Shrink Rap: Opportunity Knocks…And Knocks

The people who come through my door don’t often consider their emotional pain, confusion or suffering to be opportunities. As their shrink, that’s my job. But as we work together, it’s my job to help them see opportunities for emotional growth and healing in whatever brings them to my door.

Everyone who seeks counseling wants relief from the pain of grief, the confusion of conflict with loved ones, the suffering of depression–or one of the many other emotional conditions that make life miserable. They want to be given tools to make their suffering go away. Pills, affirmations, advice, coaching and directives can help relieve psychological distress. But these things do not often address the underlying psychological/emotional issues that give rise to those symptoms.

That is where a shrink comes in.

Let me get specific. Most people don’t think of depression as an opportunity for emotional growth and healing. At the very least, it is a nuisance, something that makes it difficult for people to live with themselves or to be around other people. Depression can slow down life and cause even the littlest challenges to seem insurmountable. At its worst, depression can cause a person to wonder whether being alive is worth slogging through each miserable day and sleepless night. At that point, a person shuts down or checks out.

Antidepressants and exercise can help alleviate many of the symptoms of depression. But when such symptoms have been softened and made manageable, it is important (with the help of a shrink) to ask what gave rise to the depression, to ask what the depression is trying to protect or keep hidden in the person who suffers it.

Depression can be a symptom of processing past trauma or present-day grief or loss. In that sense, it can be the emotional equivalent of a fever that tells us the body is fighting disease. Depression can be a way to psychologically retreat, to emotionally hibernate, a way to create a place and the time to heal or regain energy and emotional strength. Looked at in that way, depression is a gift, not a curse. It can provide an opportunity for healing.

In fact, lack of depression in certain situations can be a cause for concern. I would be concerned about someone who just lost a child to cancer and didn’t suffer some depression in his or her grief. I would be concerned about someone who did not experience a degree of depression when rejected in love or when faced with the prospect of losing a house to foreclosure. As a shrink, I would be checking these people for an emotional pulse.

Acting out (in both children or adults), anger, compulsive behavior, eating disorders, chronic lying, and on and on–these are symptoms that must be acknowledged, honored, explored and harnessed for emotional growth. That is the value of talk and play therapy. Pathologizing these symptoms can distort or intensify them.

As a shrink, I begin to sound like a parrot with a very limited vocabulary. A parent brings me a kid who is failing in school. To me this presents an opportunity to explore such basic emotional dynamics as fear of success and identification with failure–among many other things.

A spouse brings me the pain of an increasingly acrimonious relationship. To me this presents an opportunity to explore such issues as healthy emotional boundaries, owning responsibility for one’s feelings, attitudes toward money, aging, communication styles and/or sexual expectations–among many other things.

A college student comes to me with fear of intimacy. This presents an opportunity to explore issues related to body image, fear of rejection, sexual performance anxiety, fear of vulnerability, unhealthy defenses or emerging memories of past sexual abuse–among many other things.

As Joseph Campbell wrote: “Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come when life seems most challenging.”

Emotional pain, confusion, and suffering are challenging. They are also opportunities for emotional growth.

When opportunity knocks, let it in.

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