myself and that I don’t think I can cope with. People with generalized anxiety often have an unconscious fear of disintegration, helplessness, and emotional overwhelm, which makes them live in fear of their own emotions and makes them want focus their attention outward instead of inward. Instead of dealing with their fears of their own emotions, they instead worry about physical symptoms in their body which they mistake for possible illnesses, or about other people for whom they feel responsible, or about eventualities in the future they can plan for or try to control.
“I blame myself rather than feel angry at others:”
People with generalized anxiety often have a hard time standing up for themselves, saying “no” to others, or feeling justified for having their feelings. Anger, which is the emotion that alerts us to boundary violations, injustice, and unfair treatment often evokes anxiety or feelings of guilt in people with generalized anxiety. As a result, the anger often gets converted into excessive people-pleasing and excessive self-blame. If someone gets mad at me, I internalize their anger and use it to beat myself up for my wrong-doings, or if someone offers a negative opinion about something I did, I take it to mean that I have inner defects or short-comings that I need to make up for. The lack of comfort with anger makes me invalidate my own perspective or right to self-define, and leaves me vulnerable and exposed to criticism from others.
How to Overcome Debilitating Anxiety:
The first step in overcoming generalized anxiety and excessive worry is to make the different kinds of excessive, unfair, or unrealistic patterns of self-protection which I have described above problematic to the anxious worrier. The person with generalized anxiety has to be helped to disentangle themselves from the part of them that worries or scares them. They have to realize that worrying and feeling anxious is something they do to themselves rather than who they are.
This differentiation of themselves from their worries is best facilitated by a therapist who can help them name both the ways in which they worry themselves and what it feels like to be on the receiving end of these worries. The outcome of this kind of differentiation is that they can begin to understand the needs and fears of the “worrier”, as well as the feelings of helplessness, inadequacy, and plight of the part of them that can never get a break from the “worrier”.
Helping the Worrier Turn Attention Inward:
Instead of the therapist simply joining with the more dominant worrier voice and helping this part of the person find the reassurance that it constantly wants but can never find, the therapist instead helps both parts of the person address the underlying emotional needs that never get tended to as long as the worrier simply pursues its agenda of finding reassurance outside of the anxious self.
The solution to the worrier’s problems is not to be found in getting reassurance or advice from the therapist, or finding ways to be better, stronger, smarter, more accomplished, more likable, or more in control. These are the pseudo-solutions the worrier tries to pursue to avoid addressing the source of their own vulnerability, and are ultimately very hurtful and damaging to the part of them that has to live underneath the weight of these responsibilities.
The Real Cause of Generalized Anxiety:
Once the person with generalized anxiety stops looking for solutions in never-ending self-improvement or never ending pursuit of more control, he or she is finally able to address the real issues at the heart of their worries. They can now gradually come to face the earlier life experiences that have made them feel too frail, too vulnerable, too unsupported, or too overwhelmed.
To do so, the person with generalized anxiety needs to be helped to turn their attention inward toward the pain they have avoided confronting, so they can become more comfortable with their own emotions and more grounded within themselves.
One reason that this has not been possible so far is that the person with generalized anxiety has learned to dismiss those feelings inside of them that were to uncomfortable or distressing to others around them .
The worrier came to be dismissive of their own feelings and needs because others were not there for them the way they should have been or because others could not handle or tolerate their emotions.
It is this original or ongoing rupture in compassionate understanding from others that often needs to be addressed in therapy so the person with generalized anxiety no longer needs to shut themselves down or turn their gaze outward.
The solution to generalized anxiety is therefore not to increase the effort to control situations and become ever more perfect. It is to become ever more comfortable with acknowledging your own vulnerabilities and learning to find ways to soothe and comfort the part of you that did not feel safe, supported, or reassured when growing up.
Human beings are constantly faced with making the choice between two paths: One path that keeps them in the safe and comfortable straits of what they know, and another that entices with a different way of being, less restricted and more promising.
