Myth No. 2: “The therapist will confirm my worst fear(s).”
Reality: Many people harbor a secret fear that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. It’s hard to say with any certainty where this fear comes from, and there are probably multiple factors contributing, but the feeling of being less than others, inadequate, worthless, and flawed seems to be a hidden epidemic in Western culture.
But here’s the deal. You’re not flawed. All of us are born into the world free and clear of flaws. The problem is that life is full of challenges and heartache. We all suffer, get hurt, and experience loneliness, loss, grief, betrayal, shame, guilt, rejection, anxiety, and other painful feelings. No one walks through life unscathed. No one.
In order to protect ourselves from being hurt again, we develop protective strategies or what Dick Schwartz, the developer of internal family systems, calls managers. These may include depression, anxiety, anger, self-criticism, perfectionism, workaholism, hypercompetitiveness, eating issues, and all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle addictions. These protective parts help people to manage, but they’re often the reason people seek therapy because even though they can keep people from feeling hurt again, they often cause harm in the process.
As an example, consider the teenage girl who purges to keep her weight down. The part of her which purges is trying to help her from being rejected by peers and from feeling the shame she felt when she was teased and excluded. In this sense, we can see that the intention behind her purging is good, and thus the protective part itself is good. The problem, of course, is that by purging as a protection, it keeps her from releasing the extreme feelings and beliefs she took on when she was shamed about her weight, it keeps her from accepting her body and experiencing self-love, and, over time, it ruins the lower esophagus muscle and causes gastroesophageal reflux, a painful and chronic digestive disease.
The point I’m attempting to make is that this purging part—and all other protective strategies, regardless of the destruction they may cause to self and other—are good parts. Yes, all of them. Why is this important to understand? Since we’re born without flaws and all the protective and destructive actions we take are fundamentally good, it turns out there is no such thing as being flawed.
Understandably, this is usually the point where some people get up in arms and want to argue that pure evil or pure medical pathology exists. Let’s take one argument on at a time.
Indeed, there are certainly some awfully hurtful people in the world who do destructive and heartless things to others. My argument is that hurtful and heartless actions are carried out either by sociopaths who lack the physical capacity for empathy or remorse (important: there are many sociopaths who are productive members of society) or by people who are wounded and protected, as described above. Remember, as the popular bumper sticker suggests,“mean people are hurting,” and so often those who resort to violence and abuse are full of hurt. The common wisdom is that 99% of those who abuse were abused and that the abusive behavior is what Sigmund Freud called a repetition compulsion—a psychological phenomenon that describes a pattern of repeating behaviors or re-creating experiences which were distressing or traumatic early in life.
Here’s another clinical example that demonstrates both repetition compulsion and how even destructive, protective parts are trying, in the only way they know how, to actualize a positive intention. Many years ago I had a male client who had been sexually abused by his father. The experience was terribly confusing because although what his father did violated his body, violated the trust that should exist between a father and a son, and violated the commitment a father should have to cause no harm to his children, the act was one of the few ways this client ever sensed love and affection from his father. As a result, my client wrestled with urges to act out the same abuse on others so that he could experience the apparent love and affection that had become associated with the abuse he endured.
This conditioning is a powerful and often overlooked part of the compulsion to carry out sexual abuse. My experience is that those who truly understand the cycle of abuse take the view that perpetrators, in addition to being stopped from abusing and hurting others, need reform, therapy, and, yes, compassion. I’m not justifying, excusing, or condoning the behavior of sexual perpetrators and predators. I’m simply stating that these individuals, when not sociopathic, are deeply wounded, often from the same sort of abuse they desire to act out on others. Of course, if you or someone close to you has been sexually abused, you may have a hard time accepting this point until you’ve completed the healing process—and I encourage you to look at your anger and judgment as an indication that there might still be pain to heal.
About the idea that the presence of medical pathology indicates a flaw: Indeed, there are people who are born with what is sometimes referred to as hardware problems, issues that are purely organic in etiology—meaning genetic, biochemical, or neuropathological. Some people experience mental health issues not as a result of life experience, but as a result of their inborn physical state. Certain forms of mood issues, such as major depression and bipolar, seem to be completely organic in nature, and many psychotic disorders seem to be as well. In these cases, it makes sense that physicians and other medical professionals would view these issues as pathology, as a flaw. I’m not arguing that pathology does not exist, but I am of the belief that those with true pathology make up a minority and that most people who come to therapy, as mentioned earlier, have issues of an environmental origin and are not flawed.
Back to the point at hand, the myth that therapists confirm people’s worst fears. Not only will a good therapist NOT confirm your worst fear, a good therapist will help you to be curious and compassionate toward the parts of you that brought you to therapy. In most cases, the simple act of looking at ourselves with open-minded interest, with the intention of deeply understanding how a part of us is trying to help, begins the healing process. I’ve come to see that the positive outcome of therapy is the ability for one to have better internal relationships with the self—also known as self-compassion. In most cases, depression, anxiety, grief, anger, self-criticism, and other issues do not need to be medicated away, overcome, compensated for, or cognitively countered; they simply need to be understood, appreciated, and helped … with love.
In summary, my points are as follows and apply to most individuals:
- You were not born flawed. You are not flawed now. You are just human.
- The things that you don’t like about yourself don’t need to be removed, they just need your curiosity and compassion.
- You don’t have to worry about therapy bringing flaws to the surface. There may be things that need or want to surface, but in healthy therapy these things will be cared for, not beaten up.
Editor’s note: For more articles examining common myths and fears surrounding psychotherapy, please click here.
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