I’ve said for years — perhaps because it simplifies a complex relationship, and I like feeling like I have a handle on things — that people come to therapy because they’re in pain.
And it’s true.
Of the hundreds and possibly (by this point) thousands of people I’ve seen in my therapy office over the last ten years, 99% of them are in pain. Enough pain that they’re wiling to spend their hard-earned money and precious time sitting on a sofa talking about their intimate inner worlds and taking apart their struggles one moment, one incident at a time. (The other 1% are couples seeking premarital counseling. I can also recall one person who wondered if he needed therapy at all, so he scheduled an appointment to explore the subject. Turns out, he didn’t deem it necessary or productive.)
Pain is the great impetus for change. It’s what motivates us to seek out different options and try new ways of being.
And what we do want?
In general: Connection. Satisfying, whole-making connection with ourselves and with others in our relationships. Therapy is a lot of things, and one of them is helping someone figure out how and why they’re not connecting as their hearts desire and need.
But... I’m changing my mind. Or rather, expanding it.
I think all of the above are true. Yes, therapy is about addressing pain - how to lessen, eradicate, or learn from it. Yes, therapy is about connection — how to foster deeper bonds within ourselves and within our relationships. Yes and yes.
But I’m coming to realize there is something else going on.
You see, in each one of us, there are competing voices.
There is a voice that says, “You are extraordinary and precious beyond measure!” (This is why we bristle when people mistreat us; we know we inherently deserve better.) Then there’s another voice that says, “No, you’re not. You’re a phony, a failure, a jerk, a wimp,” or any other insulting name. Take your pick.
There’s a voice that says, “You are capable of so much more than this!” and another voice that says, “Stay in your lane. Keep your head down. Stay small. Play it safe.”
There is a voice that says, “Your dreams are within reach! Go for it!” and another that says, “Just be content with what you have, and don’t ask for too much.”
One voice cries, "It's impossible." Another voice whispers, "No it's not."
So there is conflict. We all house this internal war. We fight with who we deeply believe we are and the narrative we live day to day. We’re frustrated. This is painful.
We’re capable of more love than we give.
We’re more creative than we allow.
We’re worthy of more love than we expect or ask for or receive.
We have a lion’s heart of courage within us even though we shy away from risk.
We live in the exhausting energy of trying desperately to hear and believe that internal, uplifting voice - it keeps us alive - and silencing it so we don’t have to face ourselves and the reality of being “less than that” every day.
If I asked you, I bet you could tell me all about this excellent version of yourself. How would you live? If you were the healthiest, most confident, most dynamic, courageous version of yourself, what would your life look like? What would be different? What would you be doing day to day?
What if you had no fear or less fear in your relationships? What or who would you pursue? Who would you confront? How would you love?
What if you believed in yourself at work? If you knew you had it in you and were confident in positive outcomes, what risks would you take?
These competing voices, this inner conflict between the “me I truly believe I am” and the “self-limiting person I am every day,” this is why people come to therapy.
I believe we all have an inner sense of our greatness, our power, our gifts, and our purpose. And we have a script we’re supposed to follow: be this, be that. "Don’t get too big for your britches.” It’s painful, this conflict, and we want it resolved.
We just want to live freely. Imagine a life in which you can hear your inner voice and trust it. A life in which you can flow naturally between goals and your effort without an orchestra of self-doubt between the two.
It’s the conflict between who we know we are and who we’ve been taught we are that’s bringing us to our knees and into therapy rooms where we seek help. The question is burning through us: Who Am I? Am I the beautiful, powerful person I can feel, somewhere deep inside me? Or am I just… plain? Normal. Ordinary. Small.
We want a therapist to tell us who we are.
We want them to resolve the conflict for us.
“Either tell me I’m everything I sense that I am, or tell me I’m off my rocker, but tell me something!”
It’s the conflict that's torturing us.
But it’s the very same conflict that’s energizing us. We want an answer.
The same question that drives us drains us.
Because what is life if not the journey of proving to ourselves that the deepest sense of who we really are… happens to be true?
Perhaps learning to sit in the awareness of the conflict is the work. Perhaps developing patience and not forcing answers, but letting our souls mature gently and steadily is the healing we seek. Perhaps being acquainted with and fond of ourselves at every step along the way is the connection our hearts desire.
"Who am I?" I can’t answer that question for you or for any client. No therapist can.
But we can and will acknowledge that that conflict… that painful, universal conflict… is what it means to be human.