Which way should I go? Should I stay in my comfort zone or venture down the path of novelty?
This question becomes heightened for every person who chooses to come to therapy.
The Price We Pay for Staying Safe:
The decision to see a therapist is by definition the decision to heed the murmur from deep inside that begs of the person to leave the safety of the familiar and take a turn towards something new.
Why does the person want to do this?
Because the familiar, for all its safety, is often also a great source of suffering.
A few examples will illustrate this:
I live most of the time in my head where I can plan and feel in control of my life, but this is also my curse, for I cannot really surrender to my feelings and cannot really feel much passion or excitement in my life.
I live most of my life in the pursuit of achievements so I can finally become popular or accepted by others, but this relentless striving is also the source of my sense of being a failure and not being good enough or lovable just the way I am.
I bottle up my emotions and consider sadness and the need for others a sign of weakness, but this also keeps me isolated and alone and causes anxiety whenever my sadness is never far around the corner.
In these examples, the Faustian bargain to preserve my integrity, my self-esteem, my pride, or my security, came at a price and this price is what brings me to therapy:
I am not happy, I am not at peace with myself, I worry about unknown threats from the inside, or look around me and find that my life looks more restricted than that of my friends or my neighbor.
I am growing tired of the price of safety. My desire for growth and for change now has the upper hand.
Why Do We Often Choose Misery over Growth?
However, as I enter the therapy room, my sense of safety comforts me where novelty frightens. I feel new things, but these feelings are strange and alert me of a danger. My therapist gently asks me to get out of my head and into my body where feelings live, and I all of a sudden feel out of control, unsure of my direction, and vulnerable to harm.
I start to think, maybe my Faustian bargain was not so bad after all. The path of novelty is filled with dragons. Better the devil I know!
It is tempting at this moment to retreat and to make peace with a lesser life.
As the Danish existentialist philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard rightly says in one of his essays:
“In addition to my other numerous acquaintances, I have one more intimate confidant. My depression is the most faithful mistress I have known — no wonder, then, that I return the love”
Kierkegaard’s depression, like my anxiety, or your deadness have been the bedfellows of our lives. For all the misery they bring to us, they are after all compromises intended to ward off something worse, and protect us from the dangers of a life without them.
Well, it is more logical than one would think.
Why Are We Reluctant to Give Up Misery?
Every person who comes to therapy has an innate need for self-preservation and an innate need for growth.
The need for self-preservation got activated early on in life to help us deal with unpleasant experiences and ruptures in our relationships with others.
We went into our head, numbed ourselves to sadness, or befriended our self-critical voice, because we needed to do so to stay safe and minimize the risk of harm.
However, now as adults, what we could not deal with as children or as adolescents, is no longer the same kind of existential threat to us, and yet we continue on with the same old coping that helped us survive when we knew no better.
Now in our therapy when our therapist wants us to venture outside our customary coping to see if the dragons are still there, we instinctively want to coil back and stay inside the cardboard box we have constructed to stay safe, but which has also become our prison.
We all Resist Change at Some Level:
In therapy, we have a word for this desire to sacrifice our growth for a life of a certain kind of misery. We call it resistance.
Resistance is not a conscious decision. It is the decision our organismic need for safety makes for us, even if we consciously complain of the very life patterns we secretly gravitate towards.
Resistance keeps us away from the real pain, the real fears, and the real sacrifices we have made, and thereby prevents us from having new experiences that would help us resolve old wounds and make us leave therapy transformed.
We all Want Change at Some Level:
Luckily, we have another voice inside, another striving or drive that will not be silenced and will continue to remind us that we are limiting ourselves, until we aren’t anymore.
Psychologist Diana Fosha has named it our transformance striving, and it is just as powerful of a contender as our resistance. If we don’t heed it, it will nag us like a kind of existential guilt, the kind that will make us filled with regrets about what we could have done or should have done when we look back at our life in old age.
