People come in to therapy with varying presumptions about how therapy can make a difference in their lives. And there are many different points of view and approaches to therapy practiced by a variety of mental health professionals. With these approaches come perspectives about the nature of problems and the nature of human functioning. The purpose of this article is to educate you on a particular point of view about therapy and how you can make the most of your therapy experience.
A SHORT BACKGROUND ON THE HUMAN CONDITION
Life is a journey of change, growth and development. We began our journey at birth when we came into the world and will end our journey at death when we leave the world. Between the poles of birth and death we live our lives and right now is where we are in this total process.
During this journey, we pass through stages of development. It is obvious that we grow physically but our growth is also manifested in other dimensions and contexts of our lives. We grow in our talents and skills, we grow professionally, we grow socially, we grow psychologically and we grow spiritually. To grow simply means to activate our potential to become all that we are meant to be. Just as an acorn contains the potential of a mighty oak tree, so are each of us the “seeds” of our unique full potential.
During our journey through life we also pass through various contexts and relationships. This very first context was our family where we established relationships with the people we counted on to nurture us. The bonds we formed with our family are strong indeed but we have also developed other relationships that have far reaching impact in our lives. Our relationships with friends, teachers and relatives also influence our growth and development. As we grow, our network of relationships expands to coworkers and lifelong friendships as well as love relationships where we may create our own family of children.
As we engage in these contexts and relationships we experience a variety of situations, emotions and influences. The most impactful of these influences are our early childhood experiences with the people who took care of us.
Whether it is a conscious expectation or not, we came into this world expecting to be loved and secure. Except in the most abhorrent situations of life, we were all loved and taken care of at least to some degree. But, the simple fact is that none of us were loved perfectly. The people who cared for us the most, namely our parents, did not love us perfectly. As “good” as they might have been there were situations where they came up short. We expected their love and deserved it but, alas, it was not unconditional. And they made mistakes. We slowly began to realize that love only came when we fulfilled the wishes and expectations of the people around us. Or, we may have even concluded that love would not come at all.
Gradually, instead of receiving love for being us, we learned the only way to get it was to become something we were not. In that process, we began to form our “character” or “act” or “self-image” which became a substitute for our real selves. Along with this character we formed masks which we now present to the world and behind which we hide our inner feelings and thoughts. The “character” which we develop represents our “personality” and becomes the basic structure by which we function in the world and by which we are “known” to others. Another name for our personality is our “ego”. Our egos are actually born out of lovelessness.
When we are not loved perfectly, we develop certain emotions. Emotions such as anger, resentment, hatred, bitterness, guilt, shame, disappointment, sadness and rejection are all examples of the range of emotions that arise out of situations where we are not loved unconditionally. And if we do not effectively deal with those emotions, they in turn became part of our “character” which we continue to carry and act out even into the present.
To make matters worse, most of us are then not allowed to have these emotions. Certain emotions such as anger for example are considered “bad” by others or at best “unacceptable”. So, along with developing our outer “mask” to the world so do we learn to deny and suppress our “inner world” of emotion. In short, we learn to numb ourselves to the reality of our feelings and thoughts.
In this process, we also develop certain beliefs about ourselves and the world. We learn to see ourselves the way we were seen by others. How we see ourselves goes to make up our self-image. And we see the world (situations, events and relationships) through the “lens” of our self-image. The most basic decision that we make is “I am unlovable the way I am. I must pretend to be something that I am not. I dare not reveal my inner world. I am not OK.” And make no mistake, that even though our ego might say “look at all I’ve got” or “look at all the things that are going for me” we still experience a certain core of uneasiness about our existence. No one, except for the most enlightened beings of the ages, is immune from this fundamental questioning of our self-worth.
SELF-IMAGE AND THE NATURE OF BELIEF SYSTEMS
Our self-image or ego is actually constructed out of a set of beliefs. Beliefs are constructed out of thoughts. Thoughts are statements that we either speak or silently affirm to ourselves over and over either consciously or unconsciously. The words we use create pictures in our minds. The word “elephant” activates a mental image of a particular 4-legged animal. The words “I can’t” activate a mental image of an inability to do something. “I’m bad” activates a mental image of my worth as an individual. So “Ego”, “self-image”, and “Belief System” are synonymous and are all made up of the same “stuff” which are thoughts and images that we affirm or tell ourselves over and over.
