Psychological Spinach: Building Resilience by Embracing Your Truth

Spoon rests in bowl of fresh spinach Some meals are nothing short of a sensual experience. Last night I had spaghetti carbonara. The noodles were eggy and cooked to the perfect chew. The sauce was silken and peppery, the pancetta was crispy, smoky, and loaded with salt, and it all came together in a way that set the pleasure centers of my brain ablaze. It was delicious. I want that kind of pleasure at every meal, but, sadly, if I ate only carbonara, it would take years off my life span.

Yes, it’s sad but true that to stay healthy, we can’t just eat the sexy, delicious meals; sometimes we have to eat boring, grassy-tasting plants like spinach. Though boring in texture and lacking the depth of flavor and fun of a creamy carbonara, spinach has many nutritional benefits. So, while I find it utterly boring and lame, I eat it as often as I can bear. And I will admit, albeit reluctantly, I take some pleasure in knowing I’ve taken good care of my body, even if I didn’t love every second of the experience.

The psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (e.g., 1970) made the analogy that the human soul has a need for truth in the same way the human body needs nutritious food. As a therapist, I very much believe this. People often come to me with symptoms and presenting problems that are, at least in part, due to a disconnection from their own truth—their honest, natural thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Forces inside their personalities block them from having an honest, self-reflective view of themselves and their lives, which can prevent them from clearly seeing and learning from their life experiences. I find that the more honest and truthful I can be with them, the more I can help them see, experience, and learn from (read: digest) the truth of their lives. This process of sharing the truth together seems to nourish their development and mine. In this way, Bion’s analogy fits quite well with my clinical experiences.

However, if truth is nutriment for the soul, I think some truths are more like carbonara, while others are spinach. In my own personal therapy, I have encountered many truths I was less than thrilled to “swallow”; truths I saw on the plate but refused to pick up; truths I tasted for a split second and spit back out; and truths I finally came to accept, but that took a long time to settle in my stomach. But I also know that for me, and for the people I work with, the relationship with the least delicious truths of our lives can have a significant impact on our well-being.

So, what are the benefits of eating our psychological spinach, and what happens when we pass on the truth salad altogether and indulge in fatty, unctuous lie carbonara?

Learning to Bear Pain and Anxiety

Here’s a leafy pile of psychological spinach for you: from birth to death, pain and anxiety are an inherent, unavoidable part of life. As long as you have a nervous system, you will be subject to pain and anxiety. A delicious lie carbonara, however, is that through therapy or other healing-oriented pursuits we can make this not so—we can make pain and anxiety “go away.”

Many of us come to therapy with the hope (read: fantasy) that the result will be a kind of purification in which we will have somehow transcended our humanness and will no longer suffer the pain and anxiety that is built into life. As far as I can tell, however, as long as we are alive, no matter how self-actualized we become, life will continue to stir all of our feelings. So, if therapy can’t make us immune to the pain and anxiety of life, what’s the point?

It seems to me the realistic promise of therapy is in boosting our ability to nonjudgmentally bear and accept these feelings, and help us learn to live with and learn from them. If pain, anxiety, and a huge cascade of other emotions are just a natural part of human living, can we learn to be willing participants in the human experience that living offers us? Can we learn the lessons of our pain (“Ouch, that hurts. Maybe don’t do it that way next time.”) and hear the messages from our anxiety (“You are getting close to something new; will you face it this time, or avoid it again?”)? When we stop trying to reject or purify our inner lives and begin to embrace these less-delicious truths of human life, we can start coping in realistic rather than fantasy-driven ways.

We Don’t “Arrive”

This is definitely not a delicious notion. I could eat a big, delicious plate of “someday I’ll have this all figured out and be perfected” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sadly, however, that’d be more lie carbonara. Though I’m not always willing to believe this, I’m slowly becoming aware that the process of being challenged by and learning from life does not end until we die, and I’m beginning to accept that we do not “arrive.”

Therapy challenges us to accept that we never arrive in some final way, and that we are always vulnerable to slipping back into our old habits. If we can accept that, maybe we can meet even our “self-at-worst” moments with love and forgiveness, learn from our slip-ups, blind spots, and imperfections, and grow.

Sure, we can have great moments of achievement and insight, and we can make great progress in our personal development. No question about that. However, it seems that with each new achievement and insight new questions open up and new challenges arise. In the face of new questions and challenges, we are all susceptible to becoming anxious and reverting to old ways of coping.

It seems like no matter how “healthy” we become, on a rough-enough day we can revert to old “self-at-worst” (Fosha, 2000) behaviors we thought we had “transcended” by now. Do we stay in “self-at-worst” as long as we used to? No. Are our “self-at-worst” moments as severe as they used to be? Probably not. It seems the best we can do is accept that because of our unique history we will always have certain crutches or false refuges that we will turn to when we get too anxious.

Therapy challenges us to accept that we never arrive in some final way, and that we are always vulnerable to slipping back into our old habits. If we can accept that, maybe we can meet even our “self-at-worst” moments with love and forgiveness, learn from our slip-ups, blind spots, and imperfections, and grow.