How Therapists Help People Grow:
The role of the therapist is to appease the resistance while allowing more room for the transformance.
The therapist does so by providing enough safety and comfort for the person to attempt something new, and helps the person reflect on and experience the benefits of their little excursions outside their comfort zone.
They align with the transformance striving which gradually becomes loud enough to defeat the resistance.
When the resistance is no longer keeping the person stuck on the same fearful path that have limited their lives for fear that they could not cope with the alternative, the person realizes that they have more resources and capabilities than they previously thought.
They are now free to choose the path of growth over the path of safety at the cross roads of their lives.
I always liked the saying “The illness is the cure”. Why? Because in the area of mental health, it alerts us to something profoundly insightful about the nature of the psychological and emotional problems most people struggle with.
Whether we feel depressed, have panic attacks, or generally feel weak, bad, or inadequate, these kinds of problematic states and ways of suffering are rarely ever simply problems to be removed or eradicated. They are NOT the illness, but like a fever or a cough, a symptom that alerts us to something about our life or our approach to life that is off-kilter, wrong, or in need of change.
Like the red lamps on the dashboard of a car, they alert us to the problem, but are not themselves the problem.
The Fallacy of Treating the Symptom as the Cause:
There is a real fallacy here that many people fall into if they do not realize this nature of their psychological distress.
If they simply think of their anxiety or their depression as the problem, then they might try to medicate the symptom to the exclusion of finding out why the symptom is really there.
In some sense this approach would be tantamount to attempting to solve a car issue by smashing the red light on the dashboard.
However, when you realize that the psyche uses the symptom of depression or anxiety to alert us to the fact that it is ill or that something in our life needs to change, our symptom becomes more of a friend than a foe. It now serves as a calling to resolve an issue which we may have been avoiding or which has stumped us in some way.
As in the saying “the illness is the cure” it serves merely as the first step toward the cure, and as such it is in fact the first step toward a transformation and reorganization that needs to occur for balance and health to be restored.
Way too often, we short-circuit this natural healing process because we get frightened by the calling and can’t see the road ahead. We mistake the symptom for the cause, and the burgeoning cure for the illness itself.
Discovering the Truth of Our Symptoms:
There is a depth of understanding that has gotten lost in our current search for quick fixes and immediate happiness, but was always there in the minds of the founders of the craft we now call psychotherapy.
A psychiatrist like Carl Jung, for example, beautifully wrote about heeding our symptoms as a calling:
“Depression”, he said, “is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don’t shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest and listen to what she wants to say.”
Even poets have alerted us to the fact that our distress is merely a signpost toward making necessary changes. As Rainer Marie Rilke writes:
“Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you? … If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.”
Sigmund Freud, too, reminded us of the danger of not listening to our symptoms, for as he rightly warns us:
“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways”
The Calling of Symptoms is to “Know Thyself”:
So much gets lost when we don’t heed the advice to listen to our symptoms and pursue them as the first step toward a cure.
Depression, anxiety, badness, and upset, cures itself once its truth is understood and its emotional conflicts disentangled.
The calling of mental illness is to “know thyself”.
The calling is not for a dimming of your awareness through medication, quick fixes, or a rush to premature action, but for an expansion of your consciousness, so you can reap the benefits of your psyche’s own wisdom, and find out more about what is meaningful and central to you at your core.
Illness is not a destination, but a way-station, and those who dare to unlock its message will be amply rewarded and transformed in the process.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. psychologist in Houston, TX. I help people work through their symptoms of anxiety and depression to achieve a transformation to a better, lighter, and more centered self.Visit my website for more information.
Recently I came across an excellent video on some of the common misperceptions many people have about psychotherapy that might stop them from ever seeing a therapist.
