All too often we imagine the way to contentment is entirely a process of aligning the external world in just such a way that it evokes nothing but pleasant feelings. Much of this comes from the cultural messaging that suggests we’re failing as a human being if we aren’t ceaselessly happy. The implicit message underlying market capitalism is that we should be happy, and if we’re not, there’s a problem to be fixed, and something being sold can fix it. Psychotherapy, firmly rooted in the market economy, is not infrequently marketed in just such a way.
As a clinical psychologist, of course I do - given the right fit between therapist and client at the right time in the client’s life - deeply believe in the value of psychotherapy. And yet the psychotherapeutic process should not be confused with an effort to live entirely on one end of the spectrum of the human emotional experience. As human beings, we by definition experience an endless dance of pleasant and unpleasant moments, emotions that feel great and emotions that are unpleasant, and ultimately there’s very little we can do about this. Yes, through psychotherapy and other healing processes, we can become unstuck from chronic feeling states, we can counter shame, we can cultivate kindness, we can heal trauma, we can live more authentically, etc. But we will forever come back to the limits of the human mind and body, which contain all manner of unpleasant and challenging moments until and perhaps including our final breath.
Of course, we can get stuck in the darker end of the spectrum, and find ourselves impossibly far from joy, love, engagement and meaning. And here good psychotherapy can be enormously helpful, as we might move through that which keeps us stuck in our pain. And yet even once unstuck, we remain human, and challenged by all that that means.
Such a simple notion, that we will forever experience both pleasant and unpleasant emotions; that we can not escape the realities of impermanence and loss; that much of the world evokes sadness, anger, fear; that to be fully alive is to fully experience the entire range of human emotion. In fact, I assert that the lived, allowed experience of the full range of human emotion in response to all that is true in life is the very definition of emotional wellness. And yet it amazes me how frequently people enter my practice feeling such shame about their sadness, their confusion, their fear. When did experiences that are so inextricably human become seen as such a problem?
If the full spectrum of experience is inevitable, my fervent hope for those I treat is that they might cultivate the most useful qualities with which to meet it: courage, integrity, honesty, awareness, wisdom, dignity, acceptance, compassion for others and for the self.