There are a lot of ideas about how to put theories of healing into practice. Personally, I tend toward the emotional: What does it feel like? How does one get from A to B to C, etc.? What do the steps look like? So many people think that change should come instantly. Just find the magic key and all the work is done. For example, one of my clients had the sudden epiphany that she no longer wanted to defend herself from risks. I said “Great! And now we need to discover how those defenses have served you, consider what they might be protecting. They won’t just go away because we politely asked them to leave.” The epiphany was one step toward her desired goal. Healing is a process, not an event, and everyone’s process is unique. My view is that psychotherapy is not about giving advice, what I think a patient should do. Rather it is most efficacious when the therapeutic relationship nurtures the client’s ability to hear their own distinctive inner voice, a murmuring that leads them to their personal internal guides and answers the question, why am I alive? Quite often that voice is buried under the leaden weight of defenses that are trying their damnedest to protect the individual from emotional pain. I guess the question is why try to pry open the old, rusted trunk to liberate pain? If the pain is contained, doesn’t that make life safer? Is finding one’s voice really that important?
To answer that question, I’ll offer a condensed version of how accepting psychic pain helped one of my clients expand his world. Colin (a pseudonym) had a difficult relationship with his father. Although the man was present physically with the family, he was not present emotionally or intellectually; he was a functioning alcoholic who simply checked out every afternoon with his best friend, Budweiser. As a child, Colin tried very, very hard to garner his father’s approval, failing that a little attention would have lit up his world. None of Colin’s efforts made even a pinprick in his father’s dispassion. As Colin grew older, he tried to bond with his dad over beers in the garage. But while Colin was working his way into what looked like fated alcoholism, he was not working his way into his father’s consciousness or heart. Eventually Colin got sober, and a few years later we began our psychotherapeutic relationship. It was very difficult for him to access all the anger he felt for his dad. He’d always assumed that everything was his fault, which made him turn his anger inward, poisoning his sense of self and feeding his already bloated self-loathing. As we continued our sessions, he was eventually able to access his buried rancor. This acknowledgement was the cue that helped him hear the heartbeat of decades of repressed pain. By allowing himself to access the verboten feelings, he released them. For a while he swung to the other side of the emotional spectrum and blamed his father for everything—not the end goal, but a step toward his emotional awakening. By not censoring his unwelcome feelings, Colin’s other emotions were given the latitude to bloom, partly because he was no longer expending massive amounts of psychic energy creating volumes of rationalizations. Although there is still some blaming, it no longer defines his relationship with his father. He has recognized that he loves his father and is learning to accept the man’s failures. Most importantly, Colin can love himself for who he is. His misdirected anger is no longer torturing him as he steps out of the thrall of his father’s shadow. Bringing decades of suppressed rage into his consciousness allowed the acrimony to be redirected and honored, and eventually to burn itself out.