As the short video below from my colleagues at the The School of Life in London illustrates, these myths include:
Psychotherapy is only for people who are strange, abnormal, or deficient in some way
Psychotherapy is only for people who don’t know how to solve their own problems
Psychotherapy is nothing different than simply talking to a good friend
Psychotherapy is not affordable and is not worth the cost
In this article I will tell you why these four statements are misconceptions, and why you should not be so quick to dismiss the benefits of meeting with a well-trained professional psychotherapist.
But before we get there, first watch the video:
As you can see from the video, psychotherapy is frequently not what people think it is…
Let’s examine some of the myths about therapy a little further:
4 Myths that Might Stop You from Seeing a Psychotherapist:
Misconception #1: Psychotherapy is for People Who are Abnormal
One of the most liberating ideas I was presented with as a student of psychotherapy was the idea that all humans struggle. As the famous psychodynamic therapist Nancy McWilliams has pointed out, the question to ask yourself and others is not: Are you crazy? But rather: How crazy are you? and crazy in what way?
This is in many ways the basic premise of psychodynamic psychotherapy: We all have our little neuroses, traits, or peculiarities that get in the way of living the life we wish we could live. We are all a little crazy and a little irrational at times. We all have some fears that other’s don’t. And we all get into situations that overwhelm us, make us fall short, or make us doubt ourselves.
Maybe we find ourselves dating the same type of ill-suited partner over and over or making the same relationship mistakes.
Or perhaps we find it hard to express our needs to anybody in authority, which creates problems at work, or make us sabotage our own success by turning assignments in late.
Whatever the situation may be, we all have something we struggle with that works against our better interest.
The only thing that distinguishes a person who seeks out psychotherapy from someone who doesn’t is therefore their willingness and courage to face the inherent struggles of their human existence.
The distinction is therefore not between someone normal and someone abnormal, but between someone who chooses to hide their abnormality behind the semblance of normality, and someone who recognizes that abnormality is normal and therefore gives themselves permission face their life as it is, not as they wish it to be.
Misconception #2: I Should Be Able to Solve My Own Problems
Okay, so now that you have recognized that all humans struggle, you no longer need to distort your own reality to try to fit in to some illusory idea of what is normal.
However, you may still feel a little ill at ease about asking somebody else to help you with your problems.
Why? Because our culture in general often ascribes strength to the ability to fix-it-yourself.
Many people feel like it is a sign of weakness to not be able to handle whatever issues they are facing on their own. Instead of going to see a psychotherapist many people will therefore instead try out self-help books, or resort to self-made coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drugs, avoidance techniques, or putting on a forced smile.
However, a psychotherapist can accomplish something with you that it would be difficult if not impossible to accomplish on your own.
In fact a psychotherapist will not just listen and try to offer up new suggestions or solutions. Instead they will help you discover new thoughts and feelings that you have not been paying attention to or may have pushed out of your awareness. In this way they will help carry you beyond your own conscious knowledge of your problems, and will help you see and experience yourself in a new way.
In many ways, psychotherapy is really a process of standing back from your problems to see the bigger picture. Rather than offering solutions to the problems you think you have, psychotherapy helps you view your problems in a new way, so that the solutions you think you wanted, may not actually be the one’s you want.
Psychotherapy is therefore not a linear process of solving a problem, but a transformation of the very way to you experience yourself and your problems. It changes the context within which you view yourself, so that your very desires, needs, and wants may change.
The idea that you should be able to solve your own problems does not apply when it comes to matters of your psychological existence. The solution here is not one you can arrive at simply by applying logic to a known problem. Instead, it involves a dialogue with someone who can listen in a different way based on parallel thinking, association, and the logic of the irrational, and can help you expand your awareness of things you didn’t know before.
Misconception #3: I Might as Well Just Talk to a Friend
A friend and a psychotherapist are two very different characters.
We all can benefit from talking to friends. However, as many people often instinctively know, friends frequently don’t really offer the kind of listening and attentiveness that helps us feel comfortable opening up about our deepest fears and most embarrassing quirks.