You Will Have to Do the Work

A delicious fantasy about therapy is that the therapist will “fix” us. In this fantasy, we just dump out our story and the therapist will have a good recipe and whip those ingredients into something that will make it all better. There is some truth in this notion—a good therapist will have certain ideas of how to help—but here’s the spinach: the therapist’s knowledge and techniques can only help you if you make active use of them.

The surgical view of therapy, the notion the therapist will do something to you while you participate passively, is popular and sounds pretty tasty. Who wants to work hard and face the pain, anxiety, and myriad other emotions that inevitably arise when we try to change our lives? However, because changing the way we treat ourselves—by practicing self-compassion, allowing ourselves to reflect on emotions, and challenging our self-destructive habits—is, by definition, an activity, this passive approach to therapy will not work. However, if we are willing to eat our psychological spinach and take on an active role in our therapy, to do the work we were thinking the therapist would do, we build our capacity to face challenges and work hard for ourselves and our goals.

Learning and Growing Is Painful

When I told a colleague that I was writing this article, she shared a popular saying she had heard early in her therapy training: “Pain is growth.” This notion is true, and it is also, in some ways, a way to cover the psychological spinach of growing pains with some creamy delicious dressing. She shared her humorous, perhaps more truthful response to this: “No! Pain is pain!” We both laughed.

Yes, we can dress up the pain of growth in catchy slogans, and we can focus on how good it will feel once the pain is behind us and we have “grown,” but we cannot deny that the day-to-day work of therapy and growth is loaded with real pain. In therapy, we face the losses that life has imposed on us and that we have imposed on ourselves. We face the pain of falling short of our goals. We face the painful realization that change and growth are slow, workaday processes that we will always stumble through imperfectly. We face the painful death of our grand hopes of becoming fixed or purified by therapy. The list goes on.

But in facing these great pains, and by accepting them as a part of life and learning, we become full participants in life. We tear down our fantasies of quick fixes that will make us perfect or invulnerable and have an opportunity to accept life on life’s terms. Will this always be a delicious experience? Certainly not. But it will always be true and real—and, in my experience, the more open we can be to the true and real pain of life, the more open we will be to the true and real beauty that is available to us. Call that a side effect of eating your psychological spinach.

Conclusion

In a world that often promises quick fixes and perfect outcomes (every time), we are easily tempted to forgo the psychological spinach that could help us more realistically and indulge in the lie carbonara of “positive thinking” slogans, self-help instruction manuals, and “anxiety hacks.” But it seems that when we feed ourselves lies, our souls and minds get sick.

By facing the less-tasty but reality-based ups and downs of learning in therapy, we provide our souls and minds with a nourishing experience that will build our capacity to face the ups and downs of life. Will it always be super delicious? No. Will we always be psyched for our next dose of psychological spinach? Definitely not. But our resilience—our ability to cope with and learn from the realities of our lives—will increase with our ability to embrace more of our own truth, no matter how delicious (or not).

References:

  1. Bion, W. R. (1970). Attention and interpretation, in Seven servants: Four works by Wilfred Bion (1977). New York, NY: Jason Aronson, Inc.
  2. Fosha, D. (2000). The transforming power of affect: A model for accelerated change. New York, NY: Basic Books.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, therapist in Washington, District of Columbia

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.

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  • Christianne

    Christianne

    July 3rd, 2017 at 2:12 PM

    I know that there is a truth and reality to that pain and suffering but you can also see how those who have lived that life for a long time would want it to not be their reality, to have something better that they can look forward to.

  • Jen

    Jen

    July 4th, 2017 at 5:04 PM

    I like this analogy. Food for thought! :) Thank you for sharing and helping normalize the experiences of therapy and life.

  • paulette

    paulette

    July 5th, 2017 at 11:24 AM

    Great read!

  • Marvin H Berman PhD, CBT

    Marvin H Berman PhD, CBT

    July 6th, 2017 at 4:40 AM

    I have seen that the ‘pain’ of growth can be mitigated by increasing our adaptive response capacity by modifiying how our brain responds to stimulation. This is a painless process akin to meditation wherein the habitual patterns of response are disrupted (negatively reinforced) thus allowing us to more easily find new ways to respond neurologically and thus perceptually to the same kinds of stimuli. We could view this as the internal analogue to insight and catharsis. Working through is still where the rubber hits the road and yet the freeing of our brain’s capacity to respond within a broader range of options can make the stretch into new ways of being easier to tolerate let alone embrace.

  • Leslie

    Leslie

    July 11th, 2017 at 10:52 AM

    Dr. Berman, how do we modify how our brain responds to stimulation? You mention a painless process akin to meditation, would you elaborate? Thanks!

  • steve shapiro

    steve shapiro

    September 23rd, 2017 at 12:24 PM

    Wonderful article and important reminder to avoid the temptation to engage in fantasies about magical or passive cures, esp bcs there is no cure for the human struggle. We can minimize self-imposed suffering but never eliminate the pain of certain realities inherent in life.More pain is caused by resisting these realities, than the realities themselves.

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