Our self-image/ego/belief system is formed out of our personal experiences. Belief systems can either be supportive or detrimental to our existence. Our belief system determines our behavior and outlook on life and forms the “lens” through which we view life and respond to everyday situations. Because we are so identified with our beliefs, we do not easily give them up, even the ones that are self-defeating or undermine our happiness. Our core beliefs form the basis of our existence and identity–who we think we are. Beliefs by their very nature are self-affirming and self-fulfilling. We create our own reality through our beliefs and our beliefs are “confirmed” by the reality we create. Each of us is responsible for our beliefs.
Beliefs take different forms. We can talk about beliefs in terms of decisions we make about ourselves or life in general, expectations we hold of ourselves or others or assumptions we make about reality. Whether conscious or not, we are all making statements about what we believe and these statements are revealed in our behavior, our communication, our dress, our possessions and what we choose to have around us
Problems arise when our core beliefs create unwanted conditions such as resentment, anger, guilt, sadness or fear. It is the unwanted condition that most often brings people into therapy. On one level, you are seeking something better for yourself, i.e. peace of mind or greater happiness but you have been unable to accomplish it. The source of your problems is in your unexamined belief system. The mistake you make is saying that the source of your problems is in the external world such as in your relationship or the unpleasant and unfortunate events of your life. You do not see that you are viewing the external world through the filter of your belief system. And you do not see that you help create the very condition you don’t want because of your beliefs. What you “see” in the world is actually a reflection of your own state of mind projected outward.
SELF-IMAGE AND RELATIONSHIPS
When it comes to relationships, it is no accident that we choose the people we are with. As we have developed a certain “character” that grew out of our relationship with our parents, we must now search for someone who “complements” our character. The people we choose to be with fit into our life script with an uncanny perfection. If we are a dominating type, we will seek out someone we can dominate. If we are a helpless type, we will seek out someone who can take care of us and rescue us.
As much as these relationships are based on a certain foundation and way of relating, we sooner or later discover that these ways of relating stop working. Growth goes on and life demands that we change and grow. But more often than not, instead of growing and changing we become fixed in our familiar way of relating and being. We try to make what “used to work” work again but, alas, it never does. No matter how hard we try to make our familiar ways work we soon discover that nothing works. We don’t easily let go of the familiar even in the face of the familiar not working. In fact, we dare not let go or change because it has become the core of our identity and our basic way of being in the world. If I let go then who would I be? Would I be loved? Would I be safe and secure? Conflicts in relationships are nothing more than growing pains telling us that something must change. THINGS ARE NOT WORKING!! But as much as life is telling us that something must change we doggedly resist such change.
But what is this change we must make? Is it trying to adopt a new identity? Is it making “new years resolutions” to change? Is it trying to do the “right” thing? Is it trying to do more, get more or be more? Is it trying to change others to fit our expectations or demands. NO! It is none of that! The basic change we must make is to reverse or undo the whole process of trying to be something we are not! And this brings us to what therapy is really all about.
THERAPY IS ABOUT UNDOING OUR SELF-IMAGE
Our self-image has become our replacement for who we really are. Our self-image is nothing more than a “picture” or belief that we hold about ourselves to which we say in effect “this is who I am” or perhaps “this is how to make it in life” or even “this is what reality is all about.” But an image is not reality. The picture that you see on your TV set is not the reality itself. It is at best a representation of a reality but it is not the reality itself! The same is true about your self-image. The image (or belief) that you hold about yourself is not your reality. Your image about yourself is at best a representation of your true self BUT IT IS NOT YOUR TRUE SELF!! Contrast “self-image” with “self-reality”. What is the difference? Think a little while on this difference and you will begin to question, “what IS my reality?” Just this questioning itself can point you in the direction toward self-discovery. Our self-image determines everything we do, how we relate to the world, how we see the world, how we feel. Our self-image becomes the basis of what “should”, “ought” or “must” be. But our self-mage is still not our reality.
Now, one fundamental error that many people make when coming into therapy is that somehow therapy is going to change ourselves, change someone else or change a situation. In fact that is what most people believe therapy is all about–”change.” And it is true, therapy is about change but we need to be clear just what we mean by change and the process of changing.