This is why one of the first training goals for new students of psychotherapy is to unlearn their instinctive ways of responding as a friend.
Friends often do well-intentioned things that psychotherapists have learned are not really helpful.
As friends we often offer encouragement to help others not feel so bad about things. We try to cheer them up by telling them that things will be fine, or giving them reasons why they they should not feel sad, or guilty, or what have you. However, this inadvertently sends the message to the other person that we can’t tolerate or don’t want to hear about their pain, and that their pain is “irrational” or silly.
As friends we also often offer advice based on our own experience of what has worked for us, but such advise is often premature and ill suited for a person with other values and inclinations than our own. If you are honest with yourself, how often do you really find other people’s advice helpful? Most of the time, only when a part of you was already kind of thinking about doing the thing you friend has suggested. More often, however, advice simply feels invalidating and infantilizing. If our problems were so simple that we could simply solve them by following some piece of advice, we could probably have thought of the solution on our own.
An excellent video that illustrates why advice and encouragement is really not that helpful is Brene Brown‘s video on the difference between sympathy and empathy:
Finally as the video from The School of Life illustrated, friends most likely don’t have the deep understanding psychotherapists have about the complexities of human nature and the “normality of abnormality”. Friends therefore often have more limited views of what is acceptable, normal, and good and less tolerance for what is outside the cultural norm in our society or our immediate friendship groups. It therefore often does not feel that safe to admit to feelings or thoughts that may not be in line with what we think others deem to be acceptable or normal.
A psychotherapist on the contrary has a discipline to how they listen, how they respond, and how they make sense of what we say. They don’t make premature conclusions, don’t offer premature advice, and don’t shut down explorations of the aberrant or what lies outside of cultural standards of good and bad. This means they can meet us where we are, tolerate a wider range of our emotions, and help us expand our own knowledge and awareness of what we really think, feel, and want, even when we can’t quite accept these things about ourselves.
Misconception #4: Psychotherapy is Too Expensive
It is true that psychotherapy can often be quite costly. This is both because good psychotherapists need a lot of training, and because psychotherapy by nature is a very time and labor intensive process.
When it comes time to consider whether therapy is really worth the expense, it is often helpful to consider the value you place on living a life of greater self-knowledge and awareness. For some people this kind of life is not really a priority, and for those psychotherapy will almost always feel too expensive.
If, on the other hand, you value living a more conscious life, you will feel less hesitant to see it as a worthwhile investment and will almost always be able to find room within your budget to see a psychotherapist.
At the end of the day it is often not the price of psychotherapy that is prohibitive, but the value you place on it.
Some people will easily spend thousands of dollars on a vacation, or will not hesitate to get Lasik surgery for their eyes, or Invisalign for their teeth, but will not want to spend the same kind of money on their mental and psychological well-being.
However, as the video from the School of Life makes it clear, life is not a skill we instinctively master, but a skill we have to learn. This in my book, makes psychotherapy an essential ingredient of any person’s quest to live a more fulfilling life.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and psychodynamic psychotherapist in Houston, Texas. I help people get to the root of the problems that are causing them distress so they can live more fulfilling lives.
The title of my blog post this week contains one of the essential insights of my work as a psychologist.
Too many people spend their lives leaving places they have never actually arrived at.
A person who had a traumatic childhood might say they would rather just forget about the past and move on, which is their way of leaving without first arriving.
Another person might spend their entire life in a search for meaning on the mountain tops of Nepal or in the pursuits of promotions or recognition at work, which is their way of not addressing the source of an emptiness, but simply displacing it into an ever elusive ambition of becoming someone better or of transcending themselves. They spend their entire life leaving a place without really fully understanding the place they are trying to leave.
