People seek counseling or therapy to change what no longer works: careers, lifestyles, friendships, marriages. They’ve labored for months, years, sometimes even decades to make their jobs more appealing, their spouses more affectionate, their families more considerate. Exhausted from the fight, clients come to therapy hoping their therapist or counselor will join the effort. And we do. Just not always in ways our clients expect.
What brings people in the door is frequently not what keeps them there. What is initially described as a problem is usually the beginning of a solution.
Jason*, a twenty-three-year-old, second-year medical student, was referred for psychotherapy by a psychiatrist from whom he originally sought antidepressant medication. He didn’t exactly sit on my sofa. He slammed himself against the back cushion and slid, pancake-style, until he was practically laying down and sitting up at the same time. When asked what brought him to therapy, he could barely lift his head to answer. “Depression” was the most he could muster. I probed further.
From the time he was old enough to walk, talk, and cut his own steak, Jason was told he was destined to be a physician. For the entirety of his youth, his parents, both surgeons, conveyed to Jason that he had two post-college options: medical school or medical school. Jason was a gifted student to whom science and math came easily. So, after graduating from a prestigious college with a Bachelor’s degree in biology, Jason applied to medical school and was accepted. Off he went.
There was only one tiny problem with this plan: Jason hated medicine. A classically-trained pianist, his true love was music. He wanted to play professionally. Because Jason knew his parents would never approve of this choice, he buried his love of music and forged ahead with the mandate to become a doctor.
Though Jason’s presenting concern was depression, with time, it became clear that depression was merely a topical symptom: the real issue was Jason’s relationship with approval. He needed approval so desperately he was willing to pay for it with his life--literally. As he whiled the hours becoming more of the person his parents wanted him to be, he was slowly becoming less and less himself. By the time I saw him, he was merely a shell, his own narrative virtually indistinguishable from that of his parents.
It was a long and difficult road but Jason eventually found his voice. As he did, the depression lifted. He mustered the courage to put his medical studies on hold and pursue music. His parents weren’t thrilled but, to his surprise, they hung in there. What’s more, Jason decided, on his own, that he would move in with roommates to lower his living expenses and support himself by teaching piano lessons. It wasn’t a king’s ransom but it was a living. At twenty-three, Jason was doing the unthinkable: he was becoming an adult.
Jason clung to a medical career to protect both himself and his parents from the dilemma of having to choose their real-live son over their idealized version of him. The most difficult part of Jason’s journey was not abandoning a career he never wanted to begin with, but trusting that he was strong enough to withstand the discomfort of telling an authentic but unpopular truth. In so doing, he untethered himself from the core belief that his well being was contingent upon the approval of those he cared about. With the need for external validation no longer powering the engine, Jason was not only surviving; he was actually thriving!
Jason’s story is not unique. For many of us, fear manifests as immutable obstacles we tell ourselves we cannot live with or without. We cannot leave the job that is giving us bleeding ulcers because we need the money. We cannot ask for what we want because our spouses will leave us. We couldn't possibly sell the house that is bankrupting us. Over and over, we plead with life to change in one breath while weaving stories that are designed to keep it the same in the other.
It is not the obstacles themselves that keep us stuck, it is our relationship with the meaning we have imbued those obstacles with.
Most obstacles serve a protective function. They shield us from our deepest fears and the dependencies that maintain them. They keep us at a healthy distance from what we are not yet ready to know or experience.
We struggle to find a way out of suffering not because we don't have answers but because we haven't yet found the right questions. Had Jason and I focused solely on eradicating his depression, we would not have seen that the real issue was a dependency that was preventing him from knowing his own strength. We cannot succeed at removing the barriers to change unless we first understand and acknowledge their benevolent purpose.
If you're on the cusp of making an important change and something appears to be holding you back, remember that you have chosen this obstacle for a reason. Try not to blame yourself here--there is no sense in heaping suffering on top of pain. Reminding yourself that you are the architect of your obstacles can be a way of offering hope that, when you are ready, you will draw up a different blueprint!
How have you overcome obstacles in your life? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
*Names and identifying information have been altered to protect patient confidentiality.
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Are obstacles getting in the way of you having the life you deserve?
