A lot of well-meaning people often say to psychologists that we deal with “depressing things” and are always concerned with emotional pain. A lot of people think that talking or writing about painful topics is somehow “negative,” and I would like to address this issue, as well as the “upbeat” part of the psychotherapist’s work.
In all fairness, anyone concerned with healing is concerned with the disease process in the physical realm, and emotional pain in the psychological. (This article does not address the mind-body-spirit connection, which is also very important.) It is very hard to change or to facilitate the healing process without addressing the issues. As a professor of mine once said, “No one goes to a psychologist to say that life has been great, or because they just wanted to be nice to psychologists.” This is true. People come in because they are experiencing pretty extreme emotional unease. Those who have had therapy come in recognizing that they have done some of the work and want to do more.
The initiated have a different starting point; others come in and just want the pain or discomfort to end. As one business-oriented person said to me, “Just give me the bottom line. I don’t want to discuss anything, but I’ll do anything you say to get rid of this panic and sweaty hands.” He had had that problem for about a year and had been to other therapists, and when he did do the work, he stopped denying how desperately unhappy he was and made changes to his life. The stage where he acknowledged his unhappiness was very painful, but his panic stopped at that point. Ironically, he said he found it interesting looking at his issues as he progressed. It is a hard sell for sure telling people that their panic or anxiety will end when they face feelings they would rather not—and that those will not be happy feelings. But it is the truth.
But the “upbeat” part for us lies in the human capacity to change. People have the ability to step aside, look at themselves, and reach a deeper level of honesty and courage, and to stop behaviors aimed at blocking unwanted feelings (even though the behaviors are unwanted, too). True, change is difficult and we do it in little steps. It is also true that when people are in pain they do not really believe that looking into themselves will provide solace, but they do have the ability to change, and working with someone and seeing their courage, honesty, and determination is, to me and probably my colleagues, the most rewarding thing one can do. True, psychologists think a lot about the hard aspects of life and the many facets of relationships. But we think a lot about how to make wonderful changes and what it is like watching someone become more and more empowered. To us, emotional pain is not “negative” but the mark of an honest and brave person who wants help; they are just human issues. To us, pretending those issues don’t exist does not solve anything. To us, those issues are very clean and sincere.
In the course of my work I have seen people come in traumatized and in crisis because of long-standing abuse by a partner that ended in a huge betrayal. I have seen them evolve into people who said they knew those partners had big problems but they thought they would make them feel mentally healthier or superior, and that they were in a way using the person. They discovered a very important truth—that when you acknowledge your own role in a painful interaction, you feel less of a victim and are in fact less of a victim. When people discover this, sharing their joy and power is an incredible feeling. It takes a while. As someone once told me, “I understand what you are saying, but I’m not there yet.” He did get there and the pain transformed into wisdom and compassion, for himself and others. I have seen people with a rigid and anxious perfectionism turn it into an awareness of strengths and weaknesses and humor. I have seen numerous people develop genuine self-respect by looking inward, doing the work, walking the walk. To us, it is very spiritual to look at issues, which everyone has, not to deny them and pretend, and the work is extremely hard and extremely uplifting.
In summary, we cannot talk about healing without talking about healing from WHAT. The way we become more positive is to face that which we don’t like, and the outcome is genuine. Next time someone asks if a psychologist’s or psychotherapist’s job is sad or depressing, I want to think of a way to tell them how very meaningful it has to see the very best in human beings and to be a facilitator in the process.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.