Last week I had someone contact me out of the blue because she needed to interview a mental health counselor. She heard about me through her aunt, who directed her to my blog. I like being interviewed, and I like being helpful, so I said yes. One of her questions was what my theoretical orientation/approach is. I haven’t answered this question in a while, and the longer I practice, the harder it is to answer.
These days I would say that I teach people how to accept and tolerate pain. Which is not a popular response for some clients. Usually their goal is something like, help me get rid of my pain. And believe me, if I had the power to do that, I would. It’s just that pain doesn’t often work that way.
We believe that we can make our pain go away because we think we have more control over our feelings than we actually have. This is a misconception of what it means to have free will. Not everything that happens in our minds is a matter of choice.
For example, I struggle with being obsessive. This seems like it should be under my control, since I should be able to stop my obsessive thoughts. In fact, for a while, one popular cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) technique was called thought-stopping. For some reason, it took decades for researchers to figure out that this doesn’t actually work.
I still try it, though. I tell myself to stop obsessing all day long. In fact, I do all of the CBT strategies that are supposed to help. I challenge my irrational thoughts. I avoid the word “should.” I use positive language. Practice gratitude. But still. The obsessing continues. To those people for whom being rational is sufficient to stop your pain, all I can say is, lucky you.
Most people don’t like medication because needing it seems to signify a lack of control, which signifies personal weakness. I have to admit, I had the same bias. If you read my blog, then you know it took me many years to start and stay on my meds. Even now, I try not to use them until the obsessing becomes unbearable. But then my psychiatrist phrased taking my meds as a way to have control over my anxiety. A novel idea. I like control. So now I take them sooner than I used to.
These days I tell clients to ask themselves, how much pain are you willing to tolerate in order to say that you don’t need meds? Rather than feeling like a failure because they need meds, they can think of taking them as a choice to alleviate their suffering.
The other thing I do is teach clients how to practice self-compassion. All of those rational strategies work better if you express compassion for your pain first. If you say things to yourself like, obsessing is painful. I’m sorry you have to be in pain. It’s not your fault that you can’t make it stop. Why don’t you try ______ and see if that helps? And I go through my arsenal of strategies until something helps. Or until the obsessing subsides.
Having compassion for my suffering frees up some of the energy that I spend on beating myself up for not being rational. Which, paradoxically, allows me to have more control. More free will. Perhaps compassion is the place where the heart and mind meet.
Don’t get me wrong–it’s still hard to practice self-compassion. It does not come naturally to me. My automatic response is still to tell myself to stop being obsessive. But there’s no question that it works. My blog is proof of that. Because it’s been a long time since someone has told me that I’m being too hard on myself after reading one of my posts.