By Christopher Skeaff, LSW, PhD
Meaningful therapeutic change requires that patients get creative. But this creativity may have little to do with picking up a paint brush or starting piano lessons. More fundamentally, it involves the creation of new ways of being and relating.
Understanding the past and creating a future
Consider Simone, a young woman whose accommodating interpersonal style left her vulnerable to being taken advantage of by friends, family, and colleagues. Simone’s “eternally optimistic” parents had always discouraged her from expressing negative feelings for fear that she would alienate others. In treatment, Simone gradually came to realize how she had organized her life around the assumption that self-assertion entailed abandonment.
Trevor, a middle-aged businessman, became depressed after being out of work for an extended period. Unable for the first time in recent memory to feel a sense of professional accomplishment, he was overtaken by a crushing emptiness. Therapy helped Trevor to grasp just how profoundly he had invested his self-worth in the approval of others, particularly his highly exacting father.
In session and in their everyday lives, Simone and Trevor absorbed these respective insights on a deeply emotional level. Each connected to the meanings and motivations behind their established patterns. Still, however much Simone and Trevor wanted to relinquish these patterns, they felt helpless and confused about how to proceed. What they needed at this point was help envisioning and exploring alternatives. The therapeutic focus shifted accordingly from understanding the past to creating a future.
Old patterns die hard
Lifelong patterns are difficult to leave behind, though, even with the insight and motivation needed to do so. The reasons for this intransigence are multiple and depend on the individual.
In Simone’s case, three major obstacles arose as she sought to break free from her pattern of compliance and assert herself more. First, she worried about falling into an opposite pattern of selfishness and imagined that her expressions of anger, in particular, might become uncontrollable. Second, Simone was proud of her capacity for kindness, but this valued trait was part and parcel of her experience as a “pleaser.” So as she began to move away from blanket compliance, Simone feared that she was also becoming less kind. Finally, the prospect of a newly-assertive Simone brought back an anxiety that her pattern of compliance was originally meant to alleviate—namely, that she would conflict with others and lose them as a result.
How could Simone respect and assert herself while caring for others? Put another way, how could she be a kind and compassionate person without also being a doormat? These questions animated the creative experimentation Simone undertook as she started to articulate her desires in a new way.
New possibilities for desire
Trevor too faced a task of actualizing and integrating desires that had found only indirect expression in his old character patterns. On the one hand, he sought occasions for spontaneity and opportunities to immerse himself in intrinsically rewarding activities such as hiking and telling stories with his children.
On the other hand, Trevor explored new ways of satisfying his desire for intellectual stimulation without ultimately subordinating it to conventional markers of professional success. He tried math tutoring for a time and loved it. Eventually, when he returned to the business world, Trevor developed a wildly popular “puzzle curriculum” for his colleagues and found a new calling as a mentor.
The key to therapeutic change, for both Trevor and Simone, lay in recuperating an emotional flexibility that had become hardened within a rigid pattern of experience—their previous achievement-oriented (Trevor) and compliance-oriented (Simone) selves.
Simone learned how pursuing her desires could mean many things other than just selfishness and isolation, and how anger could be used judiciously—and not only destructively—to defend the integrity of herself and others. Trevor discovered how to embrace the pleasures of mastering new challenges, at work and in recreation, free from the burden of extrinsic standards.
Therapy is often said to involve helping patients rewrite their narratives. Simone and Trevor’s experiences illustrate that such rewriting demands more than working through the past. Just as crucially, it entails rewriting with a view to opening up the future and creating new possibilities for one’s desire.
Christopher Skeaff, who joined Ambre Associates earlier this year, works with adults and adolescents on a range of issues, including anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, and life transitions. With 20 years experience working in various capacities in higher education, Chris has particular expertise helping individuals who are dealing with the stresses of college, graduate school, or faculty life.
It’s time to live the life you deserve.
If you’re interested in learning more about individual psychotherapy, adolescent psychotherapy, child psychotherapy, psychoanalysis or couples counseling, please contact us by submitting this form, or by phone at 847-729-3034. We’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have.