Therapy is supposed to be an occasion for self-exploration. It's supposed to offer an environment that allows people to safely go into uncharted waters to discover aspects of themselves they would otherwise find inaccessible. It's supposed to foster the kind of growth that deepens and enriches life. Along the way, it is also supposed to resolve "issues" that have often lingered for a lifetime. So, it's not just about discovery...it's also about putting things to rest.
I love doing that kind of therapy. It gives me a chance to be a travel companion on a fascinating, and occasionally treacherous trip. I get to point out things that might go unnoticed. I get to encourage and support. It's wonderful!
But, that's not what many people begin therapy with. Most people don't begin therapy eager to explore, with a desire to expand their internal horizons. Most simply want a problem solved. Most come in exhausted and exasperated looking for answers. They want to know if they have done enough to save the marriage. They want to know if their desire to end things is justifiable. They want to know if an additional effort they have in mind makes sense. They want someone they can trust--someone with knowledge and experience--to tell them whether or not they are doing the right thing.
In traditional therapy these pointed questions are sidestepped with responses like, "Well, what do you think is the best course of action?" The goal of sidestepping is to encourage self-sufficiency and confidence. It's an admirable goal and one to which I subscribe most of the time. Occasionally, however, people long for an objective standard...something to orient them as they move through the dense fog decision-making. To dismiss that need is a bit like asking someone to provide the dimensions of a room without allowing access to a tape measure. There's a lot of comfort in having something "objective" guiding us. If you're lost in the woods, the objectivity of a compass can prevent useless wandering, sometimes saving a life.
When we look for an objective standard to guide us, we naturally look outside ourselves. We turn our attention to experts, generally accepted philosophies or religious teachings. We assume that what's out there is more objective than what's "in here." Despite that natural, common sense inclination, I'm not sure looking outside ourselves guarantees the kind of objective information we really need. Since there's so much "objective" data out there competing for our attention, looking outside ourselves for direction may only contribute to our confusion.
So where do we find the perfect compass? I believe that ultimately it's within us. But, even looking within can be confusing if we don't know what we're looking for or where to look. I believe the compass we need has everything to do with self-respect. Lately, it's seemed pretty clear that developing a keen sense of self-respect can go a long way toward providing data as close to objective as we can get. If we pay close attention to our experience of self-respect it can take us to greater depths of compassion. It can also take us to places we may not want to go. I've worked with more than one person who clung to a destructive relationship because they desperately wanted to make it work. Careful attention to self-respect often makes it clear what needs to be done despite the difficulty of doing it. Careful attention to self-respect can put us in touch with the deepest truth of our lives and in so doing, offer direction that has integrity.
If we spent as much time honing our internal experience of self-respect as we do searching for good advice out there, we would likely make better decisions, avoid a lot of unnecessary pain and live our lives with more integrity.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.