Posted by Lissa Carter, LPC
My client seemed very small, almost folded into herself. We’d been working together for a while, but I’d never seen her like this. Even her voice had gotten smaller, almost disappearing into the air before it reached my ears. I had to lean in to hear what she was saying, and the words landed like stones: “I’m in so much pain today I almost didn’t come in. But then I thought, ‘maybe Lissa will say something to make it better.’”
I know this feeling. Both as a human being, and as a client on the other side of the counseling relationship, I have so often hoped I could hand my pain over into wiser, more capable hands for resolution. I have hoped that someone, somewhere, could simply give me the answers that would rid me once and for all of the nagging self-doubt, paralyzing fear, or insistent anxiety. Surely this is not too much to ask of a professional that we are, after all, paying for this service?
There is a reason I can’t say something in this moment to take away my client’s pain. And it can be a difficult one to understand—equally difficult, it turns out, to explain, especially when a suffering human being is looking at you with hope in their eyes.
The reason is this: if I remove your pain, I remove your humanity.
Pain is not bad. Pain is a messenger, and it has vital information for you. And you, as the unquestionable expert on your life and your journey, are the only one entitled to interpret your pain. The wise, capable hands you are seeking are your own.
It’s a hard concept to come to grips with, that pain is important. Thinking of sadness, anger, grief, anxiety—the “symptoms” so many of us try to eliminate—as the enemy makes sense. They are uncomfortable, unpleasant, unwanted. But these are symptoms of something other than emotional pain: they are also symptoms of meaning.
Consider it for a moment. When do you feel anger? When a principle that matters to you is violated. When do you feel grief? When something or someone meaningful is lost. When do you feel anxiety? When something deeply important is at stake.
Our painful emotions are trying to tell us what matters to us. They are signaling to us that our meaning, our purpose, is involved, and they are asking us to pay attention, because what is happening is IMPORTANT.
How could I possibly take that away from clients that I am ethically bound to help?
Martin Shaw writes “myth speaks of both the feasting hall of life’s abundance and the desolate tundra of challenge and despair. Amazingly, it offers both up as peak experiences.”
Why, then, would anyone ever hire a counselor?
Well, I can’t fix you. That’s true. I can’t fix you, because you are not broken.
But I do think you are important enough to have a witness, someone who can sit compassionately with you as you gently begin the process of listening to these painful emotions, deciphering their messages, and leaning into their wisdom to create a new relationship with yourself and your life — a life based, not on the avoidance of discomfort, but on the complex individuality of your own meaning and purpose.
So that’s what I told my client. I told her I did not want to sell her short, I honor her too much for that. I asked her if, instead of taking her pain away, we could make a space together to listen to it, even to welcome it. My client closed her eyes and imagined putting an arm around this pain as though it was worthy of her compassion. And something shifted.
My client’s sadness was not gone by the end of the session. What had changed was the way she was relating to it. Slowly, gently, she had begun to listen to what it was trying to tell her about what was not working in her life. Slowly, gently, she had begun the process of deciding how she wanted to live her life in the face of pain.
We don’t want to know this—we don’t want to know that life is going to be hard, and that pain is going to be inevitable. We’d rather roll the dice and hope that this nutrition plan, that self help book will stem the tides and keep us on a magically protected path. But the truth remains, whether we want it or not. A life that includes meaning will include pain.
And it turns out, facing that truth gives us the opportunity to make a choice: the choice of how we want to navigate our lives. We can’t make this choice if we are too busy looking the other way, too preoccupied with avoiding the pain.
In that sense, the work you do in therapy goes far beyond the addressing of symptoms or the healing of a disease. The work you do in therapy is life work. You are learning to be the doctor/healer of your own mind, the conscious observer and mediator of your experience, and this is a lifelong art.
Therapy isn’t going to fix you. You’re not broken. Therapy will teach you to engage differently with your own mind and your own life, as an empowered agent instead of a victim to circumstance.
And that feels more important than symptom reduction.
Thank you to my brave client for her willingness to share this vignette.