As the now deceased psychoanalyst Karen Horney has written about in her excellent book “Neurosis and Human Growth”, many people lose themselves in the empty pursuit of a never-ending self-improvement, and end up living an entire life trying to become someone other than themselves. They lose their life on what she calls the altar of glory, that is, in the pursuit of a better version of themselves that is really just another way to abandon a confrontation with the hurts of their own past.
The outcome of such a driven pursuit to simply move on without fully understanding that from which one is trying to move on, is a loss of a kind of happiness that comes from feeling rooted in one’s history and grounded within oneself.
The Price We Pay for Trying to Escape from Our Past:
So many people nowadays come to therapy complaining that they don’t really know what they are passionate about, or saying that their lives feel meaningless. Maybe they report feeling like a machine, and not really having access to the flow of emotions that would make them feel alive. Or maybe they report feeling lost and confused, empty inside, and in search of a purpose.
These are the symptoms of leaving without first arriving.
They announce to us that we are not in touch with ourselves, that we have taken leave of ourselves before first accepting the struggles, traumas, memories, or feelings that would allow us to work through our issues without abandoning ourselves. They are signs that we have attempted to leave ourselves by numbing ourselves, tuning out, avoiding, or prematurely conforming. They are signs that we have paid the price of trying to get somewhere safer and better by leaving our “luggage” behind or by leaving painful pieces of ourselves behind in our unprocessed and unresolved past.
But we can’t leave a place simply by avoiding it. We must first “say our goodbyes”.
Leaving Pain Behind Is an Active Process:
Truly leaving a place that feels unpleasant, overwhelming, shaming, or traumatic is an active process of facing and confronting that which haunts us.
To face and confront a belief about oneself, an emotional reality, or a painful memory we must first accept it.
Only when we accept that which we have tried to leave behind can we begin the active process of mourning our losses, shedding our tears, developing compassion for ourselves, or expressing anger at others for what we needed from them but never got. This kind of emotional repair work is only possible when we truly arrive at those places which we wish to leave behind.
Leaving can now become an active emotional process, rather than an avoidance that simply shuts out by shutting ourselves out.
Experiencing Transformation Through Our Emotions:
In the realm of emotions, getting away from something is paradoxically only possible by going into it.
Only by going into that which is unpleasant or overwhelming or distasteful, do we realize that we can come out on the other side with new realizations about ourselves. If we truly enter into our emotions, like one would ride a wave, we will see that emotions have a way to carry us to new shores. They don’t have to become stuck places in our lives, but can be starting points for truly working through sadness, anger, loneliness, and despair.
“Where something becomes extremely difficult and unbearable, there we also stand already quite near its transformation”
And transformation through going through the motion of our emotion is exactly what is needed in order to leave a place.
Discovering the Joy of Our Aliveness:
By working our emotions through to completion rather than short-circuiting them in an effort to leave them behind, we can let our suffering transform us and in turn transform our suffering.
Diana Fosha, for example, has found that clients who truly work through their emotions in therapy, experience a variety of transformational affects, like a sense of mastery, curiosity, confidence, joy, pride, and compassion. People report feeling moved and touched, or experiencing amazement and wonder. They no longer feel weighed down by the pain, or blemished by their past, but instead feel “lighter”, shed tears of joy, and get filled with tenderness toward themselves and others.
These kinds of shifts are signs that we are rediscovering who we really are instead of spending our life running from ourselves. They are signs that we are getting in touch with an aliveness and resilience within, and that growth brings about a joy that avoidance can never obtain.
They are signs that we are finally leaving a place that we have truly arrived at, and that we no longer have to abandon ourselves in order to find peace and comfort with who we are.
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., Psychologist in Houston Texas. I help people arrive at their past so they can truly leave it behind instead of spending their life running from themselves.
No feeling is so painful as the pain of the human heart…
One client of mine, when asked what it was like to feel shut out and rejected by her partner, used the word “soul-crunching” to describe her pain
In fact heartache and heartbreak are often described by people through metaphors of brokenness.
