When the Best a Therapist Can Do Is Not Concentrate on the Problem.
Problems, syndromes and issues seem to be on the up. Definitions and diagnoses abound, information freely circulates. While once we relied on experts to tell us whether or not we were ill or crazy (and left the finer details of that illness or craziness to them to sort out and treat), we now “empower ourselves” with an infinite stream of information.
An obvious danger here is a lack of specialist knowledge—we don’t know how to sift the information to find what is relevant. Fast on the heels of that danger comes the fact that we do know all too well what seems relevant, and choose according to those feelings—hoping to find what will make us feel more ourselves. This may lead to a scenario in which, empowered to prove that we really are terminally ill, or crazy, we take a further step and join a few forums in order to find support, and identify further with the problem we want to fit.
As a therapist, I sometimes feel quite under informed when I meet a client who knows her problem inside out and back to front, who has shared the intimate details of it with hundreds of other people and heard their own intimate details in return. I also wonder sometimes what kind of understanding and support I can offer that could surpass the insider knowledge, empathy and safety offered by an intimate online stranger, somewhere in the world, at any hour of day or night.
I remind myself, then, that what I offer is knowledge, empathy and support, not to the problem, fascinatingly complex though it may be, but to the person who may even have forgotten she is there.
Whereas the default model may once have been that a person hid some kind of shadow, which needed to be brought to light, examined and transformed, in order to make her whole, now the predominant model seems to be that the problem is the visible entity, and the shadow-self is the person. It is this person, not the shadow, that needs to be brought to light and examined; not the addict, the cancer survivor, the self-harmer, the etc.
Does it make any sense to separate things out this way? Our healthiness and our sickness, our light and dark aspects are surely an interpenetrating system, each gaining nourishment from the other. I don’t want to suggest denial, blithely ignoring the problem, setting our faces resolutely to the bright side, or making a system where person equals good and problem equals bad.
Working together in therapy is a constant dance of finding, as the ground shifts under our feet, places where for a while it feels firm, finding moments of identification, and delicately prising away identifications, following trails, glimpsing a waving flag ahead, one side bright, one side dark, not knowing exactly where we are going but moving always towards a sense of resiliency and realness.
So in the thick of that dance, or journey, depending on our perspective, it doesn’t usually make sense to separate out me from my problem. Our problem is something we do. We are something we do.
But sometimes, it is a skillful thing to take a position, in order to counteract or balance or clarify the dominant one. And when the work is finished, clients, having emerged from the grip of chronic problems, sometimes turn around and say, “the most helpful thing you did was not to focus on the problem.”
What we focus on tends to grow. Our time and attention is precious, even if it comes in the form of worry, panic or obsession, it is still a form of attention, a source of growth-promoting love. If we can manage to prise our attention even a little, a second, a snatch, away from our problems, from the comfort of knowing what they are, even as they absorb us and damage us, we may catch a glimpse of an entirely new possibility—freedom.
Sarah Luczaj is a poet, person centered counselor/therapist and translator from the UK, living in rural Poland, where she runs an online therapy practice and face to face therapy practice (the latter in Polish!). Once a regular writer for the Psychology, Philosophy and Real Life blog, she is now busy focusing, writing a PhD on no-self in therapy, laughing at just about everything and attempting to grow vegetables.
Editor: James Carpenter