Many people seek psychotherapy because they just don’t feel good. They say they feel stuck or that they don’t feel like themselves. They feel tense and keyed up. They can’t stop worrying about work, money, or their relationships. Many say they’ve been sleeping too much or waking up throughout the night. They’ve started drinking or smoking more often. They’ve started eating less healthfully and they never exercise. They have no sense of energy when they wake up in the morning and instead feel dread and fear about what’s coming next. Some people can articulate that they feel lonely, sad, disappointed, confused, anxious. Many others just feel a vague sense of numbness and fatigue. They just don’t feel well.
Sometimes there are external circumstances, like the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a stressful transition, that triggered their change in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. It is just as likely that there is no external circumstance that explains the change.
Modern evidenced-based psychological theory understands psychological suffering to be the result of the individual’s experience of herself, including internal thoughts, sensations, feelings and urges, as she responses to external circumstances. Put simply:
Psychological suffering = physical or psychological pain + psychological resistance
Whether the pain occurs due to a tragic, discriminatory, or chronically stressful life circumstance or a thought or feeling that is unpleasant, the pain becomes suffering if the individual resists against it, avoiding it or/and trying to get rid of the internal experience itself.
From this perspective, wellbeing is a way of life characterized by an absence of resistance to unpleasant or painful thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Wellbeing cannot be forced. When there is no struggle against what is uncomfortable, there is more room for movement of thoughts, feelings, and sensations. More movement of mind creates more opportunity for pleasant states, including happiness, joy, and a sense of calm.
Because the mind is in the habit of protecting itself from pain, oftentimes an individual isn’t even aware of the thought, feelings, sensation, or urge that they fear and avoid. Through questions and observation, we help individuals identify what they fear and make a plan to open up to it, rather than adding more avoidance and resistance.
Psychotherapy does not rescue or protect individuals from pain, but it can help you respond and relate to the inevitable pain that humans experience with courage and compassion. As you get in the habit of facing painful thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges, your suffering decreases and your sense of wellbeing increases.