depressed woman

Why People Often Choose Misery Over Change

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.

Sound strange?

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.

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