The need to “change”, whether it is to “change ourselves”, “change another”, “change a situation” or even “change the world” is a natural outcome of holding onto our self-image. If something does not “fit” our beliefs or “fit” our pictures of how things “should” be then we become upset. All upsets are a function of trying to fit reality into our images and beliefs. And of course if the reality does not fit, it becomes the basis of blame and control, of trying to change ourselves or another into something that it is not. We blame the world (or ourselves) for not “fitting” into our image and we then try to control the world (and ourselves) to try to mold reality back into our images.
Since reality can never be the image, we are destined to become continually upset. All negative emotions are a result of our failure to fit reality into our beliefs. Nothing is ever enough. I am never good enough. Others are never good enough. Things are not “right”. We never quite “make it”. There is always “something missing”, we never quite “hit the mark”, we try and try and try and we always come up short. Our upset is always because we see something that is not there. THE ATTEMPT TO “CHANGE” NEVER, NEVER WORKS. The reason is, is that the image is not the reality..
So if therapy is about changing, yet the attempt to change continually yields upset and disappointment the question arises just where and how “change” is to occur. With that I would like to offer a formal definition of therapy.
Therapy is a process of undoing, eliminating or releasing the limiting and self-defeating beliefs that prevent you from experiencing your true self and taking the actions that further your growth. You are coming into therapy because you are stuck. Therapy is about helping you to get unstuck and move on with your life. In that way therapy is not about changing you into something you are not. It is not about “fixing” you or “improving” you or telling you what you should or should not do. It is about being who you are, your honest self. It is one of the most difficult paradoxes for each of us to understand. “Trying to change” does not produce change. Being what you are releases the natural change process to occur.
Therapy is more a process of “letting go” than it is of “doing” anything. You have encapsulated your life with a system of beliefs that keep you imprisoned and limited. The process of therapy is learning to shed the beliefs that keep you stuck. Your life itself is more a building process that can occur naturally once you have released your limitations. Therapy should not be a substitute for living but rather an opportunity to release those barriers and obstacles that keep you from moving forward and growing. Since growth takes place on its own, it really does not make sense to “try” and grow. We have to begin to trust the natural course of our development and focus more on removing the blocks and shackles. Your life is much like the caterpillar who has become imprisoned in a cocoon but has not yet been transformed into his full potential as a butterfly. Therapy is about learning to come out of the “safety” of your cocoon.
WHAT DOES LOVE HAVE TO DO WITH IT?
Our self-image/ego/belief system was born out of lovelessness. Since we were not loved perfectly and unconditionally we have substituted our self-image for the loss of love. Now our self-image has become our way of getting love. The ego’s statement is always “love me”, “see how wonderful I am”, and “look at me”. Or, if we have a “negative” self-image our ego might say, “look how terrible I am”, “I’m no good”, “nobody could ever love me the way I am.” The ego’s existence is predicated on one fundamental unexamined assumption and that is “I am not loved”, “I am not loveable” or simply “I am not OK”. So no matter how hard I try to “get” love, no matter how much attention I get, no matter how much I have accomplished, no matter how much I have been successful in molding reality to “fit” my images, there still remains a nagging doubt. I am never good enough.
So if my ego is a substitute for love that I believe I haven’t gotten and if therapy is about undoing or letting go of my ego or self-image then what am I left with if I get rid of my self-image? Who am I? What am I? Is it possible to live life without an image? What would life be like without an image? Is an image necessary to live life?
If my self-image has been my substitute for love there is only one awareness that will be left when I release my ego/self image/belief system and that is that I am loved, I am secure. No matter what happens in the world, no matter what happens around me, no matter how nasty someone may appear to treat me there still remains the one fundamental awareness and that is that I am loved. To the ego, this sounds preposterous because the ego will try to “prove” and show me all the “evidence” why this is not so. But my ego has been my substitute for the real thing and when I have let go of my substitute there is only one thing left–the real thing. If I have let go of my ego I am seeing life and experiencing life as it is rather than how it “should”, “ought”, or “must” be. There is no need to change, there is no need to be fixed, I don’t need to change or fix others, I don’t need to prove myself nor do others need to prove themselves; there is love all around. I can begin to relate to life on its own terms but I can always come from love because it is there and it is in me. So what does love have to do with it? The answer is EVERYTHING.
