Life By Any Other Name Is…Life

Woman surrounded by question marksRecently 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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Margaret

    March 4th, 2008 at 11:23 AM

    What a wonderful entry! It is so refreshing to see a therapist so real. A lot of walls have been removed via this entry, I’m sure. You are very brave to admit what you have in this entry and I applaud you for it. So many therapists feel that they have to have everything in their own lives “right” in order to attract clients. I think successful therapists are sometimes those that are very human as is this author. Knowing that there are areas to work on allows for personal introspection and growth. Clients can only benefit from this sort of action.

  • Aaron

    March 4th, 2008 at 11:25 AM

    I have found that it is hard to slow down and not try to be fixing a problem before someone is even through explaining it. But, I, too, am rewarded when I do!

  • Gary

    March 4th, 2008 at 11:26 AM

    I am so glad to see that someone else admits to wanting to grow their client base in order to be prosperous. Yes, I enjoy helping people. But, this is a job! If I don’t do a good job and grow my client base, I am not as prosperous. It’s that simple.

  • Dennis Thoennes

    March 4th, 2008 at 1:29 PM

    Sometimes yes indeed, sometimes being a business person is a conflict of interest with being the best therapist I can be. I have personally experienced therapy with therapists at different points on that continuum and I think the best therapy I did was with those who clearly put being a good therapist distinctly first. I am very sure clients can smell the self-serving therapist. I find the American Psychological Association Ethical Codes and Professional Standards helpful in this matter.

  • Sandy

    April 2nd, 2008 at 3:13 PM

    I have found my marriage to be in the midst of an icy meltdown as you call it recently and hopefully this will give me waht I need to start working on the repairs that need to be made. I like others hold people to sometimes unattainable expectations and I have to realize that they are not reaching these not to spite me but because they are not superhuman! Give me the strength to have mercy as I start this path to working on changing me!

  • Pitambharadharaya

    February 8th, 2009 at 6:22 AM

    Super-Duper site! I am loving it!! Will come back again – taking you feeds also, Thanks.

  • Dennis

    March 2nd, 2009 at 6:31 PM

    Pitambharadharaya, welcome!
    Best wishes to you on this part of your journey. Are you working with a therapist you trust and are open with? If you’ve visited my web site ( perhaps you’ve read that I consider a long term, committed, intimate relationship the 2nd biggest challenge a person can have.
    Keep in touch prn.

  • Billi Stubbert

    April 27th, 2009 at 7:40 AM

    Thank you for your help!

  • Wayne

    May 20th, 2009 at 9:24 AM

    There is obviously a lot to know about this. I think you made some good points in Features also.

  • alex farguson

    July 16th, 2009 at 10:26 AM

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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