Recently a client described an icy meltdown she and her husband had with one another. This is not an uncommon event in the lives of couples I see. I noticed I began to consider a variety of therapeutic frames I could utilize and directions I could take to facilitate the client’s self-exploration and find a way to understand such a difficulty and find acceptable alternatives. Then, something else happened.
I noticed I am much more familiar with this “icy meltdown” experience than I’d care to admit. I so often fall short of the expectations I have of myself as husband, human, and therapist. Then I recalled a line I heard in a workshop conducted by Stephen Levine, “Have mercy. Have mercy.” Pema Chodron also addresses this in her book The Wisdom of No Escape.
We are all so human, so incomplete, so flawed and often have such high expectations of ourselves and others. This can set the stage for a life of unmet expectations and a long and painful traverse of life. Certainly there are instances where we cut ourselves or others too much slack.
Often we want so much from others and ourselves. What would “have mercy” actually look like? It could mean compassion for myself and others. I realize that I want to help my clients to be free of suffering and to be happy. Sometimes this is a noble veneer covering my desire to have my clients think highly of me and refer people to me so I can have the prestige, the income, the life I fantasize.
Perhaps in the moment when my client tells me of her woe I could simply listen with a compassionate heart, not rush to fix or change her or relieve her of her misery. Bowlby spoke of being with a client “without hope and without expectation.” Surprisingly, when I can do this I may find my attention is less distracted with my endeavor to be the effective, wonderful, and successful therapist. I may realize my own familiarity with my client’s pain and frustration. I may be able to be more fully present with my client and in so doing she may learn that pain isn’t always something to fix, avoid, or run away from.
So often, I and my clients, and perhaps you also, desperately try to make life work, make it look like “it should.” I may have developed an ideal, an idea of the way it should be, a template. Richard Schwartz, known for developing Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, identifies this as “false self.” Our reaction is often to get so down about life and/or ourselves when our experience of ourselves or the other doesn’t fit our template. Then we think there’s something wrong with “life.” Perhaps we’re working like the proverbial “hammer mechanic,” to make “life” fit our template. It may be wise to recognize simply that this is life happening.
This is not despair, about giving up, about enduring abuse. It’s about intruding on our addiction to pleasure–having life work out the way I (ego) want. When we do this we may feel just as miserable as before. And, perhaps, grief, acceptance, and serenity may be dawning.
© Copyright 2008 by Dennis Thoennes, PhD, ABPP. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.