Of all the Clients that I had seen over the years, there are only a handful who had not uttered or held with hope in their hearts the words, “I just want to be happy”. What usually flows thereafter, from the Client’s perspective, is a story of vulnerability, pain, powerlessness and indecisiveness. And yet, buried not too deeply, are also stories of resilience, success and mastery over difficult situations. Even so, here they are with what seems to be the simplest of requests: I just want to be happy.
So, what is the work for the Therapist who sits face to face with a person who, in the throes of their agony, tearfully laments their “loss of happiness”. What is expected of us? How do we respond? The short answer is that it just depends. Sometimes, the Client requires in-depth therapy. At other times, short-term mental health counseling is sufficient. The truth is that in the initial stages of the therapeutic relationship it is not that obvious; so, we cannot assume that we know what they are after.
For one thing, that happiness cannot be easily or universally defined or that the Client is usually consumed by their predicament does not make it easier. We do know that happiness is essentially nebulous, circumstantial, extremely complicated, awfully subjective and deeply, deeply personal. Ask the family’s sole provider who has just unexpectedly lost their job or the mother whose children were just apprehended by Social Services to define happiness. Ask the coach whose team has just lost the Superbowl or the middle-aged person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease; ask the teenager whose mother has just completed suicide or the person on death row whose request for clemency has been denied; ask Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry or Gina DeJesus, ask Cindy or George Anthony, ask the parents of Rehtaeh Parsons, Tyler Clementi or Jadin Bell. The other thing, though, is that while the Client understandably wants quick relief, it is more helpful if the process itself is slowed down to allow the Therapist to really understand the hurt, fear, frustration, guilt and/or other strong emotions that are part of the interplay.
For me, it has been helpful to notice how the Client chooses to express their desire: “I want to be happy” not “I want to get happiness” or “I want to attain a state of happiness”. There’s a difference. It has been my experience that if I focus on them “being” rather than “having” or “feeling” happy, I will be more effective in my helping role. I will return to this point in a moment. I think it is important to emphasize in all this that in my work with the Client, too much is at stake if philosophically I hold on to the notion that generally unhappiness results from some unwelcomed set of circumstances – a friend who maligns us, a family member who constantly steals from us, a neighbour whose pets cause damage to our property, illness, poverty, significant losses, loneliness, etc. Of course, we won’t be human if we were unaffected by these and similar circumstances and the Client so affected does have real emotional needs for which they require empathic support. However, I think the Client who says I want to be happy is on to something. They don’t want to (only) feel happy; they want to be happy. It is a question of being. Taking their lead then, helping a Client through their dilemma is, in part, helping them to become aware of the discrepancy between who they are in the context of their experience and who they truly are. Situations might give rise to certain perspectives, expectations, feelings and behaviors but they do not miraculously transform a person into someone they are not. Leaving aside the fact that the process itself is not easy, recovery comes not when with time the impact of the event wanes, (time alone does not heal wounds) but rather when the Client is able to recapture, in their mind and entire being, the truth of their true identity and accepts the responsibility to act in ways that are consistent with accurate definitions of their selfhood. It is seeing themselves as they truly are and, in good as well as bad times, being who they, in actuality, are.
The task, then, for the Therapist – the single most significant contribution they can make to their Client’s recovery – is (of course, using appropriate psychoanalytical tools, honoring cultural distinctives and appreciating other important considerations) to help the Client to notice, challenge and correct the distorted status they accord to themselves in the light of their suffering and to embrace the personal roles and responsibilities that flow therefrom. Experiencing feelings of weakness and disempowerment does not mean that one is truly weak and unable to productively respond to difficult circumstances. Being victimized is not the same as believing that you are a victim. Self-feeling is not the same as self-being. You can be happy no matter what happens to you. It is about knowing that who you are transcends what has happened to you. You are not what has happened to you. In that context, then, counseling is about, with warmth, compassion and empathy, helping the Client to gain insights about how an incident or experience has taken such salience in their minds that it has eclipsed the reality of who they in actuality are. It is about helping them to appreciate that the being that they are is separate and apart from the situation that affects their feeling and to which they are reacting and that it is that “who” that they are – strong, resourceful, energetic, resilient, productive, attractive, kind, influential, dynamic, fun-loving, courageous, hard-working, considerate, intuitive, thoughtful, creative – and not the way they feel – fearful, anxious, broken, impotent, insignificant, empty, dispirited, worthless, unattractive, unhappy – that has to respond to the circumstances and the dilemma it creates for their life. In difficult situations, it is about determining what dimensions of your identity, your personhood, your selfhood would be more constructive to head up your response to those situations. This is different from the power of positive thinking. This is aligning inaccurate perspective and judgment with truth, conviction and follow through. It is feeling all the charged-up feelings and incorporating them in the healing process but not at the expense of noticing and correcting corrupted fixed self-concepts embedded in the subconscious and embracing the trueness of your being.
Now I know that it is quite possible that the Client might very well have meant that they want happiness and that, in this blog at least, I have placed too much emphasis on “be”. Fair enough. But that does not do away with my central point. I have chosen to put forth this viewpoint not only for the conversation it can provoke, and if it does, then I believe that that’s a good thing, but moreso because I really do believe that what really resonates and helps Clients is when Therapists cater to not only their emotional need but also help them to reconnect with and exercise the power of their selfhood to creatively and productively manage their situation. It is the kind of help that leads to them deciding to no longer be chauffeured around by circumstances and feelings but, as well, with all the backing of their gifted, strong, efficacious self, to assume the control that being in the driver’s seat offers. I believe that when Clients are feeling unhappy, what really triggers recovery is not the brand of psychological intervention that serves up a dose of feel-good. Clients are enormously gifted and resourceful. They know deep down that they have the goods to negotiate their situation. That they succumb to distractions such as feelings or distorted perceptions is what ultimately drives them into therapy. I believe that if Therapists fail to help them get in touch with their (innate) strengths, they will keep showing up with the same issues – different problems, perhaps, but same issues – and we would be doing them a disservice.
At KTLO, the approach to support is always strength-focused. Here, space is created and support is provided to help Clients to explore and take up unutilized opportunities as part of their recovery efforts. Now, here’s the caveat. There are Clients with more complex psychological problems and for whom the deeper work of psychotherapy and/or pharmacotherapy can be more applicable. As well, in cases where there might be unhelpful social, economic, religious, organisational and/or political structures that are impeding their recovery, I refer them to advocacy and other support services for additional or alternative support. The point is that at KTLO, it is quite probable that the conversation with Clients will include an invitation to explore and utilize their innate strengths.