One of the most common questions asked in therapy is, "why should I be sad when I can be happy?" There are variations to this question like, "why would I want to focus on my difficult past when I can move forward and not be in pain?" Or, "I don't want to suffer anymore. I came to relieve my pain, not feel it all over again."
I empathize deeply with the idea that revisiting painful memories, events, and feelings can be overwhelming and seems an undue punishment on the path to healing. However, I also know that the healing process rarely takes place without returning to the old (or fresh) wounds in order to tend to them. As a therapist, I try to create an emotionally safe environment in which people can explore their feelings and leave knowing that they are cared for and perhaps even feeling better. This Pollyanna version of therapy occurs occasionally, but the reality is that emotions are messy, complex, and can be very overwhelming. Sometimes digging up hard feelings can make things worse before they get better. The process of unearthing pain and fear is courageous and facing an unknown process like therapy, while life-enhancing, is hard work.
One of my favorite authors/researchers/story tellers, Brené Brown, discusses the importance of dealing with "the things that get in the way of joy, meaning, and connection" in her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection, which I highly recommend to everyone reading this post. Brené Brown is a fellow social worker (LMSW, PhD) who studies people and their experiences with shame, vulnerability, courage, and worthiness. Her thorough, evidence-based approach to the study of shame and other human emotions allows me to unequivocally recommend her work as an unbiased clinician. My status as a total Brené-Brown-ophile lends me to speak from a vulnerable, human place of admiration and to share that her work has changed my life, my work, and my connections with the people I love. If Brené Brown were Elvis, I would be the screaming, crying teenager watching her TED Talks. The following quotation caught my attention while reading The Gifts of Imperfection:
"If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way - especially shame, fear, and vulnerability."
We have to talk about, process, feel, and share the things that get in the way of worthiness, connection, and happiness in order to define, look for, and live a life or worthiness, connection, and happiness. Brené (yes, we're on a first name basis) would call this way of living "wholehearted" and others may call it conscious, purposeful, connected, or self-aware. Whatever you call it, the sentiment is the same: in order to experience joy and have meaningful relationships we must sort through the pain, hurt, and fear.
You are not alone if this sounds like a daunting, horrifying, or completely foreign concept. I too was among the horrified before finding the safety, patience, and motivation to endure this process. A good therapist was instrumental in this process for me - the safety of a warm, non-judgmental person who was dedicated to my care was extremely powerful through some of my most difficult growth. In fact, it is what drew me into the field of psychotherapy and guides me in my practice of empathy, compassion, and gentle exploration with my own clients. Pretty powerful stuff.
After reading that paragraph you may be thinking, "ahem. I don't want to BE a therapist. Why, again, would any NORMAL person want to go through pain, terror, and negative feelings?" I get it. What makes it worth it? And furthermore, why do we need someone else to witness, support, and be there for us through the vulnerable, life-altering process of healing? This is my best shot at answering that question:
People are not emotionally wounded alone, they are wounded by and among other people. The most powerful way to heal wounds is by vulnerably, bravely sharing the pain with another person(s) and receiving a corrective, kind response like empathy, compassion, protection, and care.You may find something more powerful than pain after experiencing it, knowing it, and moving through it. Over time, you may find that pain is no longer terrifying, but tolerable after working your emotional muscles. You may find that you are your own courageous, badass, superhero. You might, at last, love yourself not despite imperfection, but because of imperfection. You might find that you are good enough, just the way you are.
Take care of yourselves and others.
Visit Brené Brown's blog to learn more about vulnerability, courage, and wholehearted living: www.ordinarycourage.com
Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden.