Many clients come to counseling expecting therapists to give them the answer – to tell them what to do about a particular problem or symptom. They also often want to know what’s “normal.”
At the risk of breaking the magician’s code, I’m going to tell you a secret.
Therapists and counselors don’t know what’s right for a client, nor can they say with any certainty what’s normal.
To start, despite wishful thinking, therapists are not gifted with the supernatural powers that would allow them to understand every human experience or emotional condition, nor do they know the path each individual should choose while at an impasse or where a chosen path might take them. And while there may be the illusion of normal, the truth is that we are all uniquely different, and the process of change is far too unpredictable for any of us to know what’s right about most things.
We are not a particularly think-for-yourself culture. From an early age, most of us are taught what we should do – to simply accept convention and follow it. And although that may rub up against us in uncomfortable ways at times, we usually act with complicity, allowing others to make decisions for us. We become passive participants in our own lives, uninformed in the language of self and unempowered when it comes to our ability to make choices and affect the world around us.
A good therapist will know how to help clients understand their options and their choices and anticipate with them, the consequences of change. The magic of therapy occurs at that moment when clients feel the power that comes from knowing they have are many choices in their lives and the freedom to follow their own path.
Very little, if anything in life, has an absolute right or wrong. Most of it falls in a big blurry gray area. There are millions of goals to set and just as many ways to get there. And there are gains and consequences for every one of them. If anything can be considered healthy, it’s making a well-considered choice, whatever the price may be, even when the best choice is to change nothing.
To get philosophical for a moment, my belief is that the purpose of life is just to live it – to be fully engaged with its mystery and complexity. To be alive is to let yourself be present; to feel your feelings, to discover and embrace whatever you are, and to share it with others along the way. You will succeed sometimes and fuck-up other times, but the little details in the end are mostly a wash. What matters is that, through it all, you will learn and grow.
But nothing in our culture or schooling guides us to achieve this. Our parents’ model for us what they have figured out by the time they have us. They either pass along what was modeled to them or the opposite of such if they believe their parents were doing it wrong. There is no class in elementary school that helps us to understand our feelings or to build self-esteem. There is no course in high school that teaches us how to understand our sexuality or how to practice different communication styles. No one talks about grief or loss, or how to age with dignity.
Perhaps worst of all, we are taught not to take risks – to live safely in between the lines so as never to fail or bring shame to ourselves or to those around us. We are so afraid, so avoidant, spending our lives dancing and leaping away from the potential of pain or failure because we believe we cannot withstand such a thing But the reality is that we as people are survivors. All of us. And there is almost nothing we can’t live through. In fact the only thing that I believe we really can’t live through is never allowing ourselves to take chances and test our resiliency. The people I see that live this way are the ones who are stuck. Paralyzed and miserable. Too afraid to live.
Because we are a society with so many should’s – prescriptions for the right way to do things – we judge our life against these measuring sticks. What should I do about my husband’s drinking? How many times a week should my partner and I have sex? My son hates school. What should I tell him? To find the answers to these questions, we look with energy and determination to the self-help section in the bookstore, to Dr. Phil, to people that know us a little better than these “experts;” our friends and family members. We look everywhere, absolutely everywhere, but not inside ourselves.
Even as a therapist myself, I am not immune to such decisional struggle. Not long ago, I was faced with putting our 12-year-old beagle, Delia, to sleep. She had stopped eating and drinking about a week before I made the decision, and I asked the vet to come to our home and end the suffering dog’s life. The week prior, between long stretches of sitting quietly with her or petting her warm coat as she labored to breath, I found myself rather obsessively searching the Humane Society’s website for dogs. Everyone I knew advised me to wait – to take time to mourn Delia’s loss before I moved on, that to adopt again so soon in trying to fill her place would not replace her. When unwittingly but not surprisingly I fell in love with the picture and description of Galaxy, a beautiful mixed Burmese/Australian Shepherd pup with bright blue eyes listed on the site, I felt guilty and ashamed as I contemplated hitting the shelter first thing in the morning. I wondered why I wasn’t grieving “right”. Was this somehow disrespectful to Delia? But hadn’t I been grieving for her the whole time she was ill. Had I already let go? I argued with myself wondering, Is there a right way to grieve?
A wise therapist will know which questions to ask to help a client discover the most meaningful course of action for the dilemma he or she presents. A less experienced one will tell a client which behavior or action is considered normal. But we are far too complex and creative as human beings for any behavior to be looked at through such a lens. When we examine our situation without labels, we are more likely to think creatively and openly, without judgment, about all possible solutions. A wise therapist will be there to encourage their client along the way and to process with them the experience and the outcome when all is said and done. That’s it. That’s the magic.
Take the case of a young woman who has recently broken up with her boyfriend. A few weeks later she meets someone who really rocks her world. Many therapists would warn her not to jump into a new relationship so quickly. They would encourage her to spend some time getting to know herself again; a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement. But isn’t it just as possible that she understands herself well enough to know she had already grieved the ending of her last relationship a long time before it actually ended? Perhaps she even felt a sense of clarity and an emotional relief when it finally did end. Or maybe she’s someone who understands how it is to live with ambivalence, capable of embracing loss and excitement at the same time. Maybe still, she’s simply relationship-oriented and thrives best in a partnership with another person with whom she learns and grows. Does the prescription to wait still apply to her? Can what she would gain from waiting before she opens herself up to love again somehow be measured and analyzed against what she would gain from allowing it in? My part of the magic is to ask her that. Hers is to look inside for the answer.
As I sit at my desk to write this column, with Galaxy beside me resting his large, sleepy head in my lap, I know that Delia’s memory has its place in my heart, no less important than if I had waited six months to adopt another dog. And as I look down at him, I consider the magic of life. Could I have chosen a different path? Of course. But I am living fully in the path that I did chose, and I have no regrets about it.