People seek therapy because they are in pain.
Therapy isn’t a cure-all. But for the types of emotional distress that many people live with all their lives — depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, and many others — therapy offers the possibility not only of the alleviation of pain, but also the opportunity to live a richer and more fulfilling life.
I’d like to share a story with you as an example of what’s possible when a person commits to creating meaningful and lasting change. This story is a composite of the journey I have traveled with many clients who have come to me for therapy.
One day my phone rang, and a male voice was on the other end of the line. I’ll call him Alex.
When I met Alex, personal difficulties in his life were coming to a head. He felt very depressed and anxious. He had trouble sleeping. With no close family relationships and only one close friend, Alex was very lonely. He was uncomfortable in social situations, especially with members of the opposite sex. While he wanted a family very much, the thought of actually having one filled him with anxiety.
Meanwhile, his once-flawless performance at work had begun to crumble. His brusque demeanor and abrasive style of interacting with colleagues had resulted in several complaints to management. Alex had been informed that it was essential to make some changes.
I doubt that he ever would have contacted me had things at work not become so painful. He viewed himself as successful, capable and clearly a major asset to his company. His whole identity was invested in his work; it was his only source of self-esteem. It was now at risk unless he changed.
It’s quite common in the world of therapy for people to come reluctantly, or as a last resort. This was definitely the case for Alex. He told me so many times early in his therapy. But, as Alex and I met weekly, we were able to find the source of the isolation he was experiencing.
Alex’s home summed up his isolation perfectly. He lived outside of town on a large plot of farm land; at the center was his house. It was the only structure he could see in all directions.
One of Alex’s parents had died suddenly of a heart attack when he was a teenager. This event turned Alex’s world upside down. He was suddenly thrust into the role of the “man of the house.” His childhood was officially over. Unfortunately, his surviving parent was overly dependent, manipulative, and controlling. Years of withstanding this treatment took its toll on Alex.
Therapy offered Alex a safe place in which he could make the changes he wanted to make. Every week, Alex brought himself and a dogged willingness to engage in the process.
When he saw old scripts and patterns he had inherited without realizing it from his parents, family and culture, he finally had a choice. Is this how he wanted to live?
Sometimes, the answer was yes.
But other times, it was clear that the pattern in question was no longer serving him. Certain patterns that had helped him cope with life when he was younger were now making it impossible for him to thrive as an adult.
Above all, Alex wanted to get to the bottom of the depression, anxiety and isolation that were so painful and so obviously holding him back.
After a period of meeting regularly and supporting his exploration, Alex’s life took a major turn for the better.
Alex transformed from a single, lonely man in danger of losing his position at work into a happily married father of two children, successful and highly valued at his job. Leaving behind his isolated farmhouse, Alex and his growing family moved into town and became part of the larger community.
Did all this change happen without any effort, pain or struggle?
No. Alex did the work he needed to do. And sometimes, it was hard or scary. But Alex would never go back to the way things were, even if he could.
He told me how much he loved his life now that he had worked through the issues that had held him down for so long. And how much he appreciated the person he had become. He was more caring, more trusting and more willing to let people in.
People often ask if they can expect the changes they experience in therapy to last. This is a reasonable question, and many of us may have experienced something that made us feel better for a day or a week, only to fall right back into our old habits in the long term. In Alex’s case, I heard from him years after we ended our sessions, and the positive changes he implemented in our work together had endured and even deepened over time.
This is the ultimate purpose of therapy: the opportunity to create enduring and positive change in our lives.