People often seek therapy to help mitigate fear or discomfort. No wonder. Being on the back end of the life spiral is not much fun. However, did you know that pain and discomfort are precursors to growth? Let's explore this together.
Each of us was born with an instinctive drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain--both real or imagined. As cave dwellers, the latter kept us from getting eaten by predators whilst out foraging for bison and berries. So let's be grateful for that!
Times eventually changed and so did our brains. However, the part of the brain that is responsible for logic and reasoning (frontal cortex) is located nowhere near the part where primal fear occurs, (amygdala). Thus, many of us today struggle to accurately interpret fear.
Sometimes fear is meant to notify us of imminent danger. However, it is more common to experience fear in the absence of a true threat. Fear in the absence of danger is called "anxiety." Anxiety would have us believe there is a tiger in the grass when, really, there is no tiger.
Because fear can be quite convincing, many of us choose to mitigate it with avoidance, even when the feared stimulus is (somewhat) neutral, like dogs, conflict, bridges, public speaking, or peanut butter getting stuck to the roof of your mouth (yes, that really is a phobia).
The imagined equation looks like this: fear + avoidance = relief.
However, what most of us don't know is that avoidance actually increases the likelihood that we will experience more fear the next time we encounter the feared stimulus. And what coping strategy are we most likely to use to handle this fear? You guessed it: avoidance!
So, the real equation looks more like this: fear + avoidance = self-doubt + more fear + future avoidance.
This is not how most of us want our lives to add up!
I once observed an interaction between a mother and her teenaged son, the latter of whom struggled with social anxiety (i.e., an excessive fear of being judged, scrutinized, or criticized in social situations). The son decided he wanted pizza for dinner and, when it came time to call in the order, the mother automatically assumed she was the best candidate for the job. When I asked why her son couldn't order his own pizza, she was gobsmacked. "He has anxiety!" she exclaimed. As if I was the one with problem for asking. The loving mother could not see how this kind of "protection" deprived her son of the option to know his own strength by challenging his fear.
The taproot of all anxiety is the fear of temporary discomfort. For example, if the boy would have phoned in his own order, the worst case scenario was that he would have felt awkward or uncomfortable for a little while. Discomfort, like any other transitory emotional state, is felt and then released. No one has ever died of discomfort. But many have regretting not having fully lived!
Avoiding what we fear is a way of whispering"I can't do it!" into our unconscious minds. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we allow fear to drive our decisions, the smaller our worlds become. The next time you feel gripped by anxiety, try this:
1. Name your fear. Say out loud exactly what you are afraid of. Sometimes we can deflate fear just by hearing it spoken aloud in our own words.
2. Ask yourself: "What might happen if I do ___?" Ask yourself what the consequences would be if you challenged your fear. If the answer is anything that resembles, "I will feel awkward, uncomfortable, look stupid, etc." tell yourself this: "From now on, I choose to live in the light. I am reclaiming strength and joy in my life."
3. Ask yourself: "What might happen if I don't do ___?" What opportunity for growth would you be missing if you chose to avoid this fear? Remember, the temporary relief afforded by avoidance is a prequel to more fear and self-doubt. You deserve better!
4. Go for it! Your confidence is hiding, just beyond your fear of discomfort. Doing what you fear is the only way to access it. Why deprive yourself of feeling capable? (Hint: there is no good answer to this question.)
5. Pay attention to your feelings. As you live by this new creed, pay attention to how you feel. It is okay if things do not turn out perfectly every time. Perfect is the enemy of the good enough. The most important thing is that you tried. So keep trying!
Remember that courage is not the absence of fear--it is what happens when we feel afraid and do it anyway. Each step away from fear is a step toward confidence. You are creating the life you deserve by showing yourself that YOU are stronger than fear!
Not sure you want to try this alone? Email me to find out how you can kick fear to the curb!
Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, therapist, and counselor. She offers grief therapy, divorce support, and other counseling services in the Phinney Greenwood area of Seattle, WA. Schedule a free consultation to find out how therapy or counseling can help you get from fearful to fierce!
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Dr. Jill Gross is a licensed psychologist, grief counselor, and dating coach. Her coaching and therapy practice is located in the Phinney - Greenwood area of North Seattle in Washington.