(3 minute read)
At a conference recently I saw a therapy demonstration by a renowned psychotherapist. His client volunteered that she had always wanted a daughter, but both her children were boys, and she was now too old to have another. Adoption also seemed to be unlikely due to her age, and she was struggling to come to terms with what felt to her like a great loss.
Life is indeed full of disappointments. Few of us end up with all of our dreams fulfilled, and I would guess that even those few who do get everything they’ve wanted are rarely satisfied. The newspapers are full of stories of people who are rich, famous and successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams yet descend into depression, addiction and sometimes suicide.
As we grow up and grow old, one door after another shuts on us: careers may plateau, relationships might end, children disappoint, financial security prove elusive or our health limit us. This is true of everyone…and yet, some people seem to handle such setbacks more easily than others. What’s going on?
The answer may lie in how the therapist at the conference worked with his client. He asked her about other setbacks she’d had in her life, and how she had bounced back from those. She’d had her share including a difficult childhood and troubled romantic relationships. But when she spoke about how she’d dealt with them, her voice grew stronger and more confident. The therapist then pointed out how effectively she’d handled adversity in the past, and asked how she could use those strengths to deal with the loss she was now facing. The client’s face lit up, and she began talking about volunteering at infertility clinics and investing more time in her nieces. By the end of the session it seemed that the client had changed from focusing on her loss, to planning for her future.
The key to the success of this demonstration was the therapist’s ability to help the client focus on her strengths, and to see how those strengths could help the client not just cope with her loss, but get something out of it.
Epictetus, a Greek philosopher, once said “Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.” The client had been taking a view that focused on her loss, while the therapist was able to help her look at what she could gain from her situation: how her loss would enable her to help other couples who were struggling to have children and invest time in her own nieces.
I’ve had clients who have had terrible childhoods that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And yet as miserable as they were, even these have not been unmitigated disasters. For example, growing up in a physically dangerous house caused one client to withdraw into books and at the same time, to become very articulate so that he could escape punishment. Another client used sarcasm, humor and anger to distance herself from her abusive family situation. All of these responses, while not without their problems, have helped my clients in their careers and their ability to defend themselves against a sometimes uncaring world.
There’s a famous essay called “Welcome to Holland” which talks about the experience of raising a disabled child. The author’s point is that if we focus on what we missed by not having a healthy child, we will miss the joys that we get from our disabled one.
Now, just in case I’m starting to sound Pollyanna-ish, there are undoubtedly situations for which there are no redeeming features. A cousin of mine, in remission from the breast cancer that would eventually kill her, told me “Some people with cancer say that the disease has made them live better and understand what really counts in life. I didn’t need cancer to teach me that. There is nothing good about having this disease.”
So there are exceptions, true. But in the vast majority of problems and setbacks that life throws at us, our ability to focus on the experience that we did get, rather than not getting what we wanted, can help us to lead our lives with far greater contentment.