(3 minute read)
People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them — Epictetus, 1st century AD Greek philosopher
One of the things I do in counselling is to help my clients look at their problem in a different way. The problem doesn’t go away, but their ability to view it in a different light means that it creates less unhappiness and stress. When my clients are happier and less stressed, their behavior changes, and that sometimes changes the way that others are reacting to them — and then the problem does indeed disappear.
Here are three cases (with details modified to protect confidentiality) demonstrating how that works:
Jenny, a 45 year old woman with a 15 year old daughter, an only child, was terribly upset. She and her daughter had been very close. But now they were fighting almost daily. Jenny found herself walking on eggshells, never knowing what would set her daughter off. But she still found it necessary to follow up on her daughter’s schoolwork and social activities, worried, she said, that if she wasn’t on top of things her daughter would make bad decisions that could damage her future. But the fights were taking quite a toll, and Jenny had recently had a couple of panic attacks compounding her existing insomnia and general sense of anxiety.
After two sessions it became clear that Jenny’s concern wasn’t over her daughter’s studies or choice of friends — the girl was a good student and well behaved. Instead, Jenny was panicked over her daughter’s distance from her. Having been such a big part of her life, the child was now spending more time on her own, and resisting her mother’s attempts to direct her. Jenny felt rejected, and experienced her daughter’s anger as a signal that their relationship was broken.
I helped Jenny to see her child’s rebellion as an act of love: The girl, knowing that she was almost an adult still had a strong need for her mother. That need frightened her and made her angry because she knew she would soon have to be independent. She unconsciously pushed her mother away in order to force herself to become more independent.
Once Jenny saw the problem in this light, she relaxed. The anxiety disappeared, and her reflexive attempts to hold onto her daughter did too. No longer feeling controlled, the daughter’s rebellious behavior largely disappeared too, thus making Jenny even less anxious and controlling, in an ongoing virtuous cycle.
Having been married for four years, Sarah came to me to be treated for Borderline Personality Disorder, which the psychology profession considers a very serious issue. Her husband told her that her rages at him were a clear indication of her emotional problems and persuaded her that she was in fact Borderline. She admitted that when she and her husband fought, she did feel as though she was completely out of control and so she believed that she was ‘crazy’. She looked online for the diagnostic criteria for Borderline. Like many such criteria for psychological disorders, these are written so loosely that most normal people could persuade themselves that they had it. Feeling as though she’d received an emotional death sentence, she came for counselling.
I’m always wary of self-diagnoses, and I’m doubly wary when a client has been diagnosed by a spouse. We quickly started looking at the fights she had with her husband, fights that generally ended up with her smashing plates or physically attacking him. On the surface, it seemed her behavior was completely unjustified. However, her husband was subtly provoking and escalating these conflicts. For example, he would give her confusing instructions on where to meet him after work, and then berate her for being late, telling her that her difficulty in following his instructions was a demonstration of her inability to manage the modern world. He praised her ability to keep the apartment spotless but undercut that with a comment about her obsessive cleanliness. And he blamed her for things over which she had no control: a leak in the apartment (she shouldn’t have leased the place), a delay in the subway (she should have taken the bus), an illness in their cat (she fed him the wrong brand of cat food). When she protested, he denied having done anything wrong and insisted she was over-reacting and becoming emotional. As she became increasingly angry, he became more and more cool and rational, further enraging her and thus ‘proving’ that she was the troubled one.
Once Sarah realized that her rage was a reasonable response to a situation that was enraging, her Borderline ‘symptoms’ disappeared. This was no longer a case of “I’m crazy” but rather “He’s trying to drive me crazy — and it’s not going to work.” Her anger disappeared, her self confidence came back, the diagnosis went out the window and, unsurprisingly, the marriage came to an end.
The theme in Charlie’s family was always responsibility and duty. His father had been a military officer and had then become a successful businessman. His mother had been very proper, focused on correct behavior and ensuring the family was respected and admired by outsiders. Charlie never felt he measured up to his parents, or to his parents’ expectations of him. A mediocre student, he became an artist, selling the occasional painting and making ends meet with teaching gigs.
By his parents’ standards, Charlie was not a very successful individual. However, there was one area in which he excelled. His interpersonal skills were outstanding; he was empathic, kind, interested in others and entertaining. He had more friends than he knew what to do with. Despite this, he felt inadequate and depressed, wondering what others saw in him that made them want to be his friend.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s parents were going through a difficult time. They didn’t have many friends, and they pushed Charlie to spend more time with them, something he was reluctant to do because he still felt judged.
I suggested to Charlie that he had something to teach his parents. His ability to talk about feelings and relationships was something they sorely lacked. He would be able to take the lead in deepening his relationship with his parents, something that they very much wanted but didn’t know how to do.
Once Charlie realized that he had something to offer his parents, that he could help them, he began to change. No longer the passive recipient of their help and criticism, he took the initiative to speak with his parents about his childhood, his parents’ own history, and their current relationship. This gave him more confidence in his friendships, romantic life and work life. As each area became more satisfying and successful, he became more confident in other areas, which in turn led to even more satisfaction and success, in a virtuous cycle.
People often come into counselling feeling hopeless. They’ve lived with their problems for so long, it doesn’t seem that anything can be done to fix the situation. Yet for each of the three people above, change came about because of a change of perception — the way each of them made sense out of what was happening to them. Once they saw the problem through a different lens they were able to make dramatic changes in their lives.
And that is what counselling and psychotherapy are all about. Counsellors and therapists don’t “change” their clients. Often, all we do is enable people to take a different perspective — and then they are able to change themselves.