Heartache and heartbreak literally destroy something inside of us. We feel as if we have fallen to pieces, as if our lives are in ruins, and as if who we are and what we live for is no longer intact.
What Science Says:
Research shows that heart-ache and heart-break are not just painful experiences metaphorically speaking, but that they literally impact the same parts of the brain as physical pain. So when we say our heart is hurting, it literally is.
What You Need to Know about Heartache and Heartbreak:
Heartbreak, which describes the pain of a break-up, and heartache which is a more general description of the pain in the heart we feel when someone we love dies, are similar in many ways to the term “psycheache” which is a term used to describe the pain of being alive often reported by people who are suicidal.
All three terms express a pain of existing which only humans can feel. And there are really only two responses to deal with it. We can shrivel in the face of it and try our best to avoid it, or we can enter into it and become wiser from it.
The Two Ways to Deal with the Pain of a Broken Heart:
Avoiding the Pain:
The pain of heartache and heartbreak is so difficult to tolerate that our natural instinct is to want to run from it.
We run from the pain in different ways:
If we have just broken up with someone who matters a great deal to us, it might be tempting to simply get involved with another person and skip the the painstaking process of grieving the loss. However, a broken heart is not ready to love again before it has healed, and healing takes time. This is why a rebound relationship is never the best way to deal with a broken heart.
Another way we may distract ourselves is to simply keep busy and try to distract ourselves through activities, projects, work, or being social. In this approach, we simply try to never be alone or never fully stay long enough in the moment, to truly feel our pain. Of course, such a flight from ourselves, is bound to fail in the long run. Since we are not really dealing with the pain, the healing process never really begins, and we just end up postponing the inevitable.
A third way to deal with gut-wrenching pain is to shut the grieving process down by numbing ourselves to our emotions and hardening our heart. The pain of living is here dealt with by becoming a little less alive. While this might feel preferable to feeling the pain of existing, the long-term price of this strategy is steep, and we often end up feeling alienated and cut off from everything good life has to offer.
Learning from the Pain:
Because every attempt to simply avoid our pain is destined to fail in the long-run or to come with a heavy price tag, a wiser path to follow is to heed the message of the broken heart itself.
If you do this what you will discover is the following: Your heart is broken because you dared to love and let others matter.
Now in the absence of your loved one, you have lost a piece of yourself and are no longer whole. Your existence, without the other person, no longer feels full or sufficient. Love opened up life’s riches, and now that it has closed these riches down, the pain you feel is the pain of the absence and meaninglessness of a life without such love.
And although your heart is trying to warn you not hurry back into the same kind of vulnerability that left you bereft, it has also just revealed the meaningfulness, joy, and value of a life of mattering to someone and letting someone matter to you.
Its message is therefore not to avoid loving, but to take the time to reflect on the big questions brought about by the encounter with the inevitable pain and joy of an open heart.
What has loving and losing revealed to you about what is really important in life?
What has it revealed to you about yourself and about others?
Did you make mistakes and do you have regrets?
What lessons can you carry with you into your next relationship?
Only if you fully go into these often painful and quite dizzying questions about the meaning of your life, do you unlock the wisdom contained within your heartbreak.
Then you will live to love again, and be a little more prepared for the inevitable heartaches and heartbreaks of life.
Empty Hearts and Full Hearts:
As Jon Fredrickson, a social worker and practicing psychodynamic therapist has said:
The person whose heart has been broken and gives up loving ends up with an empty heart.
The person with a broken heart who continues to love has a full heart, knowing that everyone we love we lose through death or abandonment.
That is why there are only two kinds of hearts: empty hearts and loving hearts.
It takes courage to face the inevitable losses and yet, in spite of it all, to keep on loving and being open to life
About Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and psychodynamic therapist in Houston Texas. I help people move through their difficult emotions to find greater peace and comfort with who they are. Visit: www.bettertherapy.com for more information.