If I really knew that I was loved I would not have to spend my energy trying to “get” love because I already have it. I would not have to control events to insure my security. If I knew that I was loved then my ego would cease to exist because it would serve no purpose. If I knew that I was loved my pretenses, my mask, my self-image would simply whither away because I am now in touch with my reality. I am not “threatened” by any loss of love because I know that I am loved.
But the question then arises, How? How do I know I am loved? If we are not careful, we are liable to listen to the ego, which demands evidence and “proof”. And the ego’s way of being is to continually look for it but never really finding because the ego rests on the shaky assumption that I am not loveable the way I am. So if we listen to the ego, we will be on a merry-go-round of continually seeking but never finding.
So we cannot rely on the ego or any belief system to show us the way to love. We can only know love, we can only experience it. The evidence for it does not come from outside of us. It is simply a knowing. When we release all of our negative thoughts, when we release our identification with our self-image or our ego we are back in touch with our true self. In a sense it is returning to our original experience as a child when we first came into the world. We came in innocent, expecting, trusting that we were loved and loveable. There is no objective “proof” that we are loved. There is only the experience of it, the natural knowing of it, the choosing of it. Another path to knowing it is to trust it in the face of all the external “evidence” that it is not there.
THE PROCESS OF THERAPY
So if we do not consult our ego for proof that we are loved and the experience of love arises out of undoing our ego/self-image/belief system the question now arises, how do I let go? This is what the process of therapy is all about. Whether you are here for individual, couples or family therapy the goal is the same, learning to let go of a negative self image/belief system and resulting negative emotions that fail to bring you the love you are looking for. The approach in each form of therapy may be different but the goal is the same.
The process of therapy however, is not always a linear progression toward a goal. While the process of life might be in taking goal directed actions, the process of therapy is helping you to remove the obstacles toward growth-producing action. Since the “obstacle” is always your self-image, the process of therapy is helping you to explore the nature of your self-image so that you can begin to let go.
It begins with our story
Therapy typically begins with the telling of our “story” or the telling of the situation with which we are struggling. It is in the telling of our situation that the nature of our self-image readily comes to light. We soon discover that our situation is fraught with emotion. And as we explore the emotion we can begin to see how certain thought processes and beliefs sustain that emotion. Clues to our self-image are revealed in how we talk about and perceive ourselves and others.
The therapist’s role at this point is mostly to listen. We all need to be heard and understood exactly the way we are and how we see things. Through being heard and understood we can develop a foundation in which to explore and challenge our self-image and perceptions.
As you begin to step back and observe your inner world you can begin to see and hear yourself more objectively. And as you begin to see yourself more objectively, you can begin to work with your feelings and thoughts. You can begin to “unravel the knot” of a tightly knit self-image so that you can ultimately learn to let go and move on with your life.
Learning to evaluate your own thought processes
Working with your emotions is learning to see clearly how your thought processes sustain those emotions. As you learn to observe your thought processes you can begin to evaluate your thoughts as either hurtful or helpful, as growth-producing or growth-hindering, as bringing joy and happiness or bringing pain and misery.
The therapist’s role at this point is to help you identify and acknowledge your emotions. One of the most enlightening insights we can ever come to at this point is realizing that we are responsible for our thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Being responsible for our thoughts and emotions means that we are the chooser of our emotions. And being the chooser of our emotions means that we are actually attached to the very condition we say we don’t want. This is when we begin to see that we are all our own worst enemy and the problem we are struggling with is within us rather than in the external world. We are each the ruler of our thoughts and emotions.
Facing the resistances to letting go
One of the greatest resistance to letting go is fear. Fear is our justification for holding on. On some level we believe that our emotions protect us from being hurt again, that our emotions are in some way keeping us safe.
Another resistance to letting go is our need for approval. We hold on to certain emotions because we believe that we will not get approval if we let them go. The justification for holding on is that we believe that our emotions are getting us the love and approval we believe we don’t have.
A third major resistance to letting go is our need for control and power. On some level we believe that holding on to certain emotions brings us control in life. The justification for holding on is that we might lose control and power if we let go.
Your ego will come up with all kinds of “reasons” why not to let go. Your ego has an investment in holding on because letting go means that the ego will cease to exist. And because you are so identified with your ego, you will begin to feel like you won’t exist. Your ego will kick and scream and dig in its heels because it doesn’t want to die. But you are not your ego and you can only know that fact when you have succeeded in letting go of it. Your ego is very much like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz who melted and disappeared when water was thrown on her. She screamed as she was melting away but in her disappearance joy was released in the land of Oz. Finally, a celebration could occur that the “wicked witch is dead.” Awareness, responsibility and choice is the “water” that your ego fears so much. Your life is waiting for the celebration of the death of your ego, which is nothing more than a collection of negative thoughts and beliefs.
Letting go begins with a decision, a choice. There are no complicated instructions. There is no “how to do it” manual. If a person were holding an object in their hands, how would you instruct a person to release the object? The instructions would be simply “release the object”. The person already knows how. The only problem is their willingness. If you know how to release an object, the only reason you don’t is because you have not yet decided to do it. That is why we must first understand and unravel all of the blocks and resistances. When you can begin to trust how letting go helps you, how not letting go hurts you, when you can unravel all of your fears of letting go, when you realize that holding on is doing nothing for you, then the answer is simply “why not”? You simply make the decision to let go and it is done!
There are other conditions that may need to occur before you can let go. These conditions may be unique to your situation. Do I need to get something off my chest? Do I need to tell someone something? Do I need to take an action? The important thing is that you evaluate for yourself what needs to occur before you let go of troubling emotions.
THERAPY AND SPIRITUALITY
Because therapy touches on the whole foundation of our existence and identity, we cannot ignore the importance of spirituality in our lives. Psychology and spirituality often go hand in hand. Psychotherapy helps to remove the blocks to the awareness of who you are. Spirituality is about knowing who you are, where your true identity rests. When you know who you are, problems come and go and naturally disappear. Spirituality attempts to answer the basic questions of our existence–Who am I? What is my purpose here? Where am I going? Spirituality naturally arises when we discover that our ego does not bring us the happiness we seek. Nor are our thoughts and beliefs “who we are”. Happiness is not about adopting the “right” belief or doing the “right” thing. Happiness is a function of being who we are.
It is important to distinguish between spirituality and religion. Religion is an organized set of beliefs that purport to support our happiness and relationship with God. But remember, beliefs are a substitute for the real thing. Religion is believing in God. Spirituality is knowing God and knowing God is knowing who you are as a child of God. When we try to control, when we believe we are not loved, when we doubt our safety and security, we are out of touch with God. The universe is really working perfectly and all things have a positive outcome if we only give things a chance.
The Place of Forgiveness
The place where psychotherapy and spirituality converge is in the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an oft misunderstood process which gets caught up in religious meaning. Forgiveness has nothing to do with being “virtuous” or standing in some high and mighty place above another human being and “forgiving their sins.” It is not about being “nice” or never experiencing negative emotions or even being “religious.”
To forgive in it’s pure and simple meaning is simply to let go of negative thoughts and feelings that we have been holding for some time. In fact, the dictionary meaning of the word “forgive” is to “cease resentment”. We can expand the definition of forgiveness to include the release of any negative thought or feeling that we have been holding. If the process of psychotherapy is also about releasing your negative thoughts and feelings then the process of psychotherapy and learning to forgive are really one and the same process.
Religions have typically defined forgiveness as something that we do for the benefit of another person. If someone has hurt us or offended us in some way or done something “bad” then a lack of forgiveness is represented by our judgements or condemnation against them. To forgive would mean that we no longer judge and condemn but we now let him or her “off the hook.” So some religions would see forgiveness as something that we do for another’s sake. And, of course, if the other has done something horrible and didn’t “repent” then he or she would not be deserving of forgiveness.
In actual fact, forgiveness is for my benefit. When I have learned to release my negative emotions, when I have finally let go of holding my emotions against another, then it is me that is released, it is me that is no longer bound by my negative thoughts, it is me that is finally liberated to live life again and experience my happiness and purpose. The other person may truly benefit from forgiveness but that is not who forgiveness is for. The purpose of forgiveness is to get back in touch with my true self.
Life is not complicated when you know who you are. Life is very complicated when you identify with the ego. From the ego’s point of view, life is a struggle of searching, seeking, looking for answers but never finding them. When you have learned to let go of your ego you realize that the search is over, everything is available right here and now, there is no need to ask any questions, the answers are obvious.