A client once shared with me a story about how, over a short period of time, his family took in several rescue dogs in quick succession. All the dogs left the home until they finally found “the one,” who still lives with them today.
He went on to describe how he couldn’t show any affection toward their current dog and then toward the family for a long time. When I asked him why he thought that happened, he said, “I must have been afraid they would all leave.”
What he was describing was the fear of abandonment, which can be defined as a persistent dread or extreme anxiety about the loss of someone (or a group) that is extremely valued and important to the individual. For example, a child may recognize the impermanence of those he loves and cares for.
As a psychotherapist I hear about loss, real or imagined, in many of the stories and observations of people who come through my office. I see themes in their memories, metaphors, and subconscious patterns. In most of those stories I also recognize an ache—a longing that remains unfulfilled or unresolved, despite numerous positive changes and therapeutic goals attained.
I believe this is because there are many pains we incorporate into our psyches that are neither active nor forgotten. They just are. They are the sad facts of our lives that we learn to live with: the internalized rejection of adoption, the loss of a parent or child, the inability to conceive.
Many people enter into psychotherapy seeking a cure.
“I want to get over (a person).”
“I just need not to feel this way anymore.”
“I only want (them/us/myself) to be happy.”
The reality I have experienced, however, on both sides of the couch, is that psychotherapy and personal growth can, at best, create space to understand and accept that ache. But the low-grade sadness which firmly touches fragments of our self will never return to joy again. If you saw the film Inside Out, you recognize this is much like what Sadness does. Once Sadness took hold of those core memories, there was no turning back to yellow (Joy).
And neither should they. No one lives a life of pure, unfiltered joy 24/7, all day, every day. Don’t believe the social media feeds of your friends and family. I know the story behind the story, the truth behind the truth.
In fact, Inside Out got it exactly right. We actually need sadness to appreciate happiness. Without the understanding of rejection, we wouldn’t recognize the relationships that are loyal. Without the void of infertility, or the devastation of loss, we couldn’t value what is left behind or taken away.
The goal of psychotherapy is not the eradication of these sorrows, but the acceptance and tolerance of their effects. In the meantime, we move on to live our best lives because, not in spite, of them.
Natasha Watkinson, LMHC, NCC has a mindfulness based practice in South Florida and via video conferencing.
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