Accepting our foibles
19 July 2020
“One of the most important moves in psychotherapy is to take whatever is presented and simply hold it and give it a place.”
I like the above quote because it is counter cultural, in the sense that it pushes back against the dominant message we get that problems are there to be fixed.
We go to our doctor to fix a problem and many of us start therapy with the same attitude. Of course, that is completely understandable. We are in mental pain of some kind and we want a cure - who wouldn’t?
The problem is that the human psyche is a complex and mysterious entity. It’s not like taking our car to the mechanic and getting some new spark plugs or a battery.
With good psychotherapy, much of the power is not in being given advice. It’s not even understanding, at an intellectual level, what might be occurring deep down in the psyche (although this can be helpful).
What is more powerful than intellectual understanding or problem-solving advice is being with another human being who is trying to understand our experience. Someone who is present for us in a curious and kind way.
They may have thoughts and observations, but sometimes it’s enough for us just to be witnessed in our pain or confusion. Therapy can helps us develop the trust to reveal our deeper fears, hatreds, self-judgments and despair, and have those thoughts and feelings attended to.
By ‘giving a place’ to all these different, and sometimes conflicting, thoughts and feelings we can begin to accept and include the different aspects of ourselves. This is very different to what many of us tend to do, which is to judge the parts of ourselves and our experience that we don’t like or find uncomfortable.
This self-judgment perpetuates a constant struggle between the bits of me that are ‘good’ and the bits that are ‘bad’ and it takes up a lot of energy suppressing or hiding the bad bits. It’s not that we should be unthinkingly acting our our jealousy, anger, hatred and all the other not-so-nice bits. But we do need to find a way to honour those parts of ourselves in some way.
Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says: "I'm interested in a...humbler approach, one that is more accepting of human foibles and indeed sees dignity and peace as emerging more from that acceptance than from any method of transcending the human condition."
That’s why I often try to question the client’s presentation of the problem. They will often complain about a behaviour, such as ‘I’m getting so angry with people lately! It’s just not me.” Rather than collude with the client that the ‘problem’ is the anger, I find it’s more helpful to become curious of the behaviour and, in some form, to allow it to “have a place” in the therapy and in the client’s life.
We can give a difficult emotion or behaviour a place, not judging it, but becoming curious. When this happens something subtle can shift, new energy can be released and new options can become visible.
Image from pxhere.com, creative commons