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Many people come to therapy because they’re “in crisis.” Usually, they see the crisis as something terrible, perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to them. I get it, but my job is to try to help them see this “crisis” as something more, maybe even positive.
It’s not a new idea to view “bad” things that happen to us as possibly being good in the long run. Philosophers, spiritual leaders and experts in human behavior have written about this subject for ages. Yet, when something unpleasant or unsettling happens to us, we generally go right to thinking about how awful it is and how terrible it will be for our lives. To be clear, I’m not talking about fatal health or medical problems, the loss of a loved one, fire or flood demolishing your home, or severe traumas like being raped.
Here are some examples of what I mean. Your marriage hits a big bump in the road or you realize that you’re miserable in it, your adolescent drops out of college, you lose your job, an elderly parent can’t live alone anymore, your sister stops talking to you after you two have a huge fight, your grandchild gets caught selling drugs and is arrested, or the therapist you’ve been seeing for a decade moves away.
We tend to view these events as horrendous things happening to us and rarely see that sometimes they’ve been a long time coming, that we’re at a crossroad in our lives and that they open up new opportunities for us. If life is okay or good, even though we know it’s not remotely possible, humans tend to think that life will continue to stay the same as it is right now. But, of course, that’s ridiculous. We all know that stuff happens, except we tend to think that means for everyone else but us.
When clients come in for couples’ therapy, even if it’s due to “a crisis,” what I always find is things that have been broken in the relationship for a long time. Fortunately, whatever has brought them in offers a chance to repair all that. When children drop out of college, it’s often a message to parents about something they’ve missed—such as that college wasn’t the right thing for their child right now. Losing a job can mean finding work that’s more suitable and enjoyable to you or restructuring family finances.
Elderly parents no longer being able to live alone is an opportunity to give back to them, review and repair the relationship, or learn more about boundaries and separation. The fight with your sister gives you an opportunity to learn more about yourself regarding self-care or managing loss. Your grandchild getting arrested may help you see how you’ve enabled him or her and mend your ways. Having your therapist move away may mean taking stock of whether you’ve become dependent on him or her, whether you still need therapy, or give you an opportunity to learn to trust and learn from someone else.
Many of the things that happen to us which cause suffering have a silver lining. To survive and thrive, we must seek and find that lining, difficult as it is sometimes—and not turn to food or other comforts. We must look inward to understand how we contributed to what’s causing our suffering and see what we can learn from it. That often means changing ourselves rather than trying to change the world.
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