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Hope Forward: Surviving and Thriving through Emotional Pain: Some Thoughts on Comfort, Self Knowledge and Change (and Therapy too)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Some Thoughts on Comfort, Self Knowledge and Change (and Therapy too)

Difficult to follow a post on sex. But I am thinking about comfort. Which often times does follow sex, because good sex can be, among other things, very comforting. So maybe I am on the right track.

Lots of times we therapists and psychoanalysts spend a lot of time listening, as well we should, for patterns in peoples lives. For things that people do that repeat, unconscousiosly, situations, feelings, circumstances. When someone is stuck or suffering, we listen for things that usually don't serve them well, or well anymore. And we listen for the resistances, for those things both concrete (like a traffic jam) and emotional (like fear or love, or assumptions or ideas), and we look for actions (like coming late or talking about the weather too much) that are both communications about what someone needs and a clue to what is in the way of getting it. We study what is in the way of us learning more about who we are, and what we need and want. We stay curious about how to get it. We listen for obstacles to progress, obstacles to being able to talk more, listen more and know more. We ask, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly to ourselves, so that we may study it, "what is in the way of you getting or having or keeping what you need/want?"

And we sometimes wonder "What would happen if you knew more about yourself? And what is blocking you from finding out? Or wanting to find out?"

The answer, in its simplest form, I think, may be fear. Fear of having to change, if we are not really ready. Fear of not being, or feeling safe. Fear of being judged, criticized, put down or minimized. Fear of being too uncomfortable. Fear that the process won't be worth it. Fear that what we might gain won't really be better than what we already have. Sometimes, underneath resistance is fear. Underneath unwillingness or hesitation is fear.

But the idea is that if we can figure out whats going on, and why, we can help folks create new paths. If they want to. If the want is just slightly bigger than the fear. We do accept the fact that we are shaped by our experiences in life, as well as our biology. And that lots of times, the road to better is not only bumpy, but its not all that compelling. Sometimes we are comfortable in our same ole same old. Its what we know. And that's fine.

The important thing, I think, in therapy and in life, when seeking to comfort, is to go gently. Sometimes it is beneficial to tell someone what we see, or what we think we see, in their communications. But while we are doing this, we also just need to listen simply. To just offer and provide comfort. And to know that providing comfort is a tricky thing as well. Especially when someone is in real emotional pain, or has suffered a trauma. (next post on trauma).

Sometimes its hard to know what exactly will be comforting to someone and how best to go about it. What is comforting to one, may not be comforting to another. But universally, I think, being understood is very comforting to most of us. That and having a very human connection. Sometimes comfort can create an intimate feeling, too intimate on occasion, so we therapists tread carefully here. But we tread.
It is comforting for some folks to learn more about their patterns and fears, how they protect themselves and from what. Sometimes, self knowledge is very comforting. And when someone has hurt us deeply, it can be comforting to understand what fears and motivations that person operates under. We may not be able to know exactly, but we might guess, if that helps us along.

A few years ago a good friend of mine suffered an emotional trauma at the hands of a business partner. David, we can call him, had come up with an idea that he thought would make a good business. He did not want to go it alone, and so took the idea to his friend Sam (not his name, of course). The two of them set off together on a path of mutual benefit. They worked side by side for many months to create and build the enterprise, investing heart, soul and money.

One day, Sam decided he wanted to go it alone, and told David that the partnership was off. David was devastated. David could not believe that Sam would do such a thing, they were close friends, partners,. But Sam was certain, and David was gone. When someone is clear, they are clear.

For many months after the split, David could not sleep. He could not eat. He was invaded by thoughts of his failed partnership, his lost friendship. He went over and over again his own mistakes, or possible contributions to the breakup. He went over the flaws in Sam's personality that made it so difficult to get along at times. And he went over the flaws in his own. But still he could find no comfort. He suffered financial loss, sure, but that was the least of it. He felt betrayed in the deepest sense of the word.

David called me one day, a few months after the split to tell me his tale. He was sullen and tearful, self depreciating and angry all at the same time. He told me his wife, my good friend, had had enough, she wanted his mood restored. She wanted him to get on with his life and create something new and good, she knew he could. And she wanted him to get my help.

We were too close for to me to work with him professionally, but comfort I could provide. That's always available. It wasn't complicated. I listened. I listened attentively and soothingly. I asked good questions about his pain, and his choices. I wondered with him how he has survived hurt and heartbreak in the past. And which feelings were the most painful (the anger and betrayal, he said. And his own possible mistakes and oversights). I asked him what he wanted to do with his pain, to hold on to it for a bit, or to let it go someday. He was not sure. We acknowledged that sometimes pain needs to linger until its done. He did not feel quite willing just yet, to let it go. Even if he could. And then I wondered with him whether he may like to talk to someone who was less close to him and to his family. Someone who might offer him comfort and analysis. Someone who might listen to the pain behind the pain.
David told me that he thought a duck was a duck. That what happened to him happened because of Sam, and his oddities and unreasonable personality. I asked if he was sure that was all there was to the story (after all, he did tell me he had made some mistakes along the way too. Could they have contributed to the problem?). I asked if it were possible that getting relief, comfort, whenever he should want it, might necessitate a look inside as well, a little deeper. Maybe a look at how he got into such a bad deal, or how he put so much faith in someone who turned on him. Or what fears of his own may have been gurgling beneath the surface, and added to the turmoil, to his reactions, and even to those of his partner.

He was open to this. To studying the situation. Even this amount of talking seemed to bring hope and the prospect of relief. And we both agreed that any efforts to unpack the problems, or look deeper had to be padded with comfort. We do have endure painful thoughts and feelings sometimes, in order to let them pass, in order to get to know deeply, our own resiliency and passions, and our own resistances and character. But we don't have to go at it hard or head on all the time. In fact, David's tendency toward urgency and intensity may have contributed to his problems with Sam.

So David got me thinking about comfort and balance, about obstacles and accomplishments. And about the idea that taking a look at yourself can bring comfort, but it needs to be done gently. And about how very deeply we connect first to knowing we are human and that we make mistakes, and that we can tackle trauma even, when we know we not alone.

That in itself can be hopeful and comforting. And for those of you want a treat, on the subject of comfort, check out this interview with the wonderful and very human Anne Lamott, author and fellow traveler, about life, her many books, and on humanness, honestly and survival.

There is comfort in knowing that all humans make mistakes, act impulisivelyat times, have fear. That we can bear some discomfort in order to have more comfort, more grace, and better feelings. We can hurt. We can learn. We can heal. We can stay safe. Even when the trouble seems to linger or come from our own mind, there is comfort in telling our story and growing gently toward a better understanding of ourselves and our world.


Zan said...

Beautiful post, beautiful thoughts. It's given me a lot to ponder, just when I needed it. Thank you.

Melissa Groman, LCSW said...

Thanks Zan! Your comments are